Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

This month was long and slow and at the same time went by in a flash.  All in all, it was rather benign as my world goes.  I did a lot of book buying.  As there are no more Borders going out of business sales in my area I can't see myself picking up this quantity of books ever again, but who knows.

I read and left comments for The French Lieutenant's Woman and Blue and Gold.  I read and did not leave comments for Solider of Sidon by Gene Wolfe and Firebirds Soaring edited by Sharyn November.  Wolfe is amazing and the books concerning Latro, a wounded Roman mercenary with both retrograde and anterograde amnesia (yeah, it's a tough read), continue to be some of my favorites.  November's anthology caught me off guard: it was seriously awesome.    

Flatland by Kara Dalkey may just be my favorite short story ever.  That's part of the fun in finding a new book of short stories; a chance to discover many different authors with different styles all working to the same level of quality.  I will certainly be tracking down the first two installments of this collection solely on the strength of Firebirds Soaring.  I only hope that November is able to continue the series.

Now that I'm done praising this collection, I have to say I didn't get it; and that is why I left no commentary for it.  It tries to work the teenage/young adult/adult angle and all I can do is scratch my head.  I understand 'teenage' and what that word encompasses.  But should that literature include lots of swearing and sex?  No?  Yes?  Teenagers sure do swear and have lots of sex...   Understand, I don't care either way ( and Firebirds Soaring certainly has both ) but if a book has such broad appeal, why not just sell it as a 'regular old ass book?'  Firebird is a young adult publisher but when trying to hit such a broad spectrum I think they lose credibility; if the book has mass market appeal don't pigeon hole it by mentioning three specific markets you want to entice.

That said, the collection was awesome.  I'll be buying all the others.  (Perhaps, I'm an 'old adult?')

My work hours have been severely cut for April so I'll have more time to read and less time to spend money I don't have.  I'm gonna forgo doorstoppers this month because I want to.  They slow me down; I'm sure of it.  Plus, I read two this month and two in January so I don't feel bad.  I'm gonna get through a lot of stuff this month and I'm gonna leave comments for everything I read.  (I hate making these commitments known on my blog.)  The official theme of April reading is books written by women.  Check back often and regularly because I think I'm gonna have a lot to say.

Books and Coffee

I'll do the bad news first as it is only eleven o'clock in the morning and I'd like to think the rest of the day will be fail free.

I had a terrible cup of coffee at the used bookstore coffee house that shall not be named.  It was watered down crap with my own measures of cream and sugar.  I don't like weak coffee, but even the insubstantial flavor that was there wasn't good.  I'm a snob when it comes to drinking anything, and I'm aware, but don't we expect a little bit more from small independent 'craft' baristas?

It was only two dollars but I should have known something was wrong when the size options given were 16oz and 22oz.  When does anyone ever need 16oz of coffee?  If it's gonna be any good; they aren't gonna give you that much of it...  

Okay, I'm done.  I got that out of my system.

The last book buying binge of the foreseeable future just happened.  I could have waited till Sunday when everything was a dollar, but I don't feel like going back out there and dealing with the crowd.  80% isn't quite as nice as 'All books $1' but, I held nothing back.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Great House by Nicole Krauss were staring me down as I entered Borders.  Both of those have made a lot of noise in recent days.  I'm really excited about Krauss, and surprised I picked up Mantel.  Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin and Glass Room by Simon Mawer round out what the bookstore dictated as my 'literary fiction' purchases.  I haven't read much Le Guin but I love every word I have read and there was no reservation in picking Lavinia up.  Mawer was on the Man Booker Prize list a few years ago and caught my attention there.

The other five books I bought were fantasy-ish, or at least that is the shelf they were placed on.  The Company by K.J. Parker; Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor; Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar; Warriors edited by George Martin and Gardner Dozois; and Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson.

Parker I'm familiar and comfortable with.  I'm already planning to start the Millar soon as I've wanted to get around to him for a very long time.  Warriors was the only, 'why not?' purchase.  I'd planned on not getting this but the good press keeps coming and it all came to the front of my mind when I saw it on the shelf.  I've talked about Okorafor earlier and eagerly await getting to that book as well.

I guess I'm off the fence with Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Erikson has been in my mind, if not my TBR list, for awhile.  I am terrified to think that I bought book-God-knows-what in a series of heaven-only-knows-how-many.  Although I think I've read somewhere that the series has ended.

Not too bad for $47.42.  Only three of the ten actually count as doorstoppers by my reckoning but a few are some really long four-hundred pagers...

This most recent haul really made me think about book stores.  I like 'em.  I like browsing shelves and flipping books over to read about 'em.  eReaders just ain't ever gonna work for me.  I think an eReader would save me serious money as I can't imagine a shopping binge on such a device being any fun... I don't even see my buying one.

I don't know if anyone can sympathize but I literally want to read about fifty books at once.  Alas, I can only manage one at a time.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


So I went to a used book store sales event.  Buy two get one free your store points still apply.  I'm not sure how they make any money or if they only want to move inventory.  There were a ton of people there; okay not a ton, but a lot.  More than the people and the books that I was surrounded by, the music caught me off guard.

It was either satellite radio's 'Acid Trip' station or the Joker's playlist.  I couldn't make this up: two songs of Vegas era Elvis, Santana's Soul Sacrifice, Brahm's Symphony in F the third movement, and a live version of In memory of Elizabeth Reed that I hadn't heard before.  I'd call it bizarre but even that word fails to capture the scene.

The store's about 12,000 square feet and it was full of people.  So full, I didn't feel comfortable shopping in the frenzy and left after the above 'playlist' was over.  Three books was all I was able to score with all the distractions.  Dancing Girls and Other Stories, and Bluebeard's Egg by Margaret Atwood, and Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear.        

I'm greatly looking forward to all three as well as tracking down this unknown-to-me Allman Brothers recording.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Year's First Defeat

I did not finish Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

I read fifty pages as I customarily do with a new book to try to get a feel for things; nothing.  I read another fifty pages due to reputation and all the praise I've heard.  It wasn't for me.  Furthermore this isn't one I plan on re-visiting.  I'll be trading it in tomorrow morning.

It's easy to read and I could have powered through, but there was nothing of remote interest happening for me.  That book nearly killed me, "So it goes."

It had to happen sometime.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

"What are we faced with in the nineteenth century?  An age where woman was sacred; and where you could buy a thirteen-year-old girl for a few pounds--a few shillings, if you wanted her for only an hour or two. (…)  Where the female body had never been so hidden from view; and where every sculptor was judged by his ability to carve naked women.  (…)  Where it was universally maintained that women do not have orgasms; and yet every prostitute was taught to simulate them." Pages 276-277
Nineteenth century Victorian England is the epitome of boring in my mind, and so to find myself so heavily engrossed and throughly enjoying a novel within this setting meant that I was holding something very special in my hands.  The French Lieutenant's Woman is far from what it seems: the title is misleading as the eponymous character is secondary and merely a vehicle of destruction, the narrative is near impossible to take seriously due to the author eternally making fun of both the story he's telling and how absurd it's events can seem to modern readers, and finally--and what is the most apt reason that I could so throughly enjoy a book set in nineteenth century Victorian England--despite all Fowles' research, affected dialogue and period prose, The French Lieutenant's Woman is anything but a Victorian novel.  (Apropos the title, upon finishing the book I thought The French Lieutenant's Whore would have been a much better title, but not for the reasons you think.) 
The story is as simple as you would expect given the novel's historical setting.  Charles and Ernestina are engaged to be married.  They are both absurdly rich, and never perform any duty which would be misconstrued as work.  Ernestina has 'Oprah' money while 'Charles' is closer to a meager 'Steve Jobs.'  Much tension and drama comes due to the disparity of their financial stations.  Charles is older, educated and an experienced worldly world traveler.  Ernestina is very young, very pretty, willing sheltered and excellent in the realm of knitting and home decorating.  There is a third person, Sarah, who is everything that Ernestina is not: smart, beguiling… interesting.  Sarah's claim to fame resides in the fact that it is prominently known to all the world that she has actually had sex and a chance meeting between her and Charles changes lives.  I'm sure many a novel has been written with less material than what I have given above and I'm equally sure many a Victorian writer has written something substantial with less, however, I've yet to mention the main character in The French Lieutenant's Woman, a weapon that no writer 'of the time' could posses: John Fowles.
Authors often insert themselves in their stories; Fowles is the narrator.  He offers commentary, insight, and even explanation as to plot developments taking the course they did.  In using such a simple story as outlined above, Fowles does as many writers of the time did and subtly introduce themes of greater significance by ruining his characters lives.  What he doesn't do is apologize for the complete lack of subtly in breaking through the fourth wall.
Fowles talks directly to his readers.  He tells us of the pain and difficulty of being favored and extraordinarily wealthy in nineteenth century England.  He enlightens us to the hypocrisies of the era (as in the opening quote) and with the greatest of mocking humor he gives real insight as to why simple situations in the life and times of the fictional characters he created create such gravity and in turn enhances his own story.  
To say the book is about sex is a bit base even by my standards.  (And after all, Victorians didn't have sex.)  To say it's not about sex is false.  And therein lies one of the book's strongest enigmas and enduring accomplishments: despite all Fowles efforts and what was surely a colossal amount research he knowingly didn't--couldn't--write a Victorian era novel. 
It becomes a running joke when the narrator, Fowles, makes continued references to anachronisms as airplanes and computers; none is stronger than his mention of existentialism being the default structure of interpretation among readers of the time.  (The novel was written in 1969.)  Today's reader would reply to the drama that Fowles' characters go through in the tone of voice of, "Take your prozac, quit your bitchin' and move on…" as the narrator, Fowles gives credences and ultimately gravity to the situation by pedantically explaining why circumstances were profound to the parties involved.  It is also Fowles, the narrator, who mercilessly mocks his characters from a distance as he makes them suffer in the narrative and it is this mocking tone that we, the readers, can clearly hear the voice of Raskolnikov or Yossarian; the eye rolling levity found in a situation that is obviously very serious to one intimate with the circumstance.  There is a necessity in Fowles having this tone of voice and not his characters: at the time the story takes place,1869, existentialism had yet to hit England, yet, it is through this lense that Fowles presents the novel to his readers.
There are multiple betrayals in the novel and none greater than the shocker that befalls Charles and the manner that the truth becomes known.  At this point, about two-thirds the way through, we can see that Ernestina is and always has been a Victorian woman, and yet Charles and Sarah are unknowingly striving, perhaps even against their will, to be the harbingers of a new era.  They attempt, and utterly fail, to be more modern people: honest in all things, realistic, open and not so pretentiously phony as the cant of Victorian life.  They were way ahead of the culture curve and both end up suffering.  Should you think I've given anything away concerning the plot you're wrong: everything falls apart, there is no happily ever after; everyone dies… okay, not really. 
Sarah is perhaps one of the more destructive characters you can come across in a book.  She seems ready to ignite under the pressure of her own weight and is determined to take someone else with her.  She knowingly, or unknowingly, fights against conventions of the time and in their ruin--and through today's contemporary lense--can only be seen as progressive woman.  She forces many other characters to change and grow well beyond the perimeters of Victorian norms.  While she remains the catalyst, Charles is undoubtedly the lead character.  This may seem backward, but for women and Victorian society to progress, it was primarily men that had to change.  Men had to start seeing women as something greater than what the times allowed them to be.    
The simplicity of the plot is deceptive much like all good Victorian novels.  The rewards are a greater understanding of an era that none today can fully wrap their heads around.  This is a damn good book and one that is near impossible to stereotype; it isn't Victorian, it's too phony to be existentialism and even the catch-all, ludicrous, nomenclature 'post-modern' fails to satisfy.  There is some horrible poetry.  (Charles's own, not the chapter quotes.)  There is the worst depiction of a sex scene ever--it was unfortunately probably very true to how things where for both parties at the time.  (Well, can you imagine Victorian English actually having good sex?)  Ugh… I usually dedicate at least a paragraph to what I think are shortcomings of a novel in my commentaries, there isn't that much material to do so. 
No matter what you're reading preference, if you like to read, (or perhaps to better qualify, if you like to read and read regularly) you will find much to enjoy in The French Lieutenant's Woman.   

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Blue and Gold by K. J. Parker

I was so ready to not like this book.  To say that the last few pages 'redeemed' the story would be a bit too strong, but it did take the last few pages to put things into focus.  As with Purple and Black, another short novel by Parker, to discuss the plot would give away the aforementioned redeeming surprised.  I won't indulge any spoilers, but the material that moonlights as 'plot' was my primary contention.
Saloninus is the narrator and certainly a unique enough character to merit first person narration.  He is one of the more self-serving and quasi larger-than-life characters you'll encounter in any book.  He is completely devoid of the scruples of conscience, and while not quite a criminal mastermind he is somewhat of an expert crook among many other things (alchemist, sculptor, poet, academic, etc et al).  He is also a liar and extremely entertaining to follow around for one-hundred pages.
Saloninus is in the employ of a prince who gives him unlimited funding in the pursuit of turning base metal into gold.  We never see this process happen as Saloninus preaches it's impossibility.  We do see Saloninus murder, lie, deceive, steal and be a general not too nice person.  
Literary fiction often comes under fire for being beautiful writing, engaging and entertaining with no plot; such was my initial complaint with Blue and Gold.  We see the various degrees of Saloninus' character in his past, and present but there was never a reason given, or even one to discern, for his actions.  He had a great job with amazing pay and benefits, a pretty wife he didn't like, but it wasn't as if he snapped and went crazy, rather it is presented that his behavior is the only way he could possibly act given his nature.  Happily, (not 'luckily' Parker seems too good a writer and in too much control of plot events to say 'luckily') the shared events of Saloninus' life are too much fun to read about and ultimately the novel too short for for me to call it flawed.  We are given reasoning and grounding for Saloninus being Saloninus at the end in a fun surprise that Parker seems fond of and expert in conceiving.
The novel is set in an antiquity of Parker's creation but the language used, particularly Saloninus' voice is contemporary.  It was a bit jarring at first but I was able to get over today's profanity and vernacular quickly.  
Subterranean Press continues to confuse me as they contrast the quality of their books with a lack of copyediting or even general proof reading before printing.  It's more than a handful of errors and in a book this short they are all highly visible.  Unfortunately, it's a befuddling, consistent issue I've had with Subterranean Press.
Blue and Gold is quick, dirty, and a whole lot of fun.  Find a copy.  Buy it.  Whenever there is nothing worth watching on TV (and when is there?) or it's raining outside, or you're bored and need to kill an hour; read and enjoy.    

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Been in a funk lately, and not merely a I-haven't-been-bloggin-funk.  No better way to kick the itis than to go shopping.  I bought seven books today; all but one of them are huge, which seems to be a trend of my reading at the moment.

The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood; Possession by A.S.Byatt; The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (900 pages?!?); The City and The City by China Miéville all came from a used book store up the road.  Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang and Annabel by Kathleen Winter were two that I--for some reason--bought new at a Borders that sold them for %50 off.  A lot of women in that bunch.

Speaking of women, I'm reading Blue and Gold by K.J. Parker whom I will identify as a woman until I'm proven wrong; it is a short novel that is certainly helping kick the funk.

I think I have spring fever.  I'm having a hard time doing much anything but staring out the window and saying, "Sure looks nice outside today."  It's a feeling that isn't really conducive to anything but going out side and doing nothing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What's the value of a used book store?

I got to thinking about this the other day when a co-worker and I were talking about savings to be had at a Border's going out of business sale.  My co-worker had maid the comment that the prices were better than a used bookstore (at all books for $1 of course they were).  I think I must be looking at used books stores in the wrong way, because it's not potential savings that draw me to them.

I'm probably more cost conscious than most when it comes to buying books and if I'm patient I know I can usually find a new book at the same cost, or less than, a used one.  (By patient, I mean this process can sometimes take a few years from publication but it's not like I have nothing else to read.)  I have two categories of used book stores: the antiquities and the binge buying. 

There are certain places I'll go knowing that I'm only going to briefly scan the contents of the shelves looking for regular stuff to read.  I go to the antiquities stores when I feel like treating myself self to something nice--which I haven't done in a very long time.  If I want an Easton Press or Franklin Library book that is in 'as new' condition there are places I can go and lay hands on the books with a large selection to choose from.  Between deciding on what I want among a stores ever-changing inventory and browsing the rest of whatever other cool stuff is behind the glass case I can spend an hour in one of these stores.  I know that when I leave I'll only have spent thirty dollars.  Which is a value for the aforementioned books, but hardly a price one thinks of as a 'deal' when buying a single item at a used book store.

The binge buying book store is the place I tell myself I'll only go when my to-be-read pile becomes dangerously low.  That said, I end up at these types of stores far too frequently.  This is the kinda place where you have store credit, and the people know you by name, and expect you to help yourself to whatever you want, and they know you're not gonna be leaving for two-and-a-half hours... or perhaps I'm being too personal.  I go to these stores knowing I'm getting a heavy discount off the 'used' book price.  I know I'll thoroughly check eighty percent of the stores shelves.  Finally, I know I'll leave with fifteen to twenty books.  When I go on one of these shopping trips I'm never looking for the current best sellers--that's what I use libraries for (my recent purchase of Freedom was an exception).  I check for things on my 'wish-list.'  More often than not this list contains books that new books stores don't have on their shelves as the ninety day time limit has past.  The binge buying used books stores are a treasure for me: I don't know what I'll walk out with, but I'm always satisfied.  Sure I go for the savings, but as I don't know what I'm hoping to leave with when I walk in it's hard to say I go to binge buying book stores solely for monetary reasons.   

My co-worker likes to use used book stores for savings on the latest best sellers, which makes perfect sense to me.  But I know that even used book stores like to maintain some semblance of profit margin on inventory that they feel is certain to be in demand: e.g. used copies of current best sellers.  

I feel like my co-worker is operating as most people do with used book stores and I'm the weirdo.  That alone is par for the course in my life.  How does everyone else use their used book stores?  I'm curious if there are other awesome aspects of used book stores that I'm not fully appreciating.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

"People, {...} like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. When they get blind-drunk, cheat, steal, beat their wives, starve an old woman, when they kill a trapped fox with an axe or riddle the last existing unicorn with arrows, they like to think that the Bane entering cottages at daybreak is more monstrous than they are. They feel better then. They find it easier to live."  page 215 

Geralt de Rivia is a witcher.  As best I can describe it, his job title equates to, 'bad-ass monster hunter."  Of the many problems that Geralt is presented with monster hunting is the least and most infrequently dealt with.  The book deals with people problems and the moral ambiguity that humanity often presents.

The Last Wish is a collection of related short stories.  There are six in total and they are broken up by reoccurring sections called "The Voice of Reason."  The publisher has done nothing to make this clear and it was initially a bit jarring for me to figure out what was going on.  There are reoccurring events and a comprehensive narrative.  I wish the book's display was like a short story collection with a table of contents, rather than me thinking the book was merely haphazardly put together in a random sequence until I had read far enough into it make sense of things.  I don't fault the author for this, and cover to cover, it is my only complaint.

The first story introduces us to Geralt in all of his marital awesomeness.  The first story also gives rise to several themes that are constantly repeated in the book though none are overly dwelt on.  Geralt, a witcher, is not altogether human himself by way of the training he has undertaken en route to his job.  There are running subtle suggestions as to his aberrations and mutations though nothing is ever explicitly is ever spelled out.  The irony of an evolved 'monster' dedicating a life to training to kill other more immediately perceived monsters was never lost on me. 

For all of his actions, monstrous or humane, Geralt is undoubtedly mercenary.  The first standing rule of his profession is that he works for a fee; there are no pro bono engagements; nothing done out of the goodness of his heart nor to the betterment of the people.  Tied in with this idea is that he is not a hired thug.  Though he carries two swords, silver for monsters, and iron for humans, he doesn't and continually refuses to kill people for money.  His principles and ultimately his morals are regularly put to the test. 

One story impressively deals with the debate of lesser and greater evil as opposed to only a general evil or the act of turning a blind eye.  Geralt's most trying circumstance are never a battle against a supernatural monster (there aren't very many of those battles and they are rather short as Geralt is very good and efficient at his job) rather they come when he is made to justify his actions or the actions of others.  In addition to Geralt's mercenary decision making we also see him argue against an idea only to embrace it at a story's end.  Such as the claim to lay rights to a child--like property.  

More than any other theme, through Geralt we see a world where nothing is what it seems: monsters are children transformed by parental flaws; others are excellent dinner guest and display manners of royalty despite beastly appearances.  Sapkowski perhaps elevates the role of women higher than ever before in a fantasy novel.  Every 'monster' he fights, without exception, is female.  There are no helpless damsels in distress or solitary female soldiers holding their own on the front lines with men, yet its difficult to ascertain who is the 'bad guy' in Geralt's tales as he is so difficult to fully embrace as a 'good guy.'

There are fairy tales aplenty: genies in a bottle: a question of how much fun did Snow White have cooped up with those seven dwarves for so long; we learn the fate of all knowing mirrors (they are either smashed to little pieces or learn to lie); there is a spin on beauty and the beast that was perhaps my favorite.  It's rare to see fantasy done this well.  There's a secondary world, a dude with a sword, elves, vampires and every monster of nightmare imaginable.  The set up for a derivative fantasy epic of 'blah' proportions are perfectly in place.  What we get is something more complex and refreshing that will only leave you craving more translations of Sapkowski's work.