Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife

I had just gotten off the bus when a pang of hunger hit, insistent. A convenience store greeted me. My finger still marking my place in the book, I grabbed an orange and went to pay. At the counter, I put down the story, regretfully losing my place to riffle through my wallet. The adorable old man behind the counter took notice of my reading material as he was taking my change: “Oh, The Tiger’s Wife? That is supposed be good. What is it about?” Hey, Kindle! Eat your heart out.

…But that debate is for another time and place. Speaking of which, I would call “time and place” the most successful parts of Téa Obreht’s debut. An overwhelming sense of the past, of family, of generations and of tales passed down through them, pervades this book. Superstition bumps up against modernity, ever at odds even as they cling to each other.

In everything but writing style, The Tiger’s Wife reminded me of The Lazarus Project. They are appropriate Easter books, dealing with dead men and men who are deathless for one reason or another. The past interacts directly with the present and the future. Lives are built and lost on stories. Both authors hail from the now defunct Yugoslavia, a background that informs their war-torn fiction. Both Obreht and Hemon immigrated to the United States, and though she is two decades younger, they came overseas within five years of each other. They write in English, their second language.

Obreht’s prose is a bit sleepier than Hemon’s. She writes languorous sentences that curl up on themselves like a great big cat. In contrast to Hemon’s crackling first page, she crafts a dreamier opening, filtered through the haze of manufactured memory rather than the sharper fictionalization of forgotten fact. The setting of The Tiger’s Wife is completely fabricated, though it is made hyper-real with elaborate observations—debris by the road, the interiors of houses, precise paths through a city that never was. Somehow, these gathered examples of existence only make the world more dreamy.

There are quite a few disparate stories in this novel, and a central narrative is hard to find. Nothing is intrinsically wrong with the plots, and I enjoyed them all separately, but I was not compelled forward for quite a while. The reading did speed up as soon as the threads started to knit together.

Oddly enough, the characters that seem most real are those who are the most improbable. Rooted in folklore and magical realism, people form: A nephew of Death, cursed into immortality for love of a girl, has a coffee cup that tells the drinker when they will meet his uncle. A deaf-mute girl, battered by her dream-deferred* husband, forges a bond with a tiger that escaped from a bombed zoo. A young boy who is the primary caretaker for his epileptic sister grows into a skilled taxidermist and legendary bear hunter. Any members of the mythological cast could go toe to toe with Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house. Unfortunately, the present day characters don’t hold up their end of the story and seem to get lost in it.

Promising and poised for a really excellent book, Obreht has just written a good one here, though there are stripes of greatness running through it.

*Seriously though, if Obreht didn’t intend for Langston Hughes’ poem to accompany the butcher’s story, that is one eerie coincidence.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: Beth Revis' Across the Universe

It’s always a pleasure to read authors who love their genres. Their books are delightful because they have an understanding born from being steeped in a certain pool of ideas. These consumed conventions act simultaneously as foundations and building blocks, allowing an author to play and create possibilities on top of something established. With Across the Universe, Beth Revis is in direct dialogue with what came before, but her passion and thoughtfulness keeps her blend of influences fresh. 

I’m having a hard time classifying AtU with an existing phrase. “Space opera” doesn’t quite cover it. Really, it’s a dystopian murder mystery set in space. Dyspacery? Whatever you want to call her book, Revis wears her influences on her spacesuit and does them justice. Showing “the bridge” on the ship’s blueprints is a tribute to Star Trek, and Amy’s number 42 cryo chamber can only be a nod to Douglas Adams. I saw shades of Joss Whedon’s Firefly in the name of Kayleigh and the positive slang “brilly,” but the correlation was strongest between the Pax and the “Phylus” drug. (Interesting note: I think Phylus comes from Phylum, which is Latin for “division.”) There are echoes of Ender’s Game and The Giver as well as direct references to Alice in Wonderland and Dante’s Inferno. I could feel all of these books ringing in my ear as I read, amplifying and deepening the story. (Not to mention the identically-titled Beatles song or Albus Dumbledore’s admonishment: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”)

Still, Revis is more than the sum of her references. She is an excellent storyteller and worldbuilder, crafting a sense of urgency and claustrophobia that underlies everything. Alternating viewpoints between Amy and Elder allowed multiples arcs to move along at a brisk clip. Working with two sets of eyes and ears and brains, Revis sustains tension without resorting to a love triangle. I liked the evolution of Amy and Elder as people and as a couple. Plus, it’s always exciting seeing your name in a book! (I was named after Amy March, but now I’m proud to share a name with this Amy too.)

Though a savvy reader can play “spot the bad guy” and come out correct, it is not at all boring to confirm these suspicions. There are loads of discoveries to be had. A large debt is owed to the spaceship Godspeed, a well-executed setting that operates within its own probable laws but also has enough details to catch the imagination.

A good dystopian always has something driving it, a question at its heart. Revis has the five Ws and one H: What is worth saving after the world ends, and where does society go afterward? Who’s going to get them there, and when will they arrive? Why did the world fall into ruin, and how do you survive after it happens? She covers all of the classics—genetic engineering, free will, inhabiting other planets, wars, economic collapse, rewritten history, religion, choice, love, knowledge—and has themes within themes. I was particularly charmed by the koi fish and by Harley, the painter who makes them his motif. I also enjoyed how creative people are made out to be crazy, when there already is that strain of thought in our society today.

Tiniest nitpick: When our slender, athletic protagonist who runs cross country and wants to run a marathon says she can barely run ten miles in two hours, I cried foul. I ran in high school and still enjoy running, but I’m more of a hoofer than a speedster. That being said, I ran 3 miles in 27 minutes at my peak. I could sustain that pace, and did, for 12 miles in around 2 hours. I bet she’d be quicker. Nitpick over.

Across the Universe wrapped up in a way that needs no sequel, but I’m glad Revis gets to write two more anyway. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Emma Donoghue's Room

When I picked up Room from the BPL, an impeccably dressed Indian man spotted its distinctive cover and came over to me. “That is a beautiful book,” he said with a lovely British accent. “Well, not beautiful. You know.” I took in his red sweater, blue blazer, and gorgeous leather shoes as I replied, “I’m looking forward to reading it.” We shared a smile, the bond between two readers who want to know the secrets of the same book. That was the end of our conversation, but his words echoed in my ear as I made my way through Room’s pages.

I stayed up all night rooting for the central pair of Jack and Ma. In the depths of depravity, they forged a quaint life together. Some might say their redemption was born from Ma’s love, but in retrospect, it’s hard to know exactly where her love stops and her desperate thirst for freedom begins. Yes, she made sure that Jack stayed in shape, that his mind was developed, that he did not despair in their captivity. However, was she only preparing him to be a partner in escape? How long had she been thinking about her plan? These questions do not preclude love—that Ma loves Jack, her one bright spot in a hellhole, is a given—but they certainly make her more interesting. Pushed beyond mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion, Ma does what she must.

Jack was an engaging narrator, an astonishingly empathetic and creative little boy. I can’t really say too much about the specifics, but I was interested to know if the fiction matched up with reality. Developmentally, he seemed years ahead of his peers, and I wonder if those results could be actually achieved, provided the child is brought up in a similar state of constant enrichment. (That is, acknowledging that such appalling conditions should never be replicated.) The plasticity of the young mind is amazing, and I loved exploring Jack’s evolving concept of reality.

Donoghue has a fine grasp of the telling detail. I was struck by the specifics, especially Jack’s lack of spatial awareness/depth perception and his vulnerability to sunburn, which convinced me that Jack and Ma lived in Room for as long as they did. Even better, the mundane details—the daily schedules, the furniture, the learning from repeated experience—were as fully imagined as some of the more horrific circumstances.

Both the ordinary and the extraordinary combine to make Room and its inhabitants haunting. Obviously, the inspiration came from real events, so I appreciated that Donoghue strove for authenticity over a straightforward happy ending. Anyone, fictional or actual, who lived through a thing like Room would be rocked by their survival.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review: Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear

I am quite comfortable calling The Kingkiller Chronicle a masterwork of fantasy, and it’s not even finished yet. After reading the second book in this trilogy, I do think it will be canonized alongside The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Lord of the Rings series. The series starter The Name of the Wind knocked me over, but The Wise Man’s Fear blew me away. Just when I think Patrick Rothfuss can’t possibly come up with anything more inventive, he does. I think he would object to being called him a wizard, so I’ll stick to his terminology: alchemist and sympathist. He takes words and turns them into a whole world. 

Like his protagonist Kvothe, Rothfuss is a consummate showman and storyteller. His imagery catches the imagination. Two of my favorite symbols from this book happen to be trees: a tree whose roots are strewn with dead butterflies (killed because they offended a malevolent spirit’s sensibilities) and a tree with falling leaves that cut like knives. Naming is essential to Kvothe’s quest, so it only makes sense that the same goes for the novel’s characters: Elxa Dal, Elodin, Meluan Lacklass, Felurian, Vashet.

Oh my gosh, the worldbuilding. Kvothe ventures outside of the University and its environs, so the world opens up. The Adem people, who live in their land of Ademre, have their own religion, system of fighting, mythology, matriarchal culture, and language. I am endlessly fascinated by language acquisition, and the idea that facial expressions are considered vulgar in this culture is mind-blowing. Most communication is augmented by hand signals that signify emotions (“gentle reproach”), not words. It’s essentially a poetic language rather than a prose language. Of course, it follows that they have their own sense of humor, insults, jokes, and didactic stories. Their religion (the Lethani) and fighting system (the Ketan) draw from eastern religions, but still manage to be wholly original. Equally interesting is the system of currying political favor with different metal rings, seen in the court of Severen. The Vintas people are also extremely suspicious of magic, and I loved how Rothfuss instituted this prejudice as a systematic societal belief.

Rothfuss is a true thinker and observer of the world, and it is his knowledge of human nature that allows him to spin out fairy tales that read real. I love the Edema Ruh, a nomadic storytelling population that are discriminated against (much like our Gypsies). Poetry and philosophy sneak into the cracks of the folklore and songs. The magic system called sympathy, based on chemistry and physics, is as captivating as ever. There’s a depth and breadth to the knowledge in this trilogy, so I always felt like I was learning something as I read.

The plot is constantly moving, since no one delights more in imperiling his characters than Patrick Rothfuss. This tendency is great for the reader, as each new dilemma is an opportunity. Kvothe’s journey and wants are constantly sidetracked, but his diversions are just as interesting as the main plot, thanks to the strength of primary, secondary, and tertiary characters. (Each person has a want and an agenda!) Rothfuss is a really talented writer with a firm grasp of story, so even a poor student scrambling to make tuition is interesting. Peril! Stakes! Interdependency! Nothing wasted!

In between all of these plot threads, Kvothe grows up. His maturation seems authentic, as his epiphanies are triggered by his experiences. Kvothe is a fairly typical young man outside of his intellect, and as such, things get a little sexy. However, it’s not gratuitous or exploitive. Rothfuss is actually a pretty feminist writer, as far as fantasy goes. Kvothe has fully-formed female friends, women who are his equals and betters. They are smart and capable with different temperaments and secret desires. More than a few aren’t afraid to take matters into their own hands, but others would prefer not to. In other words, they’re human. The issues of domestic violence, sexual shaming, and human trafficking are also brought up and handled in sensitive ways.

The Wise Man’s Fear is a story within a story that contains stories nested inside, and Rothfuss tempers all of these moving parts with a wicked sense of humor and play. A lyrical strain mingles with the humor, and I found lots of ideas to puzzle over, like the statement that laughter and tears both originate in the belly. The best part is that this book goes AGAINST sequel logic. Things get better for Kvothe, even though the reader knows they’re going to get worse. He is a genuine tragic hero in that the majority of his problems and triumphs spring from his tragic flaw: his intellectual curiosity and his resulting arrogance. This combination makes Kvothe a striving protagonist with just enough swagger, someone to root for and someone who’s endlessly entertaining. There are tons of unresolved things to keep me wondering until the conclusion, and I simply can’t wait.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Review: Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why

I can certainly see why this book is so popular. There’s an interesting mystery stringing the reader along and some really perceptive bits interspersed. The problem lies with the resolution. When the mystery is unraveled, the “moral” is simultaneously heavy-handed and lacking.

Like I said, the set-up is great: A girl records a series of tapes before she commits suicide. Each tape talks about a person she designates as one of the TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY she killed herself. She posthumously instructs these 13 people pass along the tapes (plus a map of important places) in a prescribed order. If they fail to pass the tapes along, she will release a second set of tapes implicating all of them. Sounds pretty intriguing, no? That premise made me pick up the book.

Honestly, I didn’t care enough about Hannah to make this conceit work, though I did find myself feeling for her in places. I was drawn to her at the beginning, but as the story went on, her voice kept me at a distance. I’m not sure how purposeful this tone was on Asher’s part, whether this orchestrated arc of feeling was supposed to mirror the plot arc. As time went on, Hannah did isolate herself from help, and I’m not sure she even realized it. She was a lost little girl, older than her years and so much younger. (I guess that description encapsulates most teenagers.)

I also didn’t care overly much about the boy Hannah left behind. Clay was fairly ineffectual, but I guess he was on par for the course as an übernormal boy. The most characterization I got were several secondhand reports of him being a “nice guy.” I guess I didn’t really see that for myself. Hannah was an overpowering presence, so maybe he got lost. I think Asher thought so too, which is why some of Clay’s reactions read a little extreme.

As for the suicide, it felt more like revenge than a true expression of pain or desperation. The tapes as a plot device were interesting, but they cheapened the act and made it vindictive. Rather than being random and senseless, Hannah’s death seemed textbook and well-considered, like Asher took a suicide warning checklist and wrote a story around them. All the reader is left with are cheap thrills.

I’m sure Thirteen Reasons Why was supposed to be a well-intentioned, piercing social commentary, but I lost the message. Though the themes of reputation, suggestion, casual misogyny, and personal responsibility are important, they’re brushed off and mishandled. I mean, after all of that, “be aware of how your actions may hurt others” seems kind of weak. If you want a message that resonates, try resilience. Laurie Halse Anderson does this to beautiful effect in Wintergirls and Speak. I also can’t help but draw parallels to Easy A, which I recently rewatched. There’s a girl who’s the victim of untrue rumors, a guy who loves her despite them, and ostracizing forces. Olive comes out on top by persevering, by owning her own truth.

It’s sad the central premise fails because Hannah’s observations of human nature are sharp. She was insightful, even if she sometimes jumped to the wrong conclusions. When she was right though, she was really, really right. (The character of the “nice girl” was spot on, as was her concept of “waiting.”) Having this knowledge and moving past it would make an electrifying story. How much more messy or complex would this idea be if she made all of these tapes and was alive to face the backlash? That’s bravery. That would be an interesting ending.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I wasn’t totally turned off by this book, but it didn’t do much for me either. If I were to date Mr. Jacob de Zoet, I’d probably tell him “You’re attractive, I guess, but there’s no spark.” Then again, I’ve never been one to fawn over the showoff. The “look what I can do” guy never appealed to me. I’ve always wanted to ask “why?” to that guy: “Why, why in heaven’s name, do you want to jump off that swingset?!?”

As a disclaimer, I have no context for David Mitchell. I know that he has intertextual tendencies and that his body of work is wildly varied. (Anybody out there that read and loved one of his previous books? Recommend them!) I’m not sure what his pet issues are or whether Jacob was a labor of love. All I know is what is put in front of me.

This novel is told in three parts, each with its own close focus on Dutch, Japanese, and British characters. Unfortunately, the separate sections made it hard maintain my level of investment/interest. The cast switched with each part, and the characters from the last section took their sweet time reappearing. This frustrating effect may have been remedied with a uniting tone, but each section had its own distinct diction and pacing. Subsequently, Jacob felt a little schizophrenic, more like three novels than one. (To me, the most successful parts were the gripping prologue and the second section, which focus primarily on the Japanese cast.)

I wish the novel added up to the sum of its parts. Mitchell pulls off a slew of genres (heroic journey, bildungsroman, thriller, dystopian, political commentary, war story, intrigue) in isolation, and his attention to historical detail was impressive. There’s some neat storytelling buried in here! He works hard to subvert expectations, constantly playing a shell game with the reader. The subterfuge, outmaneuverings, and shifting allegiances enliven the sometimes dense diction. One great scene reminded me very pleasantly of The Princess Bride: “Never go in against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line!”

Other the other hand, the characterization didn’t do it for me. The majority of the time, it felt like Mitchell was moving chess pieces around on a board (with a few exceptions). It’s always interesting when a character chooses the least sensible thing possible, but when you can see the machinations, it’s unappealing.

Mitchell clearly has an affinity for language and dialogue. I loved the interaction between the Dutch and their Japanese translators, and their back-and-forth was an illuminating way to showcase cultural sensibilities. I also stumbled across pieces of lovely phrasing in his prose (“ruckled” to describe snow), though his dialogue was hit or miss. Parts are playful, but mostly the extended conversations veered on self-indulgent. At times, Mitchell was more parrot or ventriloquist than author. Some of his characters simply ran away with him, like he didn’t know when to cut them off. These over-the-top discourses just made me want to scream “Restraint, please, restraint!” (And I read a TON of YA.)

I had a professor who told me once that modern writers love to “wallow in the piss and shit and excrement of life.” Well, yes. Jacob, in short succession, gets peed on by a monkey in front of his forbidden ladylove and slips on human feces after he gets demoted. Look, we get it. This guy is on the receiving end of life’s suck, but that just seems gratuitous. Not to mention the graphic depiction of gout sores. These episodes don’t really serve the plot, but they say to the reader “Check out how gritty and real I am.” (Hey, I’m all for graphic violence and gross-out when it serves the story.)

Ultimately, what kept me from really liking Jacob was how self-aware it was. Every time I’d finally settle into the story, there would be a moment that would pull me out: “Oh, I’m reading a ‘Novel,’ aren’t I?” The author never disappeared.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Crank it to Eleven!

Since it is Marathon Monday, I figured today would be a good time to do a Dozen Dash check-in. I'm right in the middle, heading for the famous hills, staring down Heartbreak. (In my case, Heartbreak Hill looks like a 991-page epic fantasy and 562 pages of Literature.) There's been a few changes in the line-up, and I'm still scrambling for reviews, but I think I'll make it out OK.

As you can see, I've subbed out two books and added another. (The BPL's hold/renewal system works in mysterious ways.) I guess I can't really call it "The Dozen Dash" anymore, so here's to "Crank it to Eleven!"

1. Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell (Review here!)
2. Scumble by Ingrid Law
3. Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund (Review here!)
4. Room by Emma Donoghue (Review here!)
5. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Review here!)
6. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell (Review here!)
7. The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (Review here!)
8. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
9. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (Review here!)
10. A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates
11. Across the Universe by Beth Revis (Review here!)

It's time to buckle down and do some serious legwork. All encouragement greatly appreciated!

Friday, April 15, 2011

There gloom the dark, broad seas.

Seeing that it is National Poetry Month, I don’t see why I shouldn’t continue on my little lyrical kick. Similar in spirit to my previous selection, this poem is one that has stuck with me over the years. Every single time I read it over, I find new things to cling to and old things to burnish with repeated touch.

I suppose I’ve always had a soft spot for Odysseus. He’s the trickster with a touch of nobility, the cultural questing hero, favored and tested, adrift and purposeful. His journey caught my imagination when I was younger, and these reflections on his journey (as imagined by Tennyson) are nothing short of magnificent. The language is a banquet in itself, and the emotion is palpable. I would venture to say that Ulysses is a perfect poem—epic, contemplative, and stirring. (T.S. Eliot apparently agrees with me.) One could do worse than live out the life described here.

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,---
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me ---
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads --- you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: Gail Caldwell's Let’s Take the Long Way Home

“It’s an old, old story. I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that too.'”

With that opening, I was caught. Let’s Take the Long Way Home squeezed and released my heart in unpredictable intervals, easing up the pressure just a bit before tightening again. Caldwell crafts her story with a curator’s touch and an acrobat’s grace, spinning so many different plates in the air and coming back to them just as they’re about to fall. With wrenching details and sweet callbacks, she sets the halls of the past echoing with her barrage of memories.

“Men don’t really understand women’s friendships, do they?”
“Oh G-d, no. And we must never tell them.”

The friendship depicted in Let’s Take the Long Way Home is borderline romantic comedy fodder. Two women meet at a party, but don’t hit it off. They are reintroduced by their mutual dog trainer who thinks they’re perfect for each other. The pair circle each other warily, discover remarkable similarities, and soon are inseparable. Caldwell writes of Caroline: “Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived.”

Caroline and Caldwell’s unshakeable connection is the beating heart of the book. They first bond over their dogs, but they quickly invade every possible part of each other’s lives, becoming pleasantly enmeshed. Caldwell pins down the multitude of ways friends bleed into each other at the edges, and one of my favorite anecdotes deals with shorthand born from shared experiences. My housemates and I have our own version of “I’m afraid Lilian is stealing the dog again,” their way of saying “Your worries are ridiculous and out-of-control but I still love you.” (We call it “pulling a U-Haul.”)

Of course, there’s unconditional support between the friends—cheerleading writing successes and taking even the silliest of neuroses seriously—but equally interesting to me was the friendly rivalry played out through athletics. These two women are intensely physical, regularly taking hikes together with their dogs, so it makes sense that they want to try their hand at each other’s sports. (Both gravitate toward water, Caroline a lifelong rower and Caldwell a devoted swimmer.) Their similar drives to be good at what their friend loves was riveting. It is a testament to Caldwell’s writing that I was so invested in her attempts at sculling. Not only did I understand her desire deeply, I even wanted to try it myself. This want bloomed from nothing because of her words. (I felt the same way about Elizabeth Gilbert and meditation.)

Since Caldwell brought Caroline to life through her pages, Caroline’s absence floored me. Caldwell's grief and her processing of it was so complete. The loss of any person severs a connection, setting the fears that had a home adrift. The one who survives must deal with the absence of a presence but also everything around it—the shared lexicon, memories, routines. Perhaps the most telling detail: Caldwell’s dog Clementine still looked around for Caroline every time she heard the same model of Caroline’s car being unlocked.

An additional bonus of this memoir is its accessible setting. Since Caldwell and Caroline lived literally/literarily right in my neighborhood of Cambridge, I swelled with local pride every time I recognized names: Fresh Pond, the Middlesex Fells, the reservoir, winding back through Somerville, the boathouses lining the river. (I can actually go down to the Charles and have a paddle whenever I want!) These familiar places brought the reality of the story even closer to home.

Honestly, this book is an automatic Top 10 of the Year. The prose, the situation, the people involved…Flawless. Beauty etched from pain. Even Caldwell by herself is fascinating. It is a memoir, after all. Her battle with alcoholism, her bond with her dog, and, above all, her preservation of Caroline’s memory drew me in. I appreciated this glimpse into the head of a woman who chose to eschew romantic relationships in favor of a family of friends. I identified with her and smarted with her when an ex-boyfriend said “You know, sometimes the light of you is just a little too bright.” He could have been right, though it wouldn’t be so bad if he were. Caldwell found what she needed elsewhere.

As someone whose has experienced the vast spectrum of female friendship, its highest highs and lowest lows, I feel comfortable saying that my female friends are vital to my survival. They sustain me and enrich my life to an impossible degree. I believe just as strongly that Gail and Caroline were soulmates, a designation I consider no less powerful for being platonic and not romantic. I can’t know if I’ll have a Caroline in my life (time will tell), but I do know I will be returning to this book and this friendship many, many times.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Diana Peterfreund's Ascendant

I’ve talked about the Second Book in a Trilogy Commandment before, and Peterfreund follows it religiously in Ascendant. Things get markedly more complicated for our intrepid unicorn hunter Astrid. Whereas she once had the clear-cut question of life or death, she now has to choose between life, death, and ethics. Luckily for the reader, Astrid—well away from the Cloisters, the other Hunters, the immediate threat of unicorn attack, and other external stressors—is considerably more interesting for this choice.

Isolated in the French countryside due to a nice plot twist, Astrid finally has the space to determine who she will be. The clash of who she was before (an aspiring doctor) and who she is now (a finely-honed killing machine with mystical powers) offers plenty of drama, as does the reappearance of an old flame. (He, predictably, has no regard for her long-distance boyfriend Giovanni.) I felt all of this conflict was earned, and more importantly, I could understand the draw of each option.

This chance for self-definition is offered by Isabeau Jaeger, an intriguing figure with a scientific interest in unicorns. A woman of impeccable taste and refined sensibilities, Isabeau is feline and feminine, the mother figure Astrid so sorely needs. (I do love a well-written shopping trip, and this woman brings the goods.) I also appreciated the feminist perspective Isabeau brings to a range of subjects, continuing the conversation I pointed out in my review of Rampant. However, when someone seems too good to be true, they usually are. (She does wear her shades of gray fashionably.)

I respect that Peterfreund isn’t afraid to break her characters, to show the cracks in their armor. (She certainly roughs up Astrid!) This destruction is necessary for the growth of the story, as Peterfreund brings forth unexpected shoots from beneath the rubble. These small discoveries and victories offset the grim tone of the book, and they kept me turning the page.

On the whole, Ascendant is an opening up. (I can’t believe there’s no contracted conclusion at the moment!) The mythology is deepened, and the world is expanded. Answers are given, but they only lead to more mysteries. Perhaps the best mystery are the unicorns themselves, indisputably dangerous yet still something wild and wonderful. Their savage complexity raises some relevant conservation questions, specifically what is owed to a species that is a threat to human existence. Astrid is right at the heart of this matter, a girl with the power to eradicate magic or preserve it. The tension between the known and the unknown is finely drawn, and I hope Peterfreund gets the chance to finish what she started.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Trust your heart, and trust your story.

I'm pacing myself through the Dozen Dash with 3 books read and 3 reviews outlined. Eyes on the prize!

Still feeling a little dazed and sentimental, as I think is appropriate in any time of transition. I have a few poems that I like to read when I'm in this type of mood, and I think I'll post them this week.

It's no secret that Neil Gaiman writes some killer novels, though I love his poetry just as much. "Blueberry Girl" is darling, but it is "Instructions" that has my heart.

by Neil Gaiman

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say "please" before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.

From the back garden you will be able to see the
wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter's
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.

Once through the garden you will be in the
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the under-
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December's frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.

Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).

There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your
journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
And rest.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Dear 16-Year-Old Amy

(I stumbled across this awesome site yesterday, and those brave, funny, touching letters are the inspiration for this post.)

Hey teenage Amy,

You aren’t that far away, but now I’m as close to 30 as I am to you. (Totally freaky, right?) You seem much closer, and I have you to thank for that. You see, awkward 16-year-old me, you started keeping a regular journal that summer between sophomore and junior year. I have your daily thoughts and feelings and hopes to thumb through if I ever feel like I’m losing you. You’re funny, sweet, and confused. I like seeing the world through your eyes.

Luckily, my dear, you didn’t peak then. You’ll find boys to kiss. You’ll discover how badly honesty hurts and how much it helps. You’ll learn what it’s like to be completely accepted by a group of people. (It’s amazing. You’ll grow in so many ways, and our friends are really funny, interesting folks.) You’ll come to terms with that body of ours, even if I’m still working on total acceptance. I know you were often uncomfortable, wishing for smaller breasts, but you’ll grow into them. They still don’t define us.

I’m not running as much, but I do what I can. I keep healthy and eat way better than you ever did, so stop worrying. It still makes me happy to lace up my shoes and go out for a few miles. I think it’s because I feel closer to you when I do.

I’m still reading like a crazy person. Writing too! You laid a good foundation for me. You always liked to keep in touch, to write letters, and to care too hard. Good for you, honeybee. Some people are worth holding on to. Your family is only going to get cooler, by the way. Our little sister rocks, and she’s older than you now! Our parents are the best people I know. I know you have glimpses of thankfulness, but that’s nothing compared to the deep gratitude I feel now.

I don’t regret much. What we did in between you and me was really great. I couldn’t have asked for a better late high school/college experience, and soon we’ll be off to New York for the Columbia Publishing Course. When you were sixteen and spending your first summer in the city, taking classes at Barnard and starting your journal, you never imagined you’d end up exactly here. We’re living the dream.

~Amy <3

PS. Thank goodness you’re growing out your bangs, but listen to your mom when she tells you to cut your hair. It’s way too long. Ah, well…You’ll figure that out on your own.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Dozen Dash

The Boston Marathon is coming up, and though I didn’t train for it, I feel a certain kinship with these brave souls. You see, I have my own little race coming up in the next few weeks. Let’s call it the “Dozen Dash.”

Backstory: I make very good use of my library’s hold system. (What up, BPL! Word.) I try to plan my requests so that I have a pleasant mix of genres/popularity. Generally, it works, and I am a giddy little bookworm with a manageable reading load. Sometimes though, my literary eyes are bigger than my stomach. This is one of those times.

A whole barrage of books came in right on top of each other, mostly new and highly prized titles. After I made happy hold notification noises, I picked them up on Saturday and staggered home under their weight. I’m so stoked to have all of these books staring at me from my nightstand, but there’s a teeny, tiny problem: I can’t renew ANY of them.

All the titles I have now are on their 5th renewal cycle or are requested by other library patrons. What this means for me: I have a lot of reading to do! Normally, I get through 6-7 books a month and post their reviews in a timely manner. This schedule doesn’t stress me out and leaves time for work/socialization. However, I’ve got 12 books that need to be read/reviewed before April 30th. That is DOUBLE my normal output.

I’m either crazy or up for a challenge. Let’s just say the second one, OK? Here’s the lineup (in no particular order):

1. Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell (Review here!)
2. Scumble by Ingrid Law
3. Ascendant by Diana Peterfreund (Review here!)
4. Room by Emma Donoghue
5. Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim
6. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
7. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
8. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
9. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
10. The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
11. A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates
12. You Wish by Mandy Hubbard

…Wish me luck! I hope I don’t sprain a muscle.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus

So, that review I posted earlier? Now, it's on full display in its new home on The Ranting Dragon. (Read: Ahhhh! It's up! It's up! Ahhhh!) I'm so pleased. Minimal revisions too! (Forgive me for being so tickled. I'm seriously, like, the least cool person I know.) Thanks to TRD for this opportunity. And now, Pinky, I shall try to take over the world!

Review: Brenna Yovanoff's The Replacement

(Ed. Note: Today’s review looks a little different because I submitted it to The Ranting Dragon! I won a lovely signed copy of this book from their 2011 Locus Challenge, and Stephan of TRD reached out to me, asking if I’d contribute a review. Of course, I said yes! I’ll let you all know when it’s posted. For now, you can check me out in their “Upcoming Reviews” queue.)

Brenna Yovanoff debuts on the dark side of YA with The Replacement. This standalone tale of sacrifice and secrets follows Mackie Doyle, a replacement left in the crib of a human child. Sixteen years have passed since the real Malcolm Doyle was taken, and Mackie’s increasingly violent reactions to iron, blood, and consecrated ground mean he is slowly dying in the human world. His deteriorating condition and the theft of a classmate’s baby sister drive him to seek answers from the mysterious beings living beneath the town of Gentry. Mackie’s fate rests in the balance of his two worlds, but everything he knows is about to topple.

To start, I loved the angle. More often than not, changeling stories depict how far a loved one will go to get their own child back. What happens when the changeling is the focus of the story? What if the family acknowledges the replacement, accepts him into the family, and loves him in spite of it? How does the changeling feel when he realizes what he is?

The characters, aboveground

In many ways, Mackie is a typical teenager. He checks out girls, plays music, and is obsessed with fitting in. Granted, his desire to blend in is based partly in survival; too much attention is a death sentence. At the same time, his worsening symptoms mean he can’t survive in the home he’s known. There’s a lot of pain in that realization, and it pushes Mackie from his passive position, forcing him to actively participate in his life.

While Mackie’s narrative voice is compelling, I also grew attached to his family and friends. Yovanoff surrounds her protagonist with fully fleshed-out people—protective parents, an unwavering sister, a charismatic best friend, mischievous twin inventors, and a wounded love interest—who transcend their generic descriptions. They keep his secrets and put their lives on the line, convincing both Mackie and the reader that he is someone worth saving. Their fierce affection is what grounds Mackie aboveground, the real reason he so desperately wants to be human.

The setting, background

The town of Gentry is a place with a gruesome history. Its secrets are twisted into the lives of its inhabitants, though some are more aware of the influence than others. This backstory is unraveled slowly, dragged out of characters who would prefer to stay silent. At the heart of the town’s implicit pact is a question about knowledge and responsibility, but it never feels like a heavy-handed “issue.”

Yovanoff writes each part of her novel with the same light touch. Her prose is artistically unobtrusive—flowing but not lyrical, clever but not too cute. As if to offset this restraint, the physical book is gorgeously ornamented. The book jacket and inside design interact harmoniously, referencing the text and feeding the reading experience.

The mythology, grounded

The backbone of The Replacement is the changeling mythology, so it follows that Yovanoff has done her research. She crafts Gentry’s Unseelie underbelly with care, populating it with eerie figures, their customs, and their politics. There are some nasty creatures crawling around in the darkness, but just as many of the underground dwellers are charming.

A particularly well-done aspect is the literal faerie band. Music is deeply embedded in faerie lore, but Yovanoff makes it make sense in a modern context. Her descriptions are evocative, giving music the visceral power it has in person yet rarely receives in writing.

Why should you read this book?

If you like your tales more faerie than fairy and more Grimm than Disney, this creepy bildungsroman is for you. The Replacement adds a great masculine voice to YA in Mackie—a reluctant hero but a hero nonetheless. You should definitely spend some time getting to know him and discovering what’s lurking beneath the town of Gentry.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Spam = Not Delicious

I've had a few spammers sneak by the filter recently, and I don't want to keep deleting their comments. I'd rather just not post them in the first place. (FYI: The only comments I've ever removed on this blog are the people "advertising" where they shouldn't be.)

So, it's come down to this. I'm going to turn on the comment moderation option, which means your lovely and welcomed reactions won't show up immediately anymore. (They'll now show up semi-immediately, as I'm a compulsive email checker.) I'm sad because I love free forums of discussion, but them's the internets. Keep posting! Still can't wait to hear your thoughts. The blog's not the blog without y'all.