Friday, December 27, 2013

The Forever War: Come for the psychic alien teddy bears, stay for the deft social commentary

The Forever War is everything everyone says it is. It’s a stellar (ha!) sci-fi novel. It’s a perfect specimen of a war novel. But it is also one other thing I’ve not often heard it called: FUN. Not light, mind you. Never that. But fun.

The plot is essentially this: We follow Private William Mandella, drafted into fighting an interstellar war between humans and an alien race, as he does futuristic soldierly things. There’s some timey-wimey stuff that goes on because getting to bases and battles in various parts of the universe involves traveling at ludicrous speeds.

This may at one point happen to someone.

As a result, the soldiers are barely aging, while the Earth they left behind is moving through centuries in an orderly fashion. As you can imagine, this puts a bit of a damper on the homecoming celebrations—for the few that live to see Earth again, that is.

Haldeman based this story on his experiences as a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War, and while he says in the introduction that “it’s mainly about war, about soldiers, and about the reasons we think we need them” (p. xv), you can spot specific nods to Vietnam. For example:
Wars in the past often accelerated social reform, provided technological benefits, even sparked artistic activity. This one, however, seemed tailor-made to provide none of these positive by-products. (p. 138)

Damned if WE know.

Where this book just nails the hell out of being awesome is that it has all the trademarks of an excellent sci-fi novel and a great war novel without being heavy-handed. It has a message, certainly, but it’s not delivered through a bullhorn, which is hard to pull off when writing about a fruitless war, in the voice of a lowly soldier being shuffled from one position to the next like an expendable chess piece with laser-weapon capabilities.

Mandella (and I’m assuming Haldeman) has a dry sense of humor that frequently verges on sarcasm. But you get the sense that this is how he deals with the absurdity of his situation.
One man above guarding eighty inside. The army’s good at that kind of arithmetic. (p. 41)
Surely "cowardice" had nothing to do with his decision [to forfeit the battle]. Surely he had nothing so primitive and unmilitary as a will to live. (p. 107)
The collapsar Stargate was a perfect sphere about three kilometers in radius. It was suspended forever in a state of gravitational collapse that should have meant its surface was dropping toward its center at nearly the speed of light. Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there . . . the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity. Or Buddhism. Or get drafted. (p. 46)

Depends on where you're sitting, really.

My gateway to Haldeman was his first contribution to the Star Trek series, an adorably pocket-sized book called World Without End. (I never got around to reviewing that one, but I started and finished it sitting at a bar while a very loud band played. People jostled me and bellowed their drink orders over my head. I READ ON.) And before I was even finished with The Forever War, I acquired two others from Haldeman’s extensive backlist.

So there's my endorsement. Can you hear it ringing? It rings for you.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lexicon: Don’t ruin my fun, Chomsky

So I kind of liked Lexicon. *bounces involuntarily*


The book opens in an airport bathroom, where two men have wrestled poor unsuspecting Wil Parke to the floor and slid a needle into his eyeball, all the while muttering about a secret war and an outlier and poets and IMMINENT DOOM. In a separate narrative, young runaway-turned-hustler Emily Ruff is recruited to a prestigious school where students are taught how to use words to persuade . . . but not just to persuade, to control. And—surprise!—these two plotlines turn out to have something or other to do with each other.

I’ve heard this story compared to X-Men, which I can definitely see, with the private school for “special youths” and the division between those who wield a mystical power (poets) and those who don’t even know it exists as an option (the rest of us). One big difference is that mutants don’t come into it. No one is born with the ready-made ability to use language as a weapon; you may have a natural proclivity toward persuading or resisting persuasion, but you still have to learn the skills and perfect them the hard way, hence the fancy school.

And not everyone uses this training responsibly.

As fantastical as the premise seems, the methods poets use to tiptoe past the human mind’s natural filters and issue commands that the recipient will unquestioningly follow kind of hold up. I’m sure Noam Chomsky could poke all kinds of holes in the scientific logic here, but to us plebes, it seems feasible enough. And that faint ring of real-life truth is the key ingredient in all the best sci-fi premises, I think.

In what is otherwise fairly straightforward prose, Max pops in a lot of snappy descriptions.
“There were silver plates with bite-size constructions of meat and bread and paste and whatever. She picked one up only because it got her out of this conversation. It was actually not bad. Weird, but not bad-weird. This was her whole day, on a cracker.” (p. 56)
“It was early but the sun was peeking above the buildings and seemed excited to be there.” (p. 65)
“[He] began to pull her machine apart. She felt a little sad. She was learning that people were just machines and it was working the other way a little, too.” (p. 99)
Were you about to ask if there's romance? Of course there's romance. Although it's fairly no-nonsense and grounded, and interspersed between thrilling action sequences. Hear that, boys?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The River of No Return: Time travel. Upturned petticoats. ENOUGH SAID.

Well here’s an example of a book I probably never would have stumbled into on my own. But as soon as Alice said “time travel” and “sexytimes” in her review, there was no future scenario that didn’t include me reading this pretty much immediately.

As Nicholas Falcott, Marquess* of Blackdown, faces his imminent death on the battlefield, he spontaneously jumps forward in time from the 18th century to the 21st. He is met there by a member of the Guild, an organization of time travelers who guard the rivers of time, protect the future, and help accidental time travelers such as Nick discreetly assimilate into their new time and place, wherever that may be. But the Guild has rules for its members, the first and most important being “You can never return” and also “You can never return.” Nick has to leave his home country of England forever, and he can never go back to his own time. The reason for this last one is that the river of time runs ever forward to the sea—and other equally scientific explanations most often delivered by Nick's Guild-approved time-traveling companion, an older gentleman with wild white hair.

I see what you did there, Ridgway.

But about that assimilation thing.
All his skills were obsolete. Slaughtering Frenchmen; ignoring the stench of open sewers; dressing in absurdly tight clothing; seducing the buxom, sleepy-eyed daughters of innkeepers. Useless talents in this slick and modern present. These days Frenchmen were nice and unavailable for slaughter. Pretty women were skinny and looked at a single man like Nick with starving intensity, as if he were a piece of low-fat cheese. (p. 37)
He does find his footing eventually, even managing to enjoy the hungry-eyed, forward ladies of the future, which may or may not have something to do with his also getting into the cheese-making business. But by the time he’s good and modernized, the Guild summons him and says, “SURPRISE. Those first two rules are bullshit, and we kind of need you to go back to England and also to the 18th century. Can you still fit into your fancy pants?”

And WHAT fancy pants they are.

You see, a rebel faction of time travelers called the Ofan are fiddling with the river of time and it’s having terrible repercussions on the far future. The Guild needs Nick to use his reputation as the lady-killing Marquess to find out what they’re up to.

So then it becomes a bit Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as Nick tries to unlearn all his modern knowledge and convince his family and old acquaintances that he had amnesia in Spain for 3 years even though he now looks 10 years older and believes in women's rights. The pop culture references are so subtle that I’m pretty sure I missed most of them, which is just how I like my pop culture references. And of course there’s Romance with the dark-eyed girl from his childhood whom he dreamed about every day of his modern life. It’s the best kind of romance, too, because it mostly entails removing one’s glove to touch the other’s bare hand and meeting in the woods without a chaperone and admiring the other’s shapely rump as she rides away atop her horse.

And Julia, in addition to a pleasant backside, has a whole story line all her own that crashes into Nick's in the most intriguing/semi-tragic way. And she is SMART and uniquely TALENTED and just naughty enough to provide us with some entertainment.

So LA-dee-DA, polite society.

Word around town is that Ms. Ridgway is continuing this story as a series. I am glad of this.

*I've been pronouncing this title wrong my whole life and maybe you have been, too. Apparently, it's "markwes." That is so awkward in my mouth.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Looks like we made it. Look how far we've come my, blog

In what was pretty much an exact repeat of last year, I had this vague idea that I wrote my first blog post sometime around Thanksgiving, and LO! November 25, 2011, was that fateful day.

Happy blogiversary to meeeeeeeee.

I rewatched Julie & Julia last night, and it got me thinking about blogging and how it can sometimes save our lives. And that's not hyperbole. I was at my personal worst around this time last year, and I've been fighting my way toward the surface ever since. I don't really talk about my personal life here on the ol' blog, but it still provides a release valve for my occasional insanity. And it inspires me to read more, which reminds me that life is gorgeous and sometimes terrible but then usually pretty nice again.

Plus, the beautiful people I've met through this medium are wonders of modern humanity. You know that well-worn rule of the Internet: "NEVER READ THE COMMENTS"? That doesn't remotely apply to book blogs. The comment section is where we say smart things and lovely things and become lifelong friends who will definitely sleep on each other's couches someday. This is truly the best corner of the Internet. (It's like the Hufflepuff common room: full of throw pillows and close to the snacks.)

So book blogger friends far and wide, I love you.

This one's for you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Good Omens: "Aziraphale was an angel, but he also worshiped books"

Good Omens is just the tiniest bit blasphemous.

OK, yeah...a lot blasphemous.


The story opens with a clandestine meeting between two dukes of Hell and a fallen angel named Crowley. More accurately, Crowley is "an Angel who did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards." Crowley is tasked with setting the Apocalypse in motion by planting the infant spawn of Satan with an unsuspecting American family who will unknowingly raise him to embrace his more nefarious qualities (because AMERICAN) and, in so doing, bring about the end of the world.

The thing is . . . Crowley doesn't much want the world to end. But he can't directly disobey orders; so he and his enemy-who's-really-more-of-a-friend-after-all-these-centuries-of-being-enemies, the angel Aziraphale, get together to see if they can maybe derail this Apocalypse Train in a roundabout waywith Aziraphale doing what angels do and Crowley doing what demons do, and may the best man win and the Powers That Be remain none the wiser.

I will never stop wanting this to happen.

The cast of characters (listed most amusingly at the beginning of the book) is diverse, encompassing beings from Heaven, Hell, Earth, and a few cracks in between. Even though he wrote this fairly early in his career, Neil Gaiman's trademark style is pretty prominent. And Terry Pratchett's effortless sense of humor is right there in every sentence. The two styles combine so seamlessly that, when asked, even the authors can't quite recall who wrote what.

But about that blasphemy.
God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won't tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time. (p. 14)
This is not, in fact, how I feel about the Great Plan. But . . . well, sometimes that's EXACTLY how I feel about it. And that's what makes it funny. Like when Crowley explains that he can do little acts of evil here and there to satisfy his job description but humans end up doing most of the work for him. The Spanish Inquisition, for instance. Nothing to do with Crowley, even if he DID get an award for it.

Wherever you land on the continuum of religious belief, there's really no good reason to lose your sense of humor. And this book is a good reminder of that.

Can't argue with that.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

No Country for Old Men: In which I am that one slow rhino in Jumanji

I’ve done it. I’ve uncovered a hidden gem of literary genius heretofore BURIED in obscurity . . . and its name is No Country for Old Men.

I thought the invitation said 8 sharp?

OK, so yeah. Maybe I'm a little late to this party, but I was never drawn to Cormac McCarthy's whole vibe, and the movie adaptation came out the same year as There Will Be Blood, which interested me not in the slightest. And I kept getting them confused. Fast-forward . . . oh, I don’t know, 6 years? to me puttering around the paperback shelves at the library. And, lo! Here’s the book version of that one movie people speak of so highly and that also stars Tommy Lee Jones, whom you would have to be a monster not to adore in every way.

Also, I had somehow made it up to that point in history without learning anything about the story, and you just don’t continue to tempt fate like that.

Well, this book is THE BEST.

It’s a modern Western set in a sleepy Texas town, right near the Mexican border. And there’s a dear, sweet old sheriff who isn’t much used to trouble in his part of the world. And he gets these short first-person monologues between every chapter to tell us all about himself and make us worry for his safety as the action escalates. And also to be adorably in love with his wife.
Me I was always lucky. My whole life. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Scrapes I been in. But the day I seen her come out of Kerr’s Mercantile and cross the street and she passed me and I tipped my hat to her and got just almost a smile back, that was the luckiest. (p. 91)
Just stay there 'cause I'm gonna hug you.

As for the action, a young man named Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon the bloody aftermath of a desert drug exchange gone awry, and he makes off with a case full of money that he finds in the possession of a dead man. This is a very stupid thing to do, and he knows it. He sends his 19-year-old wife out of town and, he hopes, out of harm’s way and sets off on the run, trying to shake the criminal parties who would now very much like to make him dead and relieve him of that money. One of those parties is Anton Chigurh, a sociopathic hit man who cannot be reasoned, bargained, or pleaded with.

The character development is impeccable. There are a handful of main personalities, of course, but the ancillary characters are no less fleshed out or believable. What struck me most was that in this sparely written, macho-manly-masculine modern Western, there is not one but TWO strong female characters.

Sheriff Bell’s wife, Loretta, doesn’t get much time on the page in real time, but her husband makes sure that we know who she is and how much credit he gives her for . . . well, everything.
I don’t believe you could do this job without a wife. A pretty unusual wife at that. Cook and jailer and I don’t know what all. Them boys don’t know how good they’ve got it. Well, maybe they do. I never worried about her bein safe. (p. 159)
And Moss’s wife, Carla Jean, although young, doesn’t fall to pieces when the Sheriff sits her down at a coffee shop to explain just how MUCH danger her husband is in.
I’ll tell you something, Sheriff. Nineteen is old enough to know that if you have got somethin that means the world to you it’s all that more likely it’ll get took away. (p. 134)
I know a lot of people complain about the ending to the movie, which I can tell you, without spoiling anything, is extremely faithful to the book. When I got to the end of the book, I flipped back and forth through the last five pages trying to make sure I didn’t miss something. And I wrote, “That ending. I don’t get it.”

But now that I’ve also seen the movie and had some time to let it simmer, I’m in love with the ending. It’s the only ending it ever could have had. And I got into an honest-to-goodness argument with my husband on this subject last night, culminating in me yelling, “I GUESS YOU JUST DON’T APPRECIATE NUANCE.”

Even if you’ve seen the movie, in which the Coen brothers proved to be responsible stewards of the source material, you should still read the book. Because a couple of awesome things were left out. Like the depth of the female characters . . . and this bit of dialogue:
This whole thing is just hell in spectacles, aint it Sheriff. (p. 79)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fangirl: How do you feel about being compared to Joss Whedon?

These posts about various Rainbow Rowell books are gonna start getting RULL obligatory pretty soon, because she’s gonna keep on writing fantastic books and I’m gonna keep on loving them. And there are only so many ways to say that you love a thing. Eventually, I’ll just be posting a picture of the book cover followed by several exclamation points and a hearts-for-eyes emoticon.

I will say, one thing that made Fangirl particularly special for me was my ongoing Twitter discussion with Rainbow regarding her theories about the subtextual romance between a certain boy wizard and his pale-haired, pointy-faced adversary.

One of the tamer depictions...because it's Wednesday afternoon.

So when we meet Cath and she’s writing a popular fanfiction series featuring two characters in the magical Simon Snow universe who happen to be sworn enemies and also both of the male persuasion, it’s even more of an “I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE” if you happen to know that tidbit about the real-life author.

About Cath. She’s a freshman, an extreme introvert, and the identical twin of an uber-extrovert. The only reason she even left her hometown to go to college was to stay near her sister, Wren. But Wren wants to break out of the twin box and meet new people . . . and she wants a roommate who isn’t Cath, for the first time in their lives. And thank goodness for that, because then we get Reagan—Cath’s sarcastic, cynical, slightly older, much more worldly roommate (who, coincidentally, reminds me of a grown-up version of Eleanor from Eleanor & Park). And with Reagan comes Levi, an always-smiling, tousle-haired country boy whose been Reagan's friend since childhood and who ends up in Cath and Reagan’s room an AWFUL lot. And we, the readers, don’t complain even a little (please refer again to description of Levi if confused about this).

All the elements I’ve come to associate with a Rowell novel are here: A wide variety of fleshed-out and relatable characters, tingly-in-your-belly boy-meets-girl scenarios, a particular boy character who makes you just REALLY upset that you can’t reach in and grab people off the pages of books (GET ON THAT, SCIENCE), a little bit of serious to balance out the sweet, and snappy exchanges of dialogue.

Rainbow’s talent with clever dialogue that doesn’t feel forced is one of my favorite things about her writing. I’ve come to think of her as the Joss Whedon of novels, and for anyone who’s seen Firefly and all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which is all of you . . . *narrows eyes*) that should be fairly self-explanatory. But FINE, I’ll give you examples.
“What about him?” she’d say, finding an attractive guy to point out while they were standing in the lunch line. “Do you want to kiss him?”
“I don’t want to kiss a stranger,” Cath would answer. “I’m not interested in lips out of context.” (p. 85)
Reagan was sitting on Cath’s desk when Cath woke up.
“Are you awake?”
“Have you been watching me sleep?”
“Yes, Bella. Are you awake?” (p. 286)
 “Look at you. All sweatered up. What are those, leg sweaters?”
“They’re leg warmers.”
“You’re wearing at least four different kinds of sweater.”
“This is a scarf.”
“You look tarred and sweatered.” (p. 91)

 Cue the message from our sponsors (we have no sponsors): Look for Rainbow Rowell’s next book, Landline, due out . . . sometime next spring/summer.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Readathon: The Afterglow

I updated only once on Readathon Day, because I couldn't be bothered to leave the house again in search of Internet. Ice cream, yes. Internet, no.

But it's very important for me to know that YOU know that I continued reading for the rest of Saturday and deep into the night, and aaaaalmost made it for 24 hours. My undoing was the moment when I thought it would be OK to go from the couch to the bed, where I read about 10 pages and promptly fell asleep with a book on my face. But even though I had to reread those 10 pages the next day because I didn't remember their content even a little, I'm still counting them. And you can't stop me.

Here's the thing: I feel like I read a lot . . . but I finished only two books. And I had already started both of those books at an earlier date. Which leads me to wonder—WHAT THE HELL WAS I DOING ALL DAY?

It started out so well. I woke up at 5 a.m. full of ambition.

So many plans.
And I finished a book by noon and exercised . . . blah blah I told you all this already.

Things went downhill after I took a shower. SOME people find a nice shower invigorating and rejuvenating, but they tend to make me want to sleeeeeeeeep. So I read a bit of The Graveyard Book, made an emergency cup of coffee when I felt myself starting to fade, drank about two sips of that coffee . . . and passed out in the middle of the floor for almost 2 hours.

And then there was a lot of scrolling through the #readathon tag on Instagram and Twitter. A lot of that. And also rolling around on the floor with two doggies who had squeaky toys they were very proud to show off. And snacking. Sometimes that requires both hands.

So all told, I read 520 pages in three books, two of which I finished. My greatest accomplishment of the day was finishing House of Leaves, which my brother gave me for Christmas and which I began reading in JANUARY. That book. That book has been my arch nemesis this year. But I stabbed it right in its papery heart and vanquished it once and for all.

And Sunday?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Readathon Support Group Session #1: I HAVE NOT YET NAPPED

Time: 12 p.m.
Hours awake: 7
Status: Still kickin'

Nooooo...fight the Dream Sloth.

Here I am! I've been here all along, really . . . but I've just recently ventured outside the apartment in search of an Internet connection. (For those of you who don't know me, hi! I'm Megs. I'm a book blogger who doesn't have Internet at home. *churns butter* *dips candles*)

I live in Los Angeles, so my readathon started before the sun came up. I'm accustomed to crawling out of bed no sooner than 10 a.m. It's noon now, and I'm so far still functioning in my brain regions. Take that, Dream Sloth.

Well, this is the plan.

I started out with No Country for Old Men, which I was about 100 pages into before today and which you will notice was NOT part of my planned readathon lineup in the photo above. It took a minute to grab me, but by the time I got up this morning, I had no desire to read anything else. So I had my first cup of coffee with a side of Mexican drug cartel, well-meaning country sheriff, and psychopathic killer. And, you guys . . . it's SO good. I hadn't read any Cormac McCarthy before this, and why didn't anyone tell me how brilliant he is? Oh . . . you say he won a Pulitzer Prize and I probably just haven't been paying attention? Well then.

I've had a little exercise intermission to stew over the ending of No Country, and now I need some (somewhat) lighter fare. On to The Graveyard Book. GO GO READ.

Stats: 1 cup of coffee sipped, 1 everything bagel with cream cheese eaten, 185 pages read, 1 book finished, 2 miles jogged, 20 crunches crunched, a whooooole lot of time wasted scrolling through my Twitter feed.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Finnegans Wake: Well . . . I tried

I’ve had a lot of stupid ideas, friends. But reading Finnegans Wake? That was my stupidest idea of 2013. And it wasn’t even an ORIGINAL one.

It all started with this podcast called Literary Disco, hosted by Julia Pistell, Rider Strong, and Tod Goldberg. I like those guys. But this is all their fault. One ill-fated day, they ended up talking about how impossible this book is to read. And then they joked about reading it 5 pages at a time every morning, possibly with the assistance of drugs (to be lovingly dubbed “Finnegans Wake and Bake”). After all, you can get through ANY book 5 pages at a time, right? I used to think so, faithful readers. I used to think so.

Anyway, I took my can-do attitude down to the library, where I acquired a copy. And every morning, I made my coffee and struggled through 5 pages of the most baffling prose I ever hope to encounter. I made it to page 63.

This was my first introduction to James Joyce. I know him by reputation, obviously. Ulysses is a famously difficult book. But at least it has a plot and stuff.

From the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition:
There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is "about" anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, "readable." . . .
. . . Students of literature in particular, accustomed as they are to understanding most words in every sentence of every prose work they read, are apt to experience frustration in reading a text constructed along these lines, where it can sometimes seem that one is doing extremely well if one makes sense of only a sentence or two on a single page.
Downright spoiled, is what we are, expecting to understand most words in every sentence.

But I wanted to give it a shot. Finnegan was Joyce’s baby. He spent 17 years writing it. He composed it entirely of puns and riddles (I remember reading somewhere that he was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”). He mixed in words from 70 languages. He loosely modeled the characters (such as they are) on his own family. Basically, he poured every piece of himself into it . . . and then jumbled them all around to create the world’s most impossible jigsaw puzzle.

There IS an artistry here that I admire, and I feel drawn to Joyce as a person. I think I could have had a whiskey or five with him and joined him in laughing about the long-term joke he's playing on the entire literary world. But all the whiskey in Ireland couldn’t get me through this book. I had to get modestly drunk just to write this post.

A note to myself after reaching page 12: “Reading this book is like listening to Mickey the Pikey tell a story. Every now and then, something registers . . . but there’s no context for it because what came before and what follows is nonsensical.”

Any dog’s life you list you may still hear them at it, like sixes and seventies as eversure as Halley’s comet, ulemamen, sobranjewomen, storthingboys and dumagirls, as they pass its bleak and bronze portal of your Casaconcordia: Huru more Nee, minny frickans?
Fifthly, how parasoliloquisingly truetoned on his first time of hearing the wretch’s statement that, muttering Irish, he had had had o’gloriously a’lot too much hanguest or hoshoe fine to drink in the House of Blazes, the Parrot in Hell, the Orange Tree, the Glibt, the Sun, the Holy Lamb and, lapse not leashed, in Ramitdown’s ship hotel since the morning moment he could dixtinguish a white thread from a black till the engine of the laws declosed unto Murray and was only falling fillthefluthered up against the gatestone pier which, with the cow’s bonnet a’top o’it, he falsetook for a cattlepillar with purest peaceablest intentions.
If only the book ALSO had exceptional abdominal muscles.

A Joyce scholar said, in talking about Finnegans Wake, that he believed if you told James Joyce that you were slogging through his book, he would advise you to stop reading it immediately. He wanted people to have as much fun reading his work as he had writing it.

Well, Jimmy . . . I’m not having fun. But this next whiskey is for you.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Dinner: Gone Girl's European second cousin twice removed

I had this preconception that The Dinner was not a good book, and I will tell you why: It is loudly and aggressively touted as the “European Gone Girl.”

Look, I didn’t MIND Gone Girl. It was fine. But stop comparing everything that has printed words to Gone Girl just because you think it will make people buy it. That’s annoying. I already read that book. I don’t want to read that book again.

In the case of THIS book, it has maybe two things in common with Gone Girl. It has twice as many things in common with The Princess Bride.

That's not one of the things.

Also, trusted fellow book blogger Rayna was pleased but maybe a little underwhelmed, and other trusted book blogger Australian Kayleigh wasn't whelmed enough to write a review.

So WHY did I willingly step in as the 252nd person on the hold list at the library? Oh, I don’t know . . . can YOU resist a mysterious plot happening when it’s dangled in front of your face like a cheese doodle? WELL THEN, you’re a stronger person than I, sir or madam.

If you say to me, “And then this thing happens . . . but it’s kind of meh,” I will say to you, “WHAT WAS THE THING TELL ME THE THIIIIIIIING.” And no one would in this instance. So I had to read the damn book myself.

And you know what? I quite liked it.

When it starts out, the narrator is this sort of misanthropic, curmudgeonly Dutch guy who is really grumpy about going with his wife to meet this other couple for dinner. So for the first maybe 100 pages, I was imagining a Steve Coogan type snarking in my ear about waitresses with identical ponytails and plates with tiny, fancy food.
The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course, I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and you have voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.
It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation. "You wouldn’t even dare!" the plate said, and laughed in your face. (p. 43)
Just eat your tiny food and shush.

But this awkward dinner for four progresses through one course after another, and the subject matter—both in the narrator’s head and out loud at the dinner table—takes a turn for the decidedly darker and less comedic. And I liked that development, too.

You see, I have no hesitations about reading a book with no relatable or redeemable characters. And I think maybe that’s what people were keying in to when they started obsessively calling this the “European Gone Girl.” But it’s just not an accurate comparison. If it’s anything, it’s the European American Psycho.

Only if it's TINY sorbet.

It has a much more satirical lean than Gone Girl, and it definitely falls heavily into the realm of social commentary—AND other similarities that would be spoilers, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. I will say, however, that this is not nearly as uncomfortable as American Psycho. It’s no picnic (except for the part where they eat food and stuff), but there are no starved rats or jumper cables, I assure you.

And as long as we’re comparing things to other things, I would also add that it has a dash of God of Carnage. Because the couples are meeting to discuss some shenanigans their sons have gotten up to, and there is much bickering.

Now . . . can I interest you in a cheese doodle?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Birds of a Lesser Paradise: They put a bird on it

You guys know that animals rule my life, right? Because I can always post more dog pictures to every social media profile . . . if you need further clarification.

Well Birds of a Lesser Paradise is more or less a collection of stories expounding on the ways we do life (and death) with the furry and the feathered and the occasionally scaled. Or, more precisely, it’s about human relationships through the lens of our relationships with animals.

And...animals' relationships with animals.

A good amount of the stories deal in some way with motherhood, and most of them tend toward the morose. I don’t say that as a negative; I LIKE morose. But YOU might not like morose, and now you know that these stories are morose, which definitely doesn’t even sound like a real word at this point. Morose.

One of my favorite stories is one of the lighter ones. It’s called “Yesterday’s Whales,” and it’s about a couple who have just discovered that they’re pregnant. They are also outspoken proponents of voluntary extermination. That is, they think the only thing keeping the Earth from thriving is humans and so humans should do the honorable thing and stop breeding, letting themselves die out so nature has a fighting chance. And now that these two are breeding (albeit accidentally) . . . they’re just big, fat hypocrites.
I’ve been told self-righteous people always have it coming, that when you profess to understand the universe, the universe conspires against you. It gathers and strengthens and thunders down upon you like a biblical storm. It buries your face in humble pie and licks the cream from your nose because when the universe hates you, it really hates you. (p. 77)
I’m not saying I like this story the most because I enjoy to see the universe school self-righteous people. But I’m not NOT saying that, either. So.

My other favorite was “Every Vein a Tooth,” which is primarily about the ecstasy and the agony of inviting animals into your home.
That night, while I was watching Mr. Ed reruns, the raccoon crept onto the back of the couch and grabbed my necklace, snapping my head backward.
Rodent! I said.
Later, I found the retrievers licking plates in the open dishwasher.
Get! I said. Get out!
I was embarrassed by the desperate, angry sound of my voice.
Sam lowered his head, then raised his large brown eyes.
We are just being dogs, he seemed to say. (p. 179)

It’s not the MOST remarkable book I’ve ever read, but it speaks directly to my crazy-dog-lady heart, and I thought that was pretty swell. And I think there just might be something here that speaks to you, too. Unless you hate animals. In which case . . . the universe probably has something to say about that.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane . . . and the kittens in the garden

I’ve never tried to write in the voice of a 7-year-old boy, but I can’t imagine it's easy. And Neil Gaiman naaaailed it.
I was a normal child. Which is to say, I was selfish and I was not entirely convinced of the existence of things that were not me, and I was certain, rock-solid unshakably certain, that I was the most important thing in creation. There was nothing that was more important to me than I was. (p. 156)

He might BE a 7-year-old boy, currently.

This book captures in fewer than 200 pages the essence of childhood—how scary it is to be a tiny human in a world governed by full-sized humans (“When adults fight children, adults always win,” p. 87), and the poignancy of that moment in every child’s life when he or she learns that adults aren’t immune to human frailty (“Adults should not weep, I knew. They did not have mothers who would comfort them,” p. 123).

But there’s also magic. And it’s the kind of magic that only children can experience—the pee-your-Underoos, utterly terrifying kind . . . the kind that even parents (especially parents) can’t understand or protect you from.

This is the most darkly whimsical of his books that I’ve read up until now, and it probably fits best alongside the likes of Coraline. There is no Other Father with buttons for eyes. There is, however, a plain-old human father who lies about things that no one should ever lie about.
At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. "Yum!" he’d say, and "Charcoal! Good for you!" and "Burnt toast! My favorite!" and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand. (p. 18)

It’s beautiful and compact—and 100% worth the possibility of developing a fear of white sheets flapping in a summer breeze.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Soon I Will Be Invincible: Why can't we all just get along?

The book opens from the perspective of Doctor Impossible. He's the smartest man in the world, according to . . . himself. And thanks to a lab accident, he also happens to be stronger than the average man and have bullet-proof skin. Oh and he’s in prison for the 12th time.
“I’m not a criminal. I didn’t steal a car. I didn’t sell heroin, or steal an old lady’s purse. I built a quantum fusion reactor in 1978, and an orbital plasma gun in 1979, and a giant laser-eyed robot in 1984. I tried to conquer the world and almost succeeded, twelve times and counting.” (pp. 4–5)
Super-villain problems.

And here to provide the hero perspective is a cyborg named Fatale. She used to be a woman of average appearance vacationing in Brazil, until she was hit by a dump truck and scraped 40 feet against the side of a building. When she woke up 4 months later, she didn’t remember why she was in Brazil or who she had been there with, and she had no hope of leaving her hospital bed unless she took the deal being offered to her by a mysterious corporation. So she signed the contracts, and they made her into the next generation of warfare, replacing 43% of her original body weight with metal and plastic.

But after running only one high-profile mission, the super soldier program shut down and disappeared without a trace, leaving Fatale a lonely cyborg without a past or a purpose.

Sincerely, The Military.

UNTIL she received an invitation from the Champions, a disbanded group of heroes reuniting and recruiting a couple of new members to search for their missing once-leader, CoreFire—Doctor Impossible’s nemesis and one of the few truly invincible superheroes.

The overarching theme is a question Doctor Impossible poses in varying ways throughout the book:
“But why do we rob banks rather than guarding them? Why did I freeze the Supreme Court, impersonate the Pope, hold the Moon hostage?” (p. 7)
Why try again and again to take over the world when you know you must lose?

There’s a lot to keep you entertained. The cast of heroes and villains alone is endlessly fascinating, some clear parodies of familiar comic book characters (e.g., Blackwolf: former Olympic gymnast, millionaire, user of bare knuckles and gadgets, haver of zero superpowers) and others . . . something else altogether (e.g., Mister Mystic: Two-bit magician and con artist who apparently discovered real magic at some point, although no one is exactly sure what his powers are).

Let's not get carried away.

The tone is equal parts earnest and slapstick, with a dash of satire thrown in for good measure. And while the plot isn’t much more than you would find in the latest Pixar animated feature, that just means it doesn't get in the way of action like this:
"We faced off a moment in silence, and then he reached for me. He put his hands on me, a scientist! I recall there was a brief pursuit around the command console. I may have flailed at him once or twice. I managed to inform him, before passing out entirely, that he hadn't heard the last of Doctor Impossible." (p. 206)

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Keep: It MIGHT sound like I didn't like it

I should preface all this by saying that something strange happened when I read the book jacket: I didn’t comprehend a word of it. Standing in the bookstore, I was convinced this was a gothic novel about two young female cousins living alone in a castle . . . which didn’t necessarily grab me, but Jennifer Egan’s name was right there on the cover.

I kinda like her.

Well, when I got it home and the first page opened on some dude named Danny, I was like, “That’s no lady.” And then when there was a portable satellite dish in his bag, I was like, “MODERN times. What am I even reading right now?”

I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to you, because it’s jarring. The book is about two BOY cousins. Adult ones. And the story is set in present-day Europe. Austria maybe? No one seems to know. But Howard, the one boy-cousin, purchased an old castle he's planning to turn into a resort. And Danny, the other boy-cousin, was in the middle of some drama in New York, so when Howard said he would pay Danny's travel expenses if he helped prepare the castle, he was amenable to that idea. The trouble is, Danny hasn’t seen Howard since they were kids, and there’s a big Past Event hanging over their relationship. So Danny has the nerves about seeing Howard again, and it doesn't help that it's happening in this crumbling, ominous castle in Germany or possibly the Czech Republic.

If you think you have a grasp of what this book is about because of my excellent summary above, I should also mention this is a story WITHIN a story. And you also get some gothic, borderline-supernatural elements as a bonus.

Just for being you.

I think this was only Egan’s second book, and it has some hint of the perspective-shifting style she went on to perfect in that shiny, splendiferous novel some years later. But it’s not quite there YET.

I had one foot out the door for at least 3/4 of the book. I’ll be honest. She does a weird thing where she prefaces each line of dialogue with the speaker’s name, followed by a colon; there’s nary a quotation mark to be found. And if her shunning of traditional punctuation isn't enough, there are some other . . . odd occurrences.

But the last 1/4? Something clicked, and I saw that the stuff I’d been wary of wouldn’t have worked any other way. And the shift was so subtle and perfect that I almost didn’t notice it happening. And then I backed up several pages so I could experience it again. And it was beautiful THAT time, too.

Surprise blog-post twist!
On the basis of the whole experience, I’m gonna go ahead and recommend that you read this one. Just . . . remember it’s about boys.