Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The heart wants what it wants

People never say that about things that are, like, convenient. Oh, that's completely in line with my plans! The heart wants what it wants!

I have acquired a lot of books -- in my life, yes, but more specifically, in the last four months or so, and they have been arranged into a perfectly logical priority order. There are some awesome-looking books in that stack, and of course I have a staggering amount of professional reading I should be working through.

But man. I just have not wanted to read any of those things. Just about the only thing I have wanted to read is Aubrey/Maturin books.

The only illustration anyone needs for this topic
It's gone exactly according to script. Maybe two months of not reading anything at all, then finally, I give in and suddenly I'm reading all the time, in all those situations when I was so frustratingly stuck before: just not what I was so stubbornly focused on making myself read. So that's where I'm at: I have nothing to report except comfort reading: many books about ships.

It's so good, though. O'Brian has an almost Wodehousian ear for language, I think; both authors have those perfect turns of phrase that make me stop and laugh out loud in sheer appreciation. Much more importantly -- and I'm only just putting my finger on this -- O'Brian is like Jane Austen in that he generates humor as well as character by slyly slipping into a character's own perspective (if not his or her own voice) as part of the narration without giving any particular explicit indication that he's doing so. He also does the Austenian thing of reporting conversations telegraphically which just always tickles my funny bone. I probably mentioned these things the last time I wrote about these books? It's all still true.

So in short: I hope you are also reading things you enjoy this summer.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Russia, where everything's terrible

Alice and I were at our favorite used book store recently and I pulled a book confidently off the shelf. "What's that?" she asked. "I don't know, but it's Melville House," I answered. Some publishers are just kind of cool and niche, or they seem that way to me, and I naturally pay attention to their books. It helps that Melville House has super cool cover designs. I am shallow.

The Duel, by Alexander (or Aleksandr, as the website puts it) Kuprin is one of several novellas with that title published by Melville House. Interestingly, while I sort of expected the whole book to revolve around a duel, the duel crops up right at the end. It's not out of nowhere, but at the same time the main character has so many other problems and relationships and worries going on that the duel is both a culmination and the triumph of a minor thing over major things. Essentially it's a book about a young man on the edge -- he's on track to totally waste his life, and he knows it, but he's not sure if he should or can escape. The parallels to the author's life are fairly obvious from the very short blurb in the back flap, and that probably explains the vividness of the main character's dilemma. It was obvious how brutal and pointless his current path was, but at the same time I could understand why it might suck him in.

This is quite possibly the most Russian novel ever: toward the end our main character receives nihilistic enlightenment from a man dying of alcoholism, among other things. The description promises "an absorbing account of the final days of Czarist Russia" and I was not disappointed in that regard. Probably going along with this is the fact that the women in this story are evil, manipulative harpies. There is really no other explanation for the things they do and say. Of course, the men in the book are all pretty seriously debased, so they're not alone in that.

What I wanted from this book was an interesting story and a little historical detail, and what I got was lots of very interesting historical insight and a solid story, so I'd recommend this book to others. Plus you get to feel cool carrying around that very cool cover, so win-win-win.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Ahhh, Florence

Probably the most exciting thing about this book -- Death in Autumn by Magdalen Nabb -- is that it's the book I saw in the airport at Rome, didn't buy, and then couldn't find again. So how did I find it, you ask? I picked it up at the Open Books/Reader book swap. Pure serendipity. I see from that old post that I thought the book I was looking for had an Italian author, which is what tripped me up trying to find it again; Nabb is (or was) British.

And this story has a further happy ending, because I enjoyed this book. It's not very long and it's a good, focused mystery story that manages to also have plenty of good characters and local color. I liked that the main detective, the Marshal, and his senior, the Captain (am I going to go figure out their names? no I am not) were working together on the case. In fact, on the whole, this was a very competent group of police with little internal tension, which is rare. Usually, even if you have a clever police detective in a novel s/he is working against corruption or laziness or bureaucracy or stupidity in their own force, so I thought this was a nice change of pace.

I don't have much else to say about this, I suppose, except that I am looking forward to returning to this series.

Monday, April 27, 2015

"For such a little girl, you know, you're neurotic."

Portia is 16. (It's the 1930s.) Her parents have died, and she's been sent to live with her much older half-brother and his cold and stylish wife in London for a year. It's awkward. The wife's volatile and ambitious admirer flirts with Portia a bit, Portia falls in love as only a girlish teenager can do. You know this can't end well, right?

Well, actually it doesn't end all that badly. No one dies or suffers any huge injustice or gets pregnant or ruins their life (well, they don't ruin their life in any way that they weren't already doing so). The Death of the Heart is more of a psychological novel: when you boil the plot down, there isn't much that's all that remarkable. But the personalities are thoroughly and carefully described, so that even where I felt like I recognized a type each character felt like a real person, and I was interested to keep reading and understanding each one more thoroughly.

There are sparks of wit in the story, and the conversations are really brilliantly captured, but Elizabeth Bowen's writing style felt a little overdone to me. It didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book at all; every once in a while, though, I'd just sort of think, "yeah, ok, reign it in." Still, on the whole it's beautifully written, full of little observations.
The wish to lead out one's lover must be a tribal feeling; the wish to be seen as loved in part of one's self-respect... Alone, one has a rather incomplete outlook---one is not sure what is funny, what is not. One solid pleasure of love is to check up together on what has happened.
The humor part of it is fairly understated; it's not so much humor as, again, observations, but it's still really enjoyable and certainly capable of making me smile now and then.
Pas Avant les Domestiques might have been carved on the Peppinghams' diningroom mantelpiece, under Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense.

What's interesting about this is that Portia's personal history and connection to the other characters is so odd, and yet her experiences felt quite relatable. Portia is the product (that's kind of a gross word but it's hard to word this sentence otherwise) of her half-brother's father's late-in-life affair. Her quiet, apologetic upbringing, moving from cheap hotel to cheap hotel on the continent, was the outcome of her father's sense of shame and loss. When she comes to live with her half-brother, her mother has just died. I sort of thought this background would play more of a role than it did. I mean, it's the explanation for why she's so childish and mousy, for why she has so little experience of friendship or family, for why her half-brother and sister-in-law have so little affection for her, for why it's so awkward for her to be living with them. But, I don't know: Portia's feelings of loneliness, her uncertainty about her place in the world, and certainly her innocent experience of heartbreak all seemed fairly universal for a teenager. I mean, the whole thing hinges on Portia melting down because someone's been reading her diary! Teens!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Thank you!

You were right. Yep, I feel pretty confident in predicting (projecting?) that you, dear reader, probably read The Rosie Project and then wrote a blog post or a tweet or something about how cute it was. When I saw that, I made a little mental note. And you were totally right!

I was at a book swap event* and spotted this being put out onto the Romance table, and immediately I thought, That's that book my dear internet friend -- yes, her/him -- said was adorable! Gotta grab that one! So thank you for that recommendation, because it was adorable. I read the whole thing today, start to finish, breakfast to dinner. I thought it was like having a really good burger and fries and beer at the end of a long day. There might not be anything especially innovative or surprising about that, but it's so satisfying.

A photo posted by Julie (@jfount2) on

* The book swap was quite interesting. I can't help myself, I am always interested in how things get organized and I've been thinking about the concept of book swaps lately since at least three have appeared on my radar this month. The one I went to was totally free (*fist pump*). People arrived with their books (the organizers requested a maximum of 15). They dropped the books off at the front table. The organizers then assembled stacks of same-genre books and carried them out to the genre tables as rapidly as they could. Us patrons milled around in an addicting loop examining the tables. It was all extremely simple, and devilishly hard to leave because there were new books being put out constantly and what if. In this case, the leftover books were going to be donated to Open Books, Everyone's Favorite Book-Selling Chicago Literacy Organization. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the books (although of course there were some clunkers being offloaded too). I brought eight and left with five, which I was quite pleased about.

As so often is the case, the ending of The Rosie Project was less fun than the rest of the book, but that was ok. The best parts were the "Don is oblivious" parts so the conclusion was bound to be a little underwhelming. I mean:
'You want to share a taxi?' asked Rosie.
It seemed a sensible use of fossil fuel.
Adorbs. I saw the ending coming from a mile away but it was fine; just because you know that burger and fries are going to be awesome doesn't make them any less awesome.

I was sort of intrigued by the little author interview in the back of my edition, where Simsion reveals that the book is actually the product of many years chasing a passion for screenwriting. I have to admit, that's not the kind of thing I expect someone to admit to: a kind of Plan B success. Or Plan C, I guess, since Simsion had a career in IT that he quit for film. I feel like this little anecdote will be useful in the future.

Oh, and I scored 61 on the questionnaire (also in the back of my edition).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A good old-fashioned murderbook

I have to admit that when I hear the word "academic" used with a negative connotation, it makes me feel a little downhearted. I get that not everyone enjoys school things, but I have always enjoyed school things and even when a subject seems narrow or uninteresting to me, I enjoy enough niche things to appreciate other people's interest. And then all my close college friends went to grad school (I think 50% of the people at my 21st birthday have now finished their PhDs), and my own department is so friendly that I've had remarkably little exposure to conniving, petty, self-important types. Plus, a lot of grad students develop awesome hobbies and side projects in grad school (not me, I'm lame). When I think "academics" I think adorably nerdy people who are about as intimidating as a muppet.

And when I think "academic books" my heart warms, because what is better than an academic book? Academic books have a clearly defined focus, they delve deeply into their subjects, and they provide you with all the information you need to judge them -- or if they don't, then there's your assessment right there. But I appreciate that for plenty of people none of this is true, and alas, "academic", which is a rather accurate descriptor for me, is not a positive for the general public.

All of this is a long lead-in to an excellent book that strikes a happy medium between academic and general interest. The University of Chicago Press has clearly pulled out the stops to make Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago accessible for the general book-reading public. It's very reasonably priced, for one thing, and has a catchy title. It has maps, illustrations, a cast of characters, and a glossary. There are no superscript footnotes, and the technical parts of the introduction (historiography, methodology) have been pulled out and placed in a separate section at the end. It starts with an attention-grabbing introduction and carries on from there. Very easy to read. At the same time, it's well researched and all those important citations are there as endnotes, formatted in a gratifyingly efficient way for those of us who like that kind of thing. Seriously, I hate endnotes but these are very easy to use.

The book itself, as the subtitle suggests, tells the story of a sensational murder that took place in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. It's very much a narratively-driven book: it introduces the players, describes the victim's disappearance, the discovery of the body, investigation, and trial, before concluding with some considerations about the legacy and impact of the case. Now, murders are fairly interesting in themselves, but this was a case of a member of a secret Irish republican society being bumped off by his rivals within the group, so the story encompasses terrorism and financial misdeeds as well as nationalism and racism. Oh! And also the interplay of the press and the justice system. There's a lot here, is what I'm saying, but it's all straightforward and readable. If you like historical murder things -- and I know you do -- you'll like this.

(PS. I am delighted to find I already have a tag for "murder".)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Hewers of wood, drawers of water, and inspectors of prisons

I have a long relationship with the cover of this book (Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey).

Gosh, I love that cover art. The red ink, the handwritten title! Every time I went into a Waterstones I would end up picking it up and considering it, but it's a chunky book to have to fit in your suitcase, not to mention the price of hardcovers; and then the description just didn't seem all that interesting. "An irrepressibly funny portrait of the impossible friendship between a master and a servant." The heart wants what it wants, and the heart likes the cover art way better than that description. But sometimes fate intervenes: I found a copy of the UK hardcover at the Newberry book sale over the summer priced at only $2 ("...that must be a mistake!" said the checkout volunteer as I mentally willed her to just finish the transaction) and obviously.

This was a very enjoyable book in the end, although it gets off to a slow start. The story is told from the perspective of Olivier, the French aristocrat, and Parrot, his multi-talented servant/secretary, in alternating chapters. Parrot is pretty clearly the "main" character here in terms of development/mystery/conflict/interest, although, fittingly for the society they're living in, Olivier's chapters provide the real start-to-finish timeline for the novel as well as the engine for the plot in the novel's present. The book starts out with each character narrating his childhood; you then get Olivier narrating up to the "present"; then Parrot comes into the story, and we find out about his intervening years as we go along.

Parrot's life in particular is shaped by a whole slew of historical forces, and I recognized a lot of the things Carey was playing with in terms of the movement of people and ideas. I feel like there's a more sophisticated reference to make here than Forrest Gump, but let's don't stand on ceremony; Parrot's life story at times feels a bit Gumpian, not because he crosses paths with famous people and events but just because of the sheer number of settings he goes through. He's also blessed by his author with intelligence and skills that make him an equal with Olivier. It's not just "a master and his servant" in other words, but rather more a story of how this guy ends up as a servant as one odd episode in a life full of odd episodes; odd episodes that are nevertheless all firmly within the experience of the working class at this time. I felt aware of all this as I read, but I was still moved by the pathos of his situation.

The inside flap of my copy describes the book as "an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville" and although that description made me skeptical at first, in the end I was totally on board. Somehow Carey manages to strike the right tone of being historically inspired but not quite claiming to be historical fiction, if you follow. Describing it as an "improvisation" is actually perfect: it's pulling out the really fascinating aspects of Tocqueville's life and world and blowing them up so you can get inside and really look at them. As you know(?), I often approach historical fiction with a heavy dose of skepticism, but this book seems like a good example of how fiction can be a means of interpreting and commenting on a particular time and place. Plus it's just plain fun to read (once you get past the childhood chapters, those are slightly rough going although key to the character development).

Now: a final note; an extremely mild observation. This book seems like an example of something else, the diversity problem in publishing, as it was apparently shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Now, I don't know how those awards work and I have even less clue what else was eligible in 2010, but while I enjoyed this book and thought it was really masterfully written I have a hard time seeing it as major-award-worthy. This isn't to take anything away from the book or its author whatsoever, and I've already noted that it succeeds at something I don't often see books succeeding at; but just, when I think about the whole world of UK publishing and English-language writing... it just strikes me as a data point that would, on its own, support the notion that the publishing industry favors established white guys writing about white guys. I will leave the strong criticism to people who actually have a clue about the real world. If I'd read this in 2010 it might have made it onto my shortlist of best books published in that year, but as we all know I only ever read two books a year that were actually published in that year so that's not a particularly high honor.

If there are awards for cover art though, I'm behind it all the way.