Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

The 'year in books' post is coming tomorrow so I'll suffice it to say, I've read The Final Solution by Michael Chabon, The Last Waltz by Anne Enright, and The Folded World by Catherynne M Valente.  This month I've also made substantial dents in BADASS: The Birth of a Legend by Ben Thompson and Breakable You by Brian Morton as well as a handful of short stories online from various outlets and a few history books.  I tried and I tried and I tried to leave comments for The Last Waltz which is wonderful, but was unable to make any progress.  I don't know why some books pose such a problem and other don't.  If you've ever taken any of my recommendations, go read it; you'll enjoy.  I feel less stressed now that I've finally given up on leaving remarks for this one.  It's been a good, and busy reading month.  

This month was filled with the usual holiday fun and stress that always seems to mark my Decembers.  I went to New York to see my sister which was a nice change to our families usual Christmas blandness.  Had a great time, saw somethings I hadn't seen before, and spent more money than I'd have liked, but that's what one does on vacation, right?  
This was also a really sweet month for live music.  I saw two shows, and plan on one more tonight: Cake--a band of which I know nothing about but I don't have new year's plan, it's free and I have friends going so why not?  BB King isn't my current favorite blues guitarist.  He is, however, one of my all-time favorites.  Ever since his health has led him to do his shows seated the thrill has definitely gone.  He talks more than he plays, his voice has lost much of it's vitality (which is heart breaking when compared with his glory days) and he doesn't even play his own lead breaks any more.  It's not like I paid for this show so I guess I shouldn't complain.  My let down is in part my fault, I was expecting the manic demon shredder/vocalist of the 1960's that gave us Live at the Regal and At a Cook County Jail replete with guest appearances from Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.  What I got was a modern blend of 'smooth jazz,' big band, synthesized strings, and gospel sound that draws a certain kind of crowd.  Good for BB good for the industry, good for "The Blues."  I was expecting too much.  I'd have loved to kick the 'dinner party' crowd out, taken BB his drummer and bass player down to Blind Willies and put the blues back at the forefront of peoples attention in a small seedy dive bar but oh well…  The big surprise this month came from Gavin Degraw at a free show in Atlantic Station.  This boy's swagger is so big it has it's own twitter account.  I was shocked, I was amazed.  Rock Star.  The easy summation is: it was the best live music performance I've ever seen.  Go see this guy live; you will not regret it.  Yeah; I didn't see that coming either…   
I saw Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol as well.  It as fun; as I've said before I don't comment on movies as I expect so little from only seeing a handful in a given year.  
As to what's to come next year, your guess is as good as mine.  I've stopped looking to the future and only enjoy the moment.  Besides, none of my plans ever come to fruition anyways so I'm forgoing the effort. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

The story is a murder mystery that is, in truth rather light on both, but extraordinarily dense with bravado and craftsmanship.  There's a little boy with a few horrible communication deficiencies and parrot that speaks, among other things, a string of numbers erratically in German.  

No, seriously, that's the whole plot.
We, of course, meet other characters, an elderly police detective, a hot-headed younger son, a murderer with a motive, and a bee keeper, but the biggest star here is the author.  Chabon strings together the most meaningful and dense collection of words you will find in modern literature.  His descriptions are slightly obsessive, perhaps even manic, but primarily gorgeous and leave a firm imprint on the mind; his colorful use of language manages to be both whimsically and profound at the same time.  The narrative is simplistic and straightforward but you read Chabon's work to understand how something trite can be made beautiful in hands of one to today's chic literary behemoths.  
The murder is solved; the parrot is returned; a little boy is made happy; and the innocent are exonerated--if not exiled--all in wonderful groupings of words that no one else could have assembled.  Yet, I can't help but feeling like this book wasn't what it was supposed to be: chapter one, all nine pages of it, was so intent on a boy who is decidedly 'not right' and a parrot.  Given Chabon's attention to this duo and his powers as a writer, I really wanted to read a story about this boy and his parrot--by the end of chapter one, I was more than a little bit in love with this boy and his parrot.  That story is not included in The Final Solution: A Story of Detection and that's okay.  To the benifit of us all, Chabon's genius goes where it will and not where I would have it go: I'm more than content to follow a few steps behind in awe.    

Book Shopping in New York

The Strand is very cool.  It's much like my favorite local used book store just all kinds of bigger.  Everything is beautifully labeled and organized.  Having never been there before, and considering its size, I was taken aback at how easy it was to shop unassisted.  I walked all over just for the sake of being able to say I did, but I really only paid attention to the fiction section.

I gave myself a budget of fifty dollars and was pleased to only go over by five.  I picked up The History of Love by Nicole Krauss and Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman; two of this year's favorite new-to-me authors.  I doubled up on Michael Chabon; The Final Solution was a good read on the plane back to Atlanta (review forthcoming) and A Model World and Other Stories will be my introduction to his short stories.  I got a copy of BADASS: The Birth of a Legend by Ben Thompson for Christmas and it made me think of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf which I read last year.  I found a copy of the latter as a belated Christmas gift.  Paul Auster's New York Trilogy--of which I know nothing about except high praise from people smarter than me--rounded things out. 

The Strand and the mega-giant Barnes and Noble on Union Square both didn't have a single copy of Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan which I found odd for a book that was only shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won Giller Prize.  I'm curious about this book but I was also to be a gift, so I wasn't heartbroken at not being able to find it.  Oh well,  I'm telling myself that the book is selling extremely well and demand has exhausted supply.   

Good thing I don't live in the east village... because I can't afford to.  But if I could The Strand and the PDT bar would seriously challenge the integrity of my wallet.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

But, I'd like an Ending Please...

I spent a lot of time today with The Paris Review.  You don't need me to tell you they publish quality stuff. There seems to be a trend in high-end, fancy literary fiction; more so than general 'post-modern' make what you will of future events, stories today just seem to end abruptly.

I'm not saying I need definitive closure, but bring me to a point where I can see an end or multiple plausible endings.  In the three stories I read today (some are printed on line, in full and for free; the rest are so good you should go to your library and read them) all of them felt like they finished well before the halfway point.

Perhaps this is more a reflection on me as a reader, that said I'm a reader.  I am the author's and editor's endgame.

So when you write a story and it's fabulous and you develop themes and characters with great cunning and subtly, remember me: I can appreciate the aforementioned things, but I'd like an ending please.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I didn't feel guilty Christmas shopping for myself.  I luxuriated in the experience which isn't the point of the holiday, but retailers don't seem to care, so neither did I.  I bought two copies of Joe Hill's fabulous collection 20th Century Ghost to give as gifts only to realize that I don't know two people that would get off on Hill's writing in the necessary way.  Maybe I should start anonymously mailing books to my internet friends; at least I know some of them would enjoy the book. I bought The Sarantine Mosaic because GGK wrote it and I pretty much buy anything with his name on the cover.  Lastly, I got The Oxford Companion to Beer for a friend who I know will love it.  It is without doubt the most expensive gift I've ever gotten anyone other than myself.

I actually had to re-read this post to see that three of the four books I bought weren't for me; perhaps I'm not the Scrooge I though I was. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Folded World by Catherynne M. Valente

The most non-traditional fantasy series I've encountered continues not where things left off in The Habitation of the Blessed but in much the same fashion.  Hoib's fate is uncertain, and friend and understudy Alaric is allowed to choose three books just as Hoib did.  Alaric chooses three apprentices and they set out to copy the perishable script as fast as they can.  I was hoping for a different presentation than the 'book-tree' if for no other reason than Valente had used it before and has demonstrated that her creativity doesn't need to lean on repetition.  That said, it still works and works beautifully.    
The Book of the Ruby is told by Hagia, yet is John's daughter's, Anglitor's, story.  It tells of Pentexore preparing for war and the possibility of death for the first time in a thousand years and John's literary efforts.  He has rewritten the Bible as to include Pentexore and not break God's word.  John has also written letters to Christendom and letters have come back; Jerusalem is ripe to fall.  They called to the fabled King Prester John for help and armored with delusions of grandeur, and complete ignorance John and his people set out to war. 
The Left-Hand Mouth The Right-Hand Eye is written by Qaspiel at the request of Vyala, a lion somewhat outside of standard Pentexore life.  Vyala is the care taker of John other daughter; the one he fathered with Hagia, Sefalet.  Both of John's children are disfigured by standards of Pentexore a result of the union of two worlds coming together that shouldn't have ever mixed.  Sefalet got the worse of it; she shines with arcane light, suffers convulsions, and is tormented with unwanted prophesy.   
The third book, The Virtue of things is in the Midst of Them, was the most curious of the three, written by John Manderville a great adventurer and liar of prodigious ability.  He adds color and, much as Prester John did in the first book, gives the reader a sense of familiarity; something we can latch onto while we come to grips with all of the author's bizarre originality and conform our minds to think as she wants us to.  John Manderville starts off as comic relief, "I am immune to shame, boredom and cholera, but I confess fire and lightening will do me quiet in."  However, he shows us a second world of Pentexore one that is shut away from the first.  (One that I can't believe I didn't immediately recognize!)   
Much as in Habitation of the Blessed it is the coming together of the three narratives that makes things so interesting.  The encounter of John Manderville and Sefalet, Prester John's homecoming and a rather odd meeting of Salah-ad-Din, the understanding of what war is to a people to whom the concept is completely foreign.  There is also a fourth narrative briefly told, one continued from The Habitation of the Blessed and it is perhaps the most powerful and unifies all the others.  The intellectual criticism of religion and the power it hold over men like John walks the line between pensive and didactic.  Valente has an odd power when talking about the absurdities of organized religion and listing it's faults while doing so by way of mythical creatures and wholly imaginary entities.  This ain't Narnia Toto… 
There is so much going on in Valente's world.  I'm tempted to make some absolute statement like: "Never before has a writer packed so much material into to so small a space."  Actually, that doesn't sound half bad, only I'm sure I haven't read enough to qualify to say such a thing.  I can't even begin to guess where she'll go from here with the third book; all I can do is sit and wait until next year for it's publication.  Valente remains in my mind one of the most creative and distinct voices writing today.  

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The war had altered everything.  Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole.  Previously shared things--landmarks, writers, scientists, histories--had to be doled out according to their new owners.  That Nobel Prize-winner was no longer ours, but theirs; we named our airport after our crazy inventor, who was no longer a communal figure.  And all the while we told ourselves that everything would eventually return to normal.  Page 161

The Tiger's Wife is a story of two doctors of different generations treating people as best they can, confronting situations beyond their control and always dealing with the effects of war.  There are ever present conflicts within the novel that are never dwelled on yet can't be forgotten: we see illness through the eyes of Natalia Stefanovic and her grandfather; anxiety, disbelief and the pressure of dealing with superstitions that seemingly can't be explained; a commingling of Christians and Muslims; and always the threat of regime change.  
The story of The Tiger's Wife is Natalia's grandfather's, though he never gets a chance to talk to the reader.  Instead Natalia recollects story's that were shared with her concerning her grandfather dealing with two notable characters, Gavran Gaile, the Deathless Man and The Tiger's Wife.  These characters, both of which deal heavily with superstition and the quasi-fantastic, are alternately presented in between Natalia's account in the field working to start a clinic for orphans.  Both Natalia and her grandfather are venerated in their profession and yet both are made to deal with illnesses they can't compete with.
Natalia's grandfather grows up in a village, always on the outskirts of war or feeling the impeding pressure of one, where two very unique situations present themselves.  An escaped zoo animal takes up residence outside the village and seemingly finds a friend to aide it's survival in a deaf, mute Mohammedan, the butcher's wife: The Tiger's Wife.  Natalia's grandfather watches as ignorance and misunderstanding of one who can't communicate and has suffered psychologically what no one in the village could know or relate to, turn into hate and present the perfect scapegoat for all the villages problems.           
The Deathless Man has been cursed by his uncle Death to not be able to die for a past offense.  Natalia's grandfather meets him a few times over the course of his life; after being drown, shot in the head, and once on a beautiful night on an outdoor patio while the city is being bomb where they share an incredible meal.  Natalia's grandfather's life was one marked with a great frequency of extraordinary events.  
The story that Natalia's grandfather seeks to tell is very sensitive and wholly compelling.  Unfortunately I don't think the chronological gaps and alternating back-and-forth between Natalia's narrative and that of her grandfather's did anything to enhance the story despite the thematic similarity that two share.  As opposed to something like Nicole Krauss' Great House where the fifty-page, extended vignettes served to strengthen what preceded and comes after The Tiger's Wife left me feeling a bit agitated as any of the novel's vast host of intriguing characters are all built to fit into the place of an omniscient third person narrator.  There's a lot of confusion in The Tiger's Wife as is indicated by the passage I chose to quote at the beginning.  Some things get ironed out, most don't.  It's a melancholy book with an extra heavy dose of anxiety: there is a tiger on the outskirts of town, a war on the horizon or more often than not, a war going on that has since become a part of the peoples lives to the point where it is now just seen as white noise in the background. Much to my surprise, the bouncing around works by the end of the novel.  There were stories within the novel I loved; characters I wanted to know more about; and my heart went out to the eponymous character by the halfway point.  It's rich in allegory and heavy with potential.  Overall, I found it to be spoilt by an overwrought presentation and an inability to focus on a given central idea to fully resonate.

For a much prettier girls take on the same book, check out what Claire has to say.      

Joint-Blogging Awesomeness

So I've been bad about blogging lately, sorry...  I should have posted a bunch of inane stuff just to keep interest high after seeing an influx in traffic after Kim's big hurrah, but I didn't.  I've been stuck in a small, dense book for all of December (more on that in a few days).

Now that I'm back, blogging that is, I never went anywhere, I've got a lot to say and I want to say it all at once.  First reviews are coming, lots of them: The Folded World, The Tiger's Wife, The Forgotten Waltz (God... am I the only one who isn't immune to the repetition of indefinite articles?) all warranted me having something to say. 

I took a trip to the library at lunch to exercise a demon.  I've been bitten by a history bug; actually it's an itch that has needed scratching for a long time.  I haven't had this kinda non-fiction urge since grad school and I can actually link my history excursions to an escape from music in both instances.  (Which is to say, at the present, I'm getting really good at guitar.  Or perhaps I only need to turn the volume on my amp down, however I at least see a direct correlation between the quality of my playing and obnoxiously loud volume settings with a fuzz face pedal and delayed reverb stomp box.)  So history yeah... don't expect me to be leaving comments on any of that as I am certainly not qualified to do so and my interest in the past are probably more esoteric than my current taste in fiction.  Nonetheless, this history thing will probably be taking up a good chunk of my reading time in the forseeable future.

Lastly, and most awesome, Claire emailed me, stalked me down, stole my identity (only to find out it's not worth having much to her chagrin) and threatened me into submission about some joint book reviews.  I like the idea as it not only gives me a chance to talk about books, but will hopefully show me a different perspective: one from a much prettier girl.  I had the first pick and the only real rule was that when a selection was mentioned we wouldn't do any research prior to reading the book.  I think we are aiming for one a month.  So be sure to look for those reviews, and check out her blog as well, in the near future. 

(And the future is now, so give me an hour or so and the first one will be up.)  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reading Recommendations

Kim at Reading Matters asked bloggers what was their best book of the year.   The books mentioned were not confined to 2011 publication, genre or any other criteria, and while the major publishing outlets will no doubt heavily repeat themselves with their 'year's best' list this selection of books covers great books you may have missed in years past and those that may not have gotten the attention they deserve this year.

Scroll through and see if you can find my selection (I missed it on first glance).  My choice came with the proviso that I didn't leave comments for the best book I read this year.  I'll explain that in greater detail in a few weeks when I do my own best of the year list.

There are a lot of great books here and you'll be sure to find other bloggers of interest as well.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Did I do something wrong?

"Why were you late today?"--My employer

"I was reading."--Me

She actually looked at me as if I needed to explain myself further.  What's up with that?