Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Game of Thrones Withdrawal: Part the Third

ISBN-10: 0316001945
ISBN-13: 9780316001946
Published: Back Bay Books, 09/06/2011
Pages: 432
Language: English
Game of Thrones has often been praised (rightly) for its strong female characters, so I thought it would be appropriate to recommend an excellent myth-shredding biography by Stacy Schiff of a woman who could have out-schemed Cersei Lannister any day of the week: Cleopatra. Schiff paints a portrait of Cleopatra as the consummate survivor: a woman who survived a brutal civil war with her own brother, endless court machinations, massive riots, and the Roman Empire's descent into chaos. Yet today she is mostly remembered through the lens of Roman bad press. Even Shakespeare's (arguably) sympathetic depiction of Cleopatra is swamped in layers of Orientalism that have helped turn a brilliant strategist into an emblem of exotic femininity. It's unsurprising that Schiff's history has been portrayed as feminist, but it's really only feminist to the extent that reality is feminist-- there are no agendas here. In an era of books encouraging women to Lean In, I would suggest reading about a woman who did a little more than lean.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Hugo-nominated Morsel

ISBN-10: 0316081051 ISBN-13: 9780316081054 Published: Orbit, 04/27/2010 Pages: 608 Language: English
Let's be honest, most zombie fiction deserves a bullet in the brain-pan, so it was with great trepidation that I started Mira Grant's Feed, the first entry in the pun-happy author's Newsflesh trilogy. Feed and its two sequels, Deadline and Blackout, were all nominated for Hugo Awards, arguably genre fiction's highest honor, and I thought it might be worth investigating the books behind this impressive streak. After reading the first entry, I can confidently say that fans of the walking dead or science fiction dystopias should give it a look.

At a fat 608 pages, Feed looks like a bit of a brick, but Grant's writing is breezy enough and her plotting is tight enough that it can be easily devoured in a few days. Grant may not be a prose stylist on the level of Colson Whitehead-- whose Zone One is and will remain the greatest zombie book of all time, forever and ever, amen-- but she does make her grim scenario compulsively readable. Oh, and what a scenario. Right out of the gate, Feed's premise is terrific: George Romero's vision has come true thanks to a deadly virus called Kellis-Amberlee, but instead of getting torn to pieces, humanity survived and adapted. 

One of the major changes Grant makes to the zombie mythos is that the virulence of the disease and the measures futuristic America will take to contain it are often more threatening than the zombies themselves. It's a neat trick that makes the appearance of actual shambling corpses more or less irrelevant, which is good because Grant avoids gore and action set-pieces in favor of muck-raking investigating journalism (yep, you read that right). Her story follows a couple of truth-obsessed bloggers uncovering a conspiracy that the Old Media can't be bothered to tackle. There's a great deal of sociopolitical commentary going on here, as is typical in ambitious zombie works,  along with a heaping dose of hard-boiled-reporter-worship that would make even Stieg Larsson say "that's a bit much, don't you think?" Still, the points she makes are valid and, above all, the book is just fun. If you like the idea of Night of the Living Dead mixed with All the President's Men, this one is a must-read.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Game of Thrones Withdrawal: Part the Second

ISBN-10: 0316193569
ISBN-13: 9780316193566
Published: Orbit, 10/01/2011
Pages: 576
Language: English
George R.R. Martin has long been credited with bringing gritty realism to the realm of fantasy, but he looks positively soft-hearted compared to the criminally overlooked Joe Abercrombie, who has been elevating cynicism to high art in his First Law Trilogy and stand-alone works Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and, most recently, Red Country. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to get to Red Country yet, so I thought I would focus this entry on my favorite Abercrombie book: The Heroes. The entirety of the novel focuses on an epic three-day battle between the rebellious Northern army and the imperialistic Union forces over a worthless hill. The strengths of the book lie in its characterizations-- Abercombie jumps between numerous fleshed-out characters on both sides of the conflict-- his thrilling but entirely un-romanticized fight scenes, and a vein of bitter, dark humor that takes unsettling aim at humanity's worst tendencies.

For a book with enough swordplay and gore to last several Game of Thrones novels, Abercrombie's book is thoroughly anti-war. The title is mostly a sarcastic joke, as even those characters that fight with true heroism often turn out to be psychologically damaged misfits, truly sad creatures that are discarded as soon as the warring ends. In Abercrombie's world, war is an inevitability brought about by human weakness and greed-- there are no good guys, no bad guys, and nobody really wins. In many ways, this is the fantasy novel that Kurt Vonnegut would write, and if that doesn't sell you on it, I don't know what will.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Award Well Deserved

ISBN-10: 0812982622
ISBN-13: 9780812982626
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Pages: 480
Language: English

Since the Pulitzer Prize Committee generously decided to offer an actual award for fiction this year instead of simply grumbling that 'they don't write 'em like they used to,' I thought I would take a moment to give credit where credit is due, and admit that they picked a great book. If you don't already know, The Orphan Master's Son follows the harrowing life of an orphan (but not really, it's complicated) in North Korea, depicted here as a nightmare state that could have been dreamed up by George Orwell. By all accounts Adam Johnson did his research, and the story feels terrifyingly real. In fact, The Orphan Master's Son is a crucial window into the world's most secretive country, perhaps only bested by the amazing nonfiction account Escape From Camp 14.

So, Johnson's book is no walk in the park, but if you can tough out the really grim parts, he diversifies the book's tone with a surprising amount of humor, romance, and beautiful surrealist set pieces. The Orphan Master's Son has been called Dickensian a million times already due to its rags-to-riches-to-rags structure, but the book really deserves the comparison for its epic scope and the beating, humanist heart that persists throughout the protagonist's numerous trials. Not to mention the beautiful, beautiful writing. Structurally, artistically, the book is a marvel-- as a work of pure compassion, though, it is almost unmatched.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

It's History...It's Biography...It's Superman!

ISBN-10: 1118341848
ISBN-13: 9781118341841
Published: John Wiley & Sons
Pages: 352
Language: English
I came to Superman: The Unauthorized Biography with a number of biases. For one, I am a long-time listener of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour program, on which the author of this very book, Glen Weldon, serves as a regular defender of genre work and all manner of strange nerdery against the sometimes monochromatic attitudes of fellow NPR staff members-- no offense, Linda, Stephen, and Trey! Second, I am the kind of comic books fan who takes them very seriously and will shout at you if you call Watchmen a graphic novel. Third, and finally, while I enjoy many of his comics and the Richard Donner films, I have no great love for Superman as a character. I much prefer the broodier, morally murky Batman and take particular, quasi-sadistic pleasure in the regular beat-downs he has served the Big Blue Boy Scout in the comics. However, as Weldon's book proves, ignoring Superman's long, fascinating history and shifting symbolic importance would be a true crime.

The central thesis of Weldon's book is that Superman is not merely a static character, but has instead changed over time to suit the desires and anxieties of different eras. Weldon identifies only two core character traits that define The Man of Steel through every (faithful) iteration: he puts the safety of others above himself and he never gives up. This built-in simplicity made it possible for Superman to start out as a roguish power fantasy and morph into a living embodiment of patriotism during World War II, a Jesus-like figure of compassion during the Christopher Reeve years, and even a painfully out-of-touch, mullet-sporting relic in the nineties. Superman is a truly American myth, and any understanding of America's cultural history would be incomplete without factoring in The Last Son of Krypton. So, even if you can't tell Kal-El from Mr. Mxyzptlk, Weldon's book serves as an informative primer for any Super-newbie, and a fascinating close-reading of Superman's body of work, full of revelations for even the Super-fan.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Perfect Reader

I haven't let Hank take over the blog completely to those readers who are wondering what happened to me. Between the Tournament of Books over on The Morning News and World Book Night (WBN) later this month I was a bit tied up.  Familiarize yourself with both and you'll have a new reading lists for your book clubs.

(More about books for WBN to be picked up at Flyleaf coming soon.)

This post comes to us thanks to Book Riot, an excellent blog related to all things bookish. Now, being a firm believer in many of these attributes of perfect readers, this is not my list and I may not agree with all of them. If I did I'd have to admit that I am not the perfect reader and that would make me very sad indeed. Please feel free to add to the list by leaving a comment. That's how Book Riot came up with these in the first place.

  1. The perfect reader reads in translation, but prefers to read in the original language.
  2. The perfect reader reads 50% books by women and 50% books by men.
  3. The perfect reader buys exclusively hardbacks from independent bookstores.
  4. The perfect reader prefers print.
  5. The perfect reader likes plot but doesn’t need it.
  6. The perfect reader reads every line.
  7. The perfect reader makes their reading decisions based on professional reviews.
  8. The perfect reader did the book club reading.
  9. The perfect reader likes a little genre, but not enough to hurt them.
  10. The perfect reader is thrilled that kids are reading YA and hopes it leads them to pick up some serious literature eventually.
  11. The perfect reader saw the movie and thought it had some strong points, but preferred the book.
  12. The perfect reader worries about the future of the American novel.
  13. The perfect reader knew of the work of the most recent Nobel Laureate already.
  14. The perfect reader appreciates an ambiguous ending.
  15. The perfect reader tweets something nice about every book he/she reads, but knows that when you have nothing nice to say it’s better to say nothing at all.
  16. The perfect reader understood Ulysses.
  17. The perfect reader doesn’t let their personal beliefs and experience interfere with their reading of a book.
  18. The perfect reader remembers when literature was at the center of cultural life. 
  19. The perfect reader can keep the Brontes straight.
  20. The perfect reader doesn’t crease the spine.
  21. The perfect reader reads every book they are given as gifts.
  22. The perfect reader got the allusion.
  23. The perfect reader thinks that reading romance is really great for some people.
  24. The perfect reader doesn’t care what other people think of their reading. 
  25. The perfect reader is interested in and fully grasps the complexity of the publishing industry.
  26. The perfect reader cares what the author meant.
  27. The perfect reader wishes poetry were more popular.
  28. The perfect reader appreciates an hour-long author reading.
  29. The perfect reader always looks up the word.
  30. The perfect reader knows which one was proud and which one was prejudiced.
  31. The perfect reader never hesitates to loan their books. 
  32. The perfect reader is happy to discuss the book they are reading with the person in the seat beside them.
  33. The perfect reader always makes it to the end.
  34. The perfect reader gets over the misogyny, homophobia, and sexism of the classics, because hey those were the times.
  35. The perfect reader is beginning to think about maybe trying a graphic novel.
  36. The perfect reader would never ban a book. 
  37. The perfect reader never reads the last chapter first just to know what happens.
  38. The perfect reader actually sort of prefers the extended whaling descriptions in Moby-Dick, to be honest.
  39. The perfect reader really misses all those newspaper book reviews.
  40. The perfect reader never gets a new book until they have finished all of the ones they already have. 
  41. The perfect reader gets the star-rating exactly right.
  42. The perfect reader is such a keen thinker that they immediately pick up on satire and congratulate the writer’s insight, insouciance, and devilish ingenuity.

(Thanks also to a bunch of Book Riot contributors for ideas. Perfect readers, all).

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Game of Thrones Withdrawal Syndrome

ISBN-10: 0199931526
ISBN-13: 9780199931521
Published: Oxford University Press
Pages: 273
Language: English
Readers, I have a fever, and the only prescription is more Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, I've read all of the books (multiple times) and the excellent HBO adaptation, believe it or not, takes week-long breaks between episodes! Under the assumption that some of you might be suffering from the same affliction, I have decided to initiate a series of recommendations tentatively entitled: A Song of Books That I Really Like, and That Have Lots of Violence and Politicking and Maybe a Little Romance, Cause, You Know, Girls. It's a working title.

For the first entry, I'd like to recommend the tale of an extremely powerful king, ruling over a vast tract of land, who dies without an apparent heir and leaves his former allies to duke it out in a bloody battle for supremacy. Sounds like the stuff of epic fantasy, right? Well, guess what-- *record scratch*-- it's all true! Histories of Alexander the Great and his impressive conquests often tend to ignore the equally significant and fascinating aftermath, when his talented generals started to carve up the barely established empire into smaller and smaller pieces. Waterfield's history is a fantastic evocation of the rapid shifts in fortune, bloody battles, back-stabbings and diplomatic maneuvering that would eventually produce the stable(ish) Hellenistic political landscape that lasted for centuries on. It's gripping stuff. Plus, Waterfield manages to describe all of that action in about the same amount of pages that George R.R. Martin would devote to one feast (Zing!).

So, dear theoretical reader, take a little stroll through Post-Alexandrian history and ward off those Throne-less blues. If you have any suggestions for later entries in this extremely well-defined series, let me know. The only real requirement is epicness. Be quick about it: winter is coming.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Don't Judge a Book...

ISBN-10: 1400067685
ISBN-13: 9781400067688
Published: Random House, 03/26/2013
Pages: 336
Language: English
In honor of Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge, coming to give a reading at Flyleaf books tomorrow at noon, I thought I would see what all the fuss is about and check out her latest novel, The Burgess Boys. Now, I normally live and read by one very simple, succinct rule: any book that Oprah enjoys, I probably won't. There have been exceptions-- Cormac McCarthy and Zora Neale Hurston come to mind-- but, in general, I have found it to be a reliable indicator of which popular books I should avoid-- I usually prefer a much higher dragon-to-page ratio than Oprah's Book Club entries deliver. So, I entered into The Burgess Boys with no small amount of trepidation, fearing overwrought family drama and mid-life crises. Instead, I found extremely well-wrought family drama and mid-life crises.

See, it turns out that Elizabeth Strout is a really, really good writer. She can put a sentence together with the best of them, and her characterizations are piercingly accurate. The action ostensibly centers around a sort-of (it's complicated) hate crime in a fictional small town in Maine, but the book is really about the emotional fallout among the Burgesses as ancient grudges and resentments resurface among the extended family. At a slim three hundred-odd pages, Strout's novel wields a staggering emotional heft without any manufactured melodrama.

So, would I recommend it? Yes, highly, and not just to my mom (although I have recommended it to my mom). When The Burgess Boys is inevitably given the Oprah stamp of approval, I guess I'll have another title I'll have to add to my list of exceptions. If you can, make it out to the reading at Flyleaf books tomorrow-- grab a ticket in advance, there's sure to be a big crowd-- and see for yourself why Elizabeth Strout deserves every bit of the hype.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Not About Sheep

ISBN-10: 1476733953
ISBN-13: 9781476733951
Published: Simon & Schuster, 03/12/2013
Pages: 528
Language: English
Let's face it, self-publishing is a nightmare from which few escape to enjoy a film deal or a spot on the New York Times bestsellers list, so when an author actually manages to do it through some strange alchemy (and their book is not a modified piece of Twilight fan fiction) it's like seeing a unicorn or a shooting star. Now, when it turns out that said author wrote his science fiction novel in installments while working full-time at a bookstore the whole thing starts to seem more and more like a daydream I had about myself. So Hugh Howey, author of Wool and by all accounts a real person, has certainly  pulled off something quite extraordinary, but does that make his book worth reading?  

In a word: yes. In several more words: Howey doesn't try to reinvent science fiction like genre-busting literary stars China Mieville or Paolo Bacigalupi. In fact, his book is decidedly old-school in its plotting, characterizations, and sensibility, and its success is proof of the sturdiness of time-worn conventions used by (among many, many others) Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Walter M. Miller. Howey's ambitious, century-spanning narrative structure bears more than a passing similarity to Asimov's Foundation series and Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, both classic works well worth emulating. 

Howey writes from the perspective of numerous characters who live in a silo, a self-contained underground city that protects the last members of the human race from Earth's now-poisonous atmosphere. Howey's world-building surpasses the natural limitations proscribed by the plot with an impressive amount of detail, and his plotting is tight as a drum, doling out mysteries and revelations at just the right pace. Wool is a page-turner, but there's plenty of weighty themes and allegory to chew on if you want to dig deeper. Ultimately, Howey's book is a portrait of extreme claustrophobia, of humanity forced to live outside of its evolutionary comfort zone and the desperation that results. When the really rough stuff starts, the reader is left to deal with the uncomfortable notion that the conflict might be part of an inevitable cycle rather than an aberrant clash between good and evil.

But don't worry, this isn't a hellish read like The Road or Infinite Jest-- I kid, I kid-- it's a crackerjack story in a grand old tradition that's grand and old for a reason.