Thursday, October 2, 2014

Rereading Howard's End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from HomeJust as Susan Hill revisits favorite and forgotten books in this charming memoir, I bought myself a copy and read it again, appreciating it more, I think, than two years ago, since I'd read and heard of more of the writers she covers.

The book begins with Ms. Hill going to the shelf on the landing to look for a book and not finding it; instead, she finds several other books which she's never read or forgotten she owned (or both). This sparks a resolution to read almost exclusively (with the exception of review copies) from books on her shelves; in other words, to buy no new books for a whole year, in itself a daunting resolve. But I'm certainly glad she decided to, for in Howards End is on the Landing, Hill charts her way through many books both famous and obscure, musing on the way about all sorts of things, from the Internet ("Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration...Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition...) to people to writing. I really liked that quote about the Internet; there's a bit more before, between and after the ellipses, but her general idea is there, and it's all too true.

Fourteen books ended up on my radar as of interest because of this book, and for that alone it's worth reading; Susan Hill introduced me to several interesting sounding authors who I'd never even heard of before. The book is concise and never boring, yet Hill does manage to cover a lot of ground, musing on a wide range of genres and authors, from classic mystery to Charles Dickens to W.G. Sebald. In between, she writes about literary experiences in her own life, from childhood trips to the library to becoming a member of an exclusive London library in college. She does sometimes boast about the famous writers she's had encounters with, but I suppose one can hardly blame her. Who wouldn't wish to recount bumping into E.M. Forster in the aforementioned library?

Much of my copy was bookmarked, because I found so many interesting passages and so many mentions of interesting books. Hill expounds upon books both famous and forgotten, classic and contemporary. One book that I'm really eager to read now is Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary; since reading A Room of One's Own, I haven't yet found another Woolf work to love wholeheartedly, and according to Hill A Writer's Diary is simply marvelous; she said it shaped her and led her to discover the rest of Woolf's oeuvre. I do need to try reading To the Lighthouse again as well, because Ms. Hill highly recommends it too

Susan Hill is both genteel and sharp; she's educated, refined, and reasonable, but not afraid to be critical of books and mindsets she is scornful of. And I loved that; that's my favorite kind of voice to spend an afternoon with, someone who's polished, well-spoken, elegant, and sharply clever. I was also quite fond of her British style, and envious of her vast and jumbled library. But now I have this volume for mine.

234 pages.

Rating: *****

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Thing with Feathers, Noah Strycker

The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being HumanImagine what might happen if birds studied us. Which human traits would catch their interest? How would they draw conclusions?

"Birds are highly intelligent animals, yet their intelligence is dramatically different from our own and has been little understood. As scientists come to understand more about the secrets of bird life, they are unlocking fascinating insights into memory, game theory, and the nature of intelligence itself. The Thing with Feathers explores the astonishing homing abilities of pigeons, the good deeds of fairy-wrens, the influential flocking abilities of starlings, the deft artistry of bowerbirds, the extraordinary memories of nutcrackers, the lifelong loves of albatross, and other mysteries—revealing why birds do what they do, and offering a glimpse into our own nature."

Despite the fact that its chatty nature was not dissimilar to Frankenstein's Cat, for some reason The Thing With Feathers charmed rather than annoyed me. It's not really hardcore, meticulously researched science, and it didn't ultimately come away with any grand conclusions about humanity, but the book was interesting and full of fascinating anecdotes. Although I was disappointed that crows and ravens were not given a section, I certainly learned a lot about many other types of birds (nutcrackers, a type of corvid, are featured).

The Thing With Feathers is divided into thirteen chapters, each focusing on a single trait of a specific species of bird. There are also three parts: body, mind, and spirit. In each section, Strycker muses on the nature of avian brainpower, and whether in certain cases these qualities are really a mark of intelligence or not. But that of courses poses the question of how one even defines intelligence, particularly in regards to animals. Because as Stycker reveals, there are plenty of astonishing things that birds can do that we cannot even begin to.

He begins with the seemingly miraculous navigational ability of the homing pigeon; in experiments, all outside stimulus that humans use to navigate was blocked off, and yet pigeons still managed to find their way home over hundreds of miles, despite being knocked out, blinded, and more. It seems pretty clear that pigeons are able to use magnetic fields to navigate, to name one example. This is certainly something humans are incapable of. So are pigeons smarter than us in this respect? 

Each chapter was fascinating in its own way, with lots of interesting tidbits of information; I learned a lot about various bird species, including starlings, hummingbirds, penguins, snowy owls, and vultures. Birds are just so enigmatic sometimes, and Noah Strycker conveys their mystery very well, especially with the snowy owls, who for no apparent reason come very far south in some years.

Vultures, too, are fascinating, if somewhat disgusting. Strycker chronicles several centuries worth of vulture experiments, all of which attempted to determine whether vultures use sight or smell to locate carcasses. His conclusions are surprising....

For those interested in avian behavior, The Thing with Feathers is a charming book worth reading. It's not very studious or in-depth, but I enjoyed it. 

263 pages. 

Rating: ****

A Return?

Sorry for my radio silence over the past...three months. I'm not really sure what happened, but I'm going to try to start posting and reviewing again occasionally. Things are really busy right now, but hopefully I can find time. No promises.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoEat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

The Omnivore's Dilemma revealed the dark underbelly of our modern food industry and discussed the ethics of it all; In Defense of Food talks specifically about the rise of "nutritionism", nutrition, and also how to start eating well and healthy again. The book was interesting enough, but a lot of it was old news to me, and it wasn't as thought out or as in depth as The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Still, the book was absorbing enough; I finished it fairly quickly, and parts of it were new to me. It was somewhat disheartening too; it's very difficult to find good sauces and such that do not contain hundreds of unpronounceable names (and usually high fructose corn syrup). They're all so terrible...

Pollan also discusses in depth the lipid phobia that seized the country in the second half of the 20th century. It's always a mistake to demonize one macronutrient and glorify another; on a low-fat diet, Americans have gotten fatter. Of course, I already knew much of this, but what was interesting to me was that the evidence that saturated fat actually increase chances of heart disease is quite sketchy. After all, it could be that diets high in saturated fat don't have as many vegetables and fruits, and that nutrients there keep the heart healthy. Or it could be due to entirely other factors.

Something that was fairly new to me was the whole general concept of "nutritionism": focusing on nutrients rather than food. Because frankly, there are so many factors to nutrition that it's nearly impossible to just break it down to nutrients and vitamins and minerals; there might be something else we're entirely overlooking. Pollan talks about the shift from talking about food to talking about nutrients in government policy; you see, food has lobbies and powerful interests. Nutrients do not. This was an area I didn't know much about, and was probably the most interesting part of the book. As was the history of flawed studies and misinformation that has plagued government healthy policy.

The thing was, Pollan spends all this time talking about how little is known about what's good and bad for you, and how it's a mistake to look too much at nutrients, but then he does pretty much the same thing in the second part of the book, praising omega-3's benefits and so on. Now I'm sure it's true that omega-3 fatty acids are needed (it's just common sense), but it seemed rather hypocritical to me. He does acknowledge that he's doing what he just criticized, but I still found it annoying.

At any rate, The Omnivore's Dilemma is the much better, more sophisticated and thoughtful book, but In Defense of Food was a quick overview of the history of modern nutrition, our current issues, and what to do about them.

201 pages.

Rating: ****

Greenglass House, Kate Milford

There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you're going to run a hotel in a smugglers' town. 

"A rambling old inn, a strange map, an attic packed with treasures, squabbling guests, theft, friendship, and an unusual haunting mark this smart middle grade mystery in the tradition of the Mysterious Benedict Society books and Blue Balliet’s Chasing Vermeer series."

Greenglass House was a quirky and rather amusing middle grade mystery; it was a light read that definitely hit the spot. Although it started better than it finished, I ultimately enjoyed it. The Boneshaker is a much better book though. 

The main character of Greenglass House is a Milo, a boy of about twelve who lives in a beautiful old house at the top of a hill, and not just any house. It's a smuggler's inn, and was originally owned by the famous smuggler of all. One December, normally a quiet season, a group of varied guests converges on the house, each with their own mysterious reasons for being there. Milo and Meddy, the cook's daughter (or so he believes) must figure out what exactly is going on, and whether anyone's there for nefarious purposes (hint: they are).  

Many of the characters are developed quite well, but really the only thing described is the purpose of their traveling to Greenglass House. A lot about each guest's backstory was left untold. The omission of one character's development also made it pretty obvious who the bad guy was as well. Nevertheless, I think younger readers will be engaged by the book, and I was certainly charmed, especially by the whole motif of storytelling woven throughout the book. 

One of my complaints in recent times with middle grade fiction is that everything feels forced and simplistic. By contrast, Greenglass House flowed quite smoothly, and if some elements of the mystery weren't tied together enough, it still made for an exciting read. It's also pretty much one of those smart middle grade books, featuring an intelligent protagonist and an interesting plot. 

The book's tone is really charming and old time; the setting and the some elements of the plot are quite quaint. It's also set right before Christmastime and to me it seemed as if the warmth of the holidays came across well on the page. At first, Milo is annoyed that his holiday has been disrupted, but he gradually starts to enjoy himself and realizes that in the end he's gotten a lot more than just physical gifts from the season. All of this makes the book's August 2014 release rather puzzling; to me, Greenglass House is best read around Christmas (if, unlike me, you celebrate it), and certainly as a warming winter read. The book's just really...cozy. And yet somewhat thrilling at the same time.

The Boneshaker remains my favorite middle grade novel by Kate Milford, but Greenglass House has some of the familiar quirkiness and eccentricity of all of her books. It was just as good as The Broken Lands, if not a little better. I wasn't wild about it,, but Greenglass House is a fun one. I received an ARC of the book from Harcourt; it doesn't release until August. 

373 pages (in the ARC). 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsWhat should we have for dinner? This book is a long and fairly involved answer to this seemingly simple question.

"Today, buffeted by one food fad after another, America is suffering from what can only be described as a national eating disorder. Will it be fast food tonight, or something organic? Or perhaps something we grew ourselves? The question of what to have for dinner has confronted us since man discovered fire. But as Michael Pollan explains in this revolutionary book, how we answer it now, as the dawn of the twenty-first century, may determine our survival as a species. Packed with profound surprises, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is changing the way Americans thing about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating."

The Omnivore's Dilemma is a fascinating and disturbing look at the state of the modern food industry, and at the alternatives that exist. Pollan chronicles the rise of monoculture farming and the advent of corn as the base of industrial agriculture. He visits many places that are a part of this system and some places that are defying it. What he comes back with is a very sobering portrait, yet there is some hope too. 

Before reading this book, I'd seen "Food, Inc." and read about the topic in some other sources, but I still learned a great deal in The Omnivore's Dilemma. It provides a lot more information in certain areas than the film; Pollan actually explains a whole lot in a clear, concise, and fascinating way. He starts off discussing corn, and how a combination of lack of forethought, industrial muscle, and the need to feed everyone made farms in places like Iowa shift from growing many fruits and vegetables to growing one (or in some cases, two). It's quite frightening, particularly when most of the corn isn't actually going towards human consumption. Instead, it's fed to cows living in miserable conditions, where it wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. Cows are not meant to eat corn; for thousands of years they have co-evolved with grass, so that the two organisms both benefit from the transaction. Corn causes all sorts of harmful bacteria to develop in the cow's rumen. The industrial giants' solution? Give the cattle antibiotics, which due to their power and influence are not forbidden. You don't even want to know what else goes into the cow's diet; sometimes they're fed recycled beef tallow from the slaughtering plant, and all sorts of other unhealthy supplements are put into their feed to help them bulk up and not be too sick. When in reality grass is all they really need to eat, and they'll be healthy (and healthier for us too). It's ridiculous really, when you think about all the energy and manpower that's put into growing miles and miles of corn, and all the calories that are lost, when grass presumably doesn't take much energy on our part at all (although it does take a lot of calculation). Of course, there are counterarguments; corn certainly is cheaper and easier to feed to cows than grass, and there are a lot of people who need feeding.

Similarly, many would say that grass-fed cows are unsustainable, which might be the case, but why would that really be? Grass and cows sustain each other in a relationship that goes back thousands and thousands of years, and the cows and the grass both are much healthier for it. We don't need to use manpower, fuel energy, or any of it to grow feed for the cows. I'm sure this is much simplified, but Pollan definitely makes a convincing case for a return to agricultural practices before the mid 20th century. He also spends a week living and working at Polyface Farms in Virginia, where the animals (cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits) eat what they're supposed to and lead relatively happy lives before the inevitably unhappy slaughter. I found this section quite interesting; while he kind of slips into idealizing this kind of farming, it's never completely so. After all, the chickens are still slaughtered, but before that everything is managed superbly, so that what would be waste is instead used to fuel the production of more grass or more resources. It's quite amazing, really, how the farmer, Joel Salatin takes advantage of the land and the animals. He's portrayed as a decent fellow, although something of a libertarian. But who can blame him? When it comes to food production, the government is under the thumb of the industry.

Between the hellish feedlots and the idyllic Polyface Farm is the organic industry, which seems like it should be an oxymoron but isn't. Pollan also explores a new phenomenon, the "organic TV dinner", which is just ridiculous. This part of the system was the one I knew least about; it's not really covered in Food Inc, though both Polyface and the bottom barrel are. The fact is, organic companies don't actually care about the organic ideal or about treating animals better; they're just trying to exploit the current interest in organic food. Whole Foods is critiqued: "Lining the walls above the sumptuously stocked produce section in my Whole Foods are full-color photographs of local organic farmers accompanied by text blocks setting forth their farming philosophies. A handful of these farms...still sell their produce to Whole Foods, but most are long gone from the produce bins, if not yet the walls." It's also revealed that just because beef is organic doesn't mean the cows ate grass; instead they receive (organic) feed. And organic chicken does not mean free range; it just means that they must have "access to the outdoors" (an utterly meaningless phrase) at some point in their lives, usually the last two weeks before slaughter, by which time they're used to being inside and have no desire to venture into the little grass lot they're provided with.

Pollan also forages his very own meal...this section was more light-hearted and very fun; I had a relating moment when he talks about chanterelle foraging (the one mushroom I can identify), and I enjoyed his description of the agonies of abalone gathering and the trials of hunting. The meal he makes sounds mouthwatering. 

One criticism that I have of the book in general is that it's definitely directly focused on affluent people, people who can afford to buy high quality meat and produce and not processed foods. That's another tragedy, that the foods that are so terrible for us are so much cheaper. But I suppose this is another issue; The Omnivore's Dilemma basically looks at the ethics of it all, and the industry behind it. I'm currently reading his book In Defense of Food, which more discusses what exactly we should eat.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is an engrossing look at the dark side of the modern food industry and the problems that bedevil it, with no clear solution in sight. However, at least these days there are alternatives. The writing here is really accessible; the book isn't too difficult to understand, yet Pollan writes complexly about complex issues. I raced through the book; despite its length and weighty subject matter, it's really compelling, and I learned so much.

411 pages.

Rating: *****

Saturday, June 7, 2014

An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage

An Edible History of HumanityWhat embodies the bounty of nature better than an ear of corn? With a twist of the wrist it is easily plucked from the stalk with no waste or fuss.

"More than simply sustenance, food historically has been a kind of technology, changing the course of human progress by helping to build empires, promote industrialization, and decide the outcomes of wars. Tom Standage draws on archaeology, anthropology, and economics to reveal how food has helped shape and transform societies around the world, from the emergence of farming in China by 7500 b.c. to the use of sugar cane and corn to make ethanol today."

An Edible History of Humanity started off slowly and densely, but as it progressed it got better and more interesting. Each chapter was better than the last. I certainly learned a lot from the book; it also discussed concepts I was somewhat familiar with already. 

An Edible History of Humanity is less than 300 pages, so obviously Standage skips a lot, but overall I felt that the history was fairly comprehensive, beginning with prehistory and then recounting how we gradually shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian lifestyle, and outlining some theories as to why this happened. Standage writes about societies from all over the world to back up his arguments and his facts.

I was actually quite impressed by this book in general, although in some of the later sections I didn't necessarily agree with his arguments about the fate of the modern world. However, throughout the book he cleverly builds a case for his final point: that our world is not as doomed as one might think. He points out that many predicted the downfall of society in the 19th century when population exploded, forecasting that agricultural output would not be able to sustain humanity. However, with the development of new techniques and fertilizers we far surpassed the output of centuries past. It's always true that it's in part because of these very developments that our planet is now in jeopardy and our populations are expanding more than ever. So I wasn't entirely convinced; also Standage's point of view doesn't exactly square with what I see around me. Nevertheless, this facet of the book was quite provocative.

I also enjoyed the historical aspect of the book; Standage very convincingly reveals the way that food has affected many parts of human development and civilization. After all, food is what literally powers us, and the development of various food technologies (farming, cooking, etc.) has had huge ramifications for us in the present. If the ancestor of corn hadn't developed a mutation making it more palatable, who knows how the world would be different? The industrial world as we know it wouldn't even exist. Similarly, the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to domestication was very important. And a little further on, food has helped us develop lots of new technologies, and food has driven the creation of new technologies. Food has also been the symbol of various issues; after all, all human beings need to eat.

There are many instances of human cruelty and folly in this book, but you've got expect that. We've done a lot of terrible things, but some good ones too. An Edible History of Humanity was an excellent and concise history of these follies and successes.

242 pages.

Rating: ****

Friday, June 6, 2014

Bookish Wear & Wares from Out of Print

Browsing on the web one day, I discovered an intriguing site: Out of Print Clothing. They sell not only bookish related clothing but also other products such as pouches, journals, bags, jewelry, and more. I saw many lovely products, so imagine my delight when Out of Print agreed to send some samples! I requested three items: a Library stamp t-shirt, a Master and Margarita t-shirt, and their Pride and Prejudice tote bag. I'm delighted to say that I was overall quite satisfied with each one.

The t-shirt that initially attracted my eye was the distinctive library stamp t-shirt; I thought it was a lovely concept. Although apprehensive that the shirt would be too small, it was actually just right, if somewhat tight. So if looking for a very loose fitting shirt, definitely size up. For me it was fine though. One drawback to this particular one is the sheer lowness of the v-neck, but other than that, I really have no criticisms. It's a great idea, and has been executed extremely well. I love the soft gray color too, and the choice of year for the dates....

Although a Great Gatsby t-shirt also looked nice, I'm pretty sure they're more common, and how often does one see this? :

The Master and Margarita women's shirtThe Master and Margarita is such a zany, insane book, and although I could have done with less text and more image, this shirt does do it justice. The small fit much the same as the library t-shirt; the neck, however, is much demure, which given the book's nature isn't exactly apt. Still, the neck is much better. In general though I prefer the library shirt's overall design and image, but this one is also satisfying and comfortable. The cat is quite crazy looking.

The Pride and Prejudice bag was perhaps the most refined; I absolutely loved the peacock design, from an old and very famous edition of the book. The lettering is gorgeous and I love how the feathers splay out over the top of it. My only complaint was that it is a bit small, not quite a good size for holding many books. The straps are a bit small too; to me it felt more purse like in terms of straps. Still an amazing product overall.

You can order these three here, here, and here; I'd highly recommend checking out Out of Print. And it's all for a good cause; books are donated for every item purchased.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

While Beauty Slept, Elizabeth Blackwell

While Beauty SleptShe has already become a legend. The beautiful, headstrong girl I knew is gone forever, her life transformed into myth.

"A beautiful princess lies in a sleep so deep it is close to death. Was Sleeping Beauty revived by a prince's kiss? What really happened in that tower so long ago? While Beauty Slept re-imagines the legend through the lens of historical fiction, telling the story as if it really happened. A Gothic tale of suspense and ambition, love and loss, it interweaves the story of a royal family and the servants who see behind the glamorous facade, following the journey of a young woman as she lives out a destiny that leads her to the brink of death."

While Beauty Slept was quite enthralling in many respects, and I read large chunks of it in short amounts of time. It got less good as it progressed, but I definitely enjoyed it, and I loved some aspects of it. 

Retellings of fairy tales have always appealed to me; now they've become sort of a cliche themselves, with people telling them darker or telling the other side of the story. Increasingly it's a struggle for writers to come up with new angles, but although While Beauty Slept borrowed many elements from previous retellings it also came up with some new twists and turns, and a fully fleshed out main character who is not in the original tale. Her name is Elise. She is a country girl who through a stroke of luck both good and bad rises to become the queen's personal attendant, and she is a forgotten witness to all of the events which have since become so muddled.

The book opens with Elise beginning to tell her great-granddaughter Raimy the truth of what really happened in the castle. From there, we enter a world of the wealthy and the poor; the good, the evil, and the in-between. Thinking back on it, the fantasy world this book is set in isn't very compelling or well developed, but that didn't bother me. There's also no outright magic, although there are hints of occult practices, blasphemous to the Christian inhabitants of the realm. I liked this; it made the story more grounded in reality, as if it might have actually happened at some point in medieval times. There are no fairies, there is no enchanted sleep, but the book still closely parallels the Sleeping Beauty myth - up to a certain point. The ending is a sudden twist I wasn't expecting at all, but it was quite fitting given how Rose was developed. 

The only thing I didn't enjoy about this novel was Elise's own story, specifically her romantic life. A lot of it didn't make sense, and I would have preferred it left out. Both of her romances weren't developed well; both were sudden and random, and it's because of this that I didn't absolutely love the book. Also, it was too graphic, not fitting the rest of the story. I could have done without this, or with a better developed, more convincing portrayal.

A lot of this book was actually quite thinly developed, but it fit with the fairy tale original, and certainly a lot more of the characters' lives were shown. And Millicent, the villain of the title, is shown as a complicated woman, perhaps the most developed character in the novel; she could have been great, but because she was denied this she became bitter and full of hate. She is the greatest tragedy of the tale.  

I enjoyed the writing; it's in a somewhat older style, but still really readable and absorbing. Since Elise is recounting the events many years later, there's lots of foreboding along the lines of "If only I had known this" or "Had I known this" or "This could have been prevented if". This can get a bit annoying, but it also has the intended effect of making one keep reading. 

Overall, While Beauty Slept was a well written and compelling fantasy novel, and I await Blackwell's next work, although whether I read it depends on what it's about. I received a review copy of While Beauty Slept from Putnam Books.

421 pages. 

Rating: ****

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManIt was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man. 

"In these eighteen startling visions of humankind’s destiny, unfolding across a canvas of decorated skin, living cities take their vengeance, technology awakens the most primal natural instincts, and dreams are carried aloft in junkyard rockets."

I've had a copy of The Illustrated Man for practically forever, and as soon as I opened the book I was sorry that I had let it languish for so long on my shelves. Because these stories are good. As the book progressed, they did start to blur together, but perhaps that's fitting given their medium. And anyway, the vast majority of these stories wowed me. Some of them are quite frightening. 

The book begins with the narrator encountering the Illustrated Man, a man completely covered in tattoos, who tells the story of how he got them (and how he curses them now). When night falls, the beautiful images on his body begin to move, and stories unfold...

The first story, "The Veldt", is perhaps one of the most disturbing in the whole collection. It tells of a world where even the simplest tasks are accomplished by machines: there's a toastmaking machine, and a shoetying machine, and a painting pictures machine. And there are nurseries which can be set to different backgrounds, moving wallpapers, if you will. They're supposed to be just images, and you're supposed to change them frequently, but one family's children have an obsession with the African savanna (or veldt). As you might imagine, things do not end well.

There are eighteen stories, and about half of them really stuck with me as being quite good. I'm only going to talk about them. The others were fine too, but just not as compelling. Bradbury really excels at his depictions of nightmarish futuristic worlds, nightmarish because they seem so plausible. Like Neil Gaiman, he's also a master at turning situations upside down, reversing them from what they normally are. Such is the case in the third story, "The Other Foot", in which African Americans fled white oppression and built their own colony on Mars. Then one day a rocket with a white man arrives...what follows is a fascinating and wry exploration of whether two wrongs make a right. I'd heard of this story before, and it was quite good.

"The Man" and "The Long Rain" are both about Earthmen's planetary explorations, although in different ways. "The Man" explores the jaded disbelief of the modern man, who must have facts, facts, and more facts. "The Long Rain" resonated with me given where I live; in it, Venus is a place where it perennially rains, and there's no escaping it, unless you get to one of the fabled Sun Domes. Otherwise, you'll die. It was such a chilling story, yet so good.

I also enjoyed "The Rocket Man", "The Last Night of the World", and while I didn't like "The Exiles" very much, there were definitely shades of F-451 in it; the story deals with the burning and banishing of subversive books and authors.

"The Fox and the Forest" was very frightening but masterfully crafted; so was "The Visitor", which showcased the ugliness of human nature and how in fighting over something precious we ruin it for everyone. "The Concrete Mixer" was also uncanny, as was "Marionettes, Inc."."The City" may be one of the scariest in the whole book; it's about a metropolis with a life of its own and a desire for vengeance. Overall I enjoyed this book; some of the stories I'm sure I'll treasure, and the overall conceit is a good one.

281 pages.

Rating: ****

Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

WintergirlsSo she tells me, the word dribbling out with the cranberry muffin crumbs, commas dunked in her coffee.

"Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit."

I'm so glad I finally bought a copy of Wintergirls. I started reading it, and I just could not put it down. I basically read the whole book in two sittings, feverishly flipping the pages. 

Wintergirls is not for the faint of heart; it's such a dark book, darker than Speak, I would say. I don't know how well Lia's anorexia is portrayed, but to me it felt disturbingly real, the way that someone could get caught in an ever-downward spiral, not being able to stop. Anderson heartbreakingly writes from Lia's point of view, and throughout the book there are passages where Lia is fighting with inner demons.

Lia is already trapped in that spiral; she knows it, but she can't do anything about it. Add to that the death of her friend, and we've got a great, harsh story, with its moving moments. Lia's so conflicted, and I had sympathy for her. At times, though, it was really hard to understand her. I mean, obviously it's not really about the weight anymore; by the middle of the book, 5'5'' Lia weighs around 95 pounds, yet she still feels huge and fat and disgusting even though she's clearly malnourished and underweight. It's horrifying what images in the media and social pressures can do to people. There's a lot of that at high school, even though none of it is directly stated.                                                                                             

Speak is an amazing novel, but in some ways Wintergirls and The Impossible Knife of Memory were better. I suppose they just felt more real to me, like the story could be that of someone sitting next to you in class, someone who passes you every day in the hallways. (Even though it's the same thing with Speak). Each of these novels tackles a teen "issue", but nevertheless they don't feel like issue books sermonizing to the audience.

I read a couple of reviews of Wintergirls, where it was discussed that even the slightest mention of anorexia and weight sets some people off, and while Wintergirls paints a brutal and disturbing picture of the disorder, I can definitely see that. After all, Lia is so, so light, and for girls who are suffering from anorexia, that could be a source of anxiety, jealousy, and comparison. However, for others, it might help them to realize how there are so many more important things.

The sub-plot with Elijah was rather odd; it didn't seem to really go anywhere. I suppose he's just there to sort of start drawing Lia out of her shell a bit. Still, it felt extraneous to me.

Just like The Impossible Knife of Memory, I felt that towards the end of the book things wrapped up a little too quickly. I mean, a lot is left open, which is realistic, but all of a sudden Lia starts getting better...just like that. Maybe I missed some subtleties because I was racing through the book, but it didn't fit so well, and then things were rushed. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed Wintergirls; it was mesmerizing and compelling.

278 pages.

Rating: *****

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset

Queen Anne: The Politics of PassionThe opening weeks of the year 1665 were particularly cold, and the sub-zero temperatures had discouraged the King of England, Charles II, from writing to his sister Henrietta in France.

"She ascended the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1702, at age thirty-seven, Britain’s last Stuart monarch, and five years later united two of her realms, England and Scotland, as a sovereign state, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain. She had a history of personal misfortune, overcoming ill health (she suffered from crippling arthritis; by the time she became Queen she was a virtual invalid) and living through seventeen miscarriages, stillbirths, and premature births in seventeen years. By the end of her comparatively short twelve-year reign, Britain had emerged as a great power; the succession of outstanding victories won by her general, John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, had humbled France and laid the foundations for Britain’s future naval and colonial supremacy. While the Queen’s military was performing dazzling exploits on the continent, her own attention—indeed her realm—rested on a more intimate conflict: the female friendship on which her happiness had for decades depended and which became for her a source of utter torment."

Despite having no interest in this period in history or in this particular monarch, once I cracked open this book I rather quickly found myself immersed in Anne's story (take that whichever way you choose). I received a copy from a Goodreads giveaway many month ago, and initially I was sorry that I didn't take a look at this engaging biography sooner.

That said, I never finished the book because I kept starting other ones that appealed to me more. It started to get bogged down, and probably because I wasn't interested in this particular monarch I felt like there were better things to be reading. It's not a bad biography though; a lot of the politics involved was quite interesting to read about, and parts of the book were downright suspenseful to a point. For anyone interested in British royalty in general this is a worthy book to add to your shelves. From the parts I read, Somerset is detailed and accurate, drawing from many primary sources.

640 pages.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts, Emily Anthes

Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New BeastsIn China, the world's manufacturing powerhouse, a new industry is taking shape: the mass production of mutant mice.

"For centuries, we’ve toyed with our creature companions, breeding dogs that herd and hunt, housecats that look like tigers, and teacup pigs that fit snugly in our handbags. But what happens when we take animal alteration a step further, engineering a cat that glows green under ultraviolet light or cloning the beloved family Labrador? Science has given us a whole new toolbox for tinkering with life. How are we using it? In Frankensteins Cat, the journalist Emily Anthes takes us from petri dish to pet store as she explores how biotechnology is shaping the future of our furry and feathered friends. As she ventures from bucolic barnyards to a “frozen zoo” where scientists are storing DNA from the planet’s most exotic creatures, she discovers how we can use cloning to protect endangered species, craft prosthetics to save injured animals, and employ genetic engineering to supply farms with disease-resistant livestock. Along the way, we meet some of the animals that are ushering in this astonishing age of enhancement, including sensor-wearing seals, cyborg beetles, a bionic bulldog, and the world’s first cloned cat. Through her encounters with scientists, conservationists, ethicists, and entrepreneurs, Anthes reveals that while some of our interventions may be trivial (behold: the GloFish), others could improve the lives of many species—including our own. So what does biotechnology really mean for the world’s wild things? And what do our brave new beasts tell us about ourselves?"

There were many fascinating aspects to this book; the subject is so, so interesting, and the book could have been an intriguing and absorbing look at various new techniques for altering and creating animals. Instead, I was annoyed by the author's writing and use of tacky language, as well as by her heavily, heavily biased slant (more on all of this later). 

What Anthes is writing about should be astonishing to anyone; the very idea that humans would be able to say control animals' movements through their brains is such a new one. This is just one of the many mindblowing technologies covered in Frankenstein's Cat, and I certainly enjoyed reading about them. For that alone, this book would get a good rating. But even though the author has a master's degree in science writing, she doesn't know how to write well. Her diction is simply cringe worthy, and I winced many times as I read the book. She uses words like "critters" and "pooches" and at one point talks about using eggs from "plain ol' tabbies". The only reason I finished the book was because what she was writing about interested me immensely. If I had been any less interested, I would have put it down after a few chapters. As it was, I learned a lot, but the experience wasn't exactly enjoyable. The mediocrity of the writing got harder and harder to ignore as the book progressed; perhaps that kind of folksy writing is to some people's taste, but it certainly isn't to mine, especially in a science book. That's not to say that science writing can't use humor to great effect, but this wasn't humor; I don't even know what it was. Perhaps Anthes speaks like this, or perhaps she was trying to interest readers. 

The author also churns out painful similes in another attempt to relate to readers. Or something. I don't even know. I also found at least a few portions of the book that seemed somewhat inaccurate to me; at the very least, these passages were vague and misleading. For example: "Consider the enormous variation among human beings, all the different traits possessed by the people in your family, or in your state, or in Mozambique, Sri Lanka, and Iceland." I'm probably just being nitpicky, but despite our physical differences in fact there's not actually a whole lot of genetic variation among humans due to the fact that we all originate from a small original band of Homo sapiens. I get the point she was trying to make (if a lot of individuals of a species are wiped out, there's less genetic variation), but the whole comparison just fell apart for me. Also, she goes on to imagine that only you and the people on your block survive a meteor hitting the earth. But in fact there might be comparatively large genetic diversity on your block (especially if you have the good fortune to live in a city like New York). 

And my last criticism: the author's heavy, heavy bias. Inevitably the author's opinion is always a part of a book, but in this case her constant cutting in to talk about her own opinions annoyed me. That actually happens in many science books (in fact many science books are written to persuade people of things), but with such complicated issues, scientific and ethical, at the heart of this book, I couldn't help wondering if there were negative aspects of bioengineering that Anthes was leaving out.

Something about the whole tone of the book set my teeth on edge. I don't understand the recognition it's received or how the serious science community (like Science magazine) can endorse this book. The topic's fascinating, and I suppose Anthes is pretty comprehensive, but the writing to me was atrocious. I wouldn't recommend this one at all unless you're a fan of corny language. It's a shame; the book could have been really intriguing and enjoyable.

181 pages. 

Rating: **

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, Rebecca Stott

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of EvolutionJust before Christmas in 1859, only a month after he had finally published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, Charles Darwin found himself disturbed, even haunted, by the thought of his intellectual predecessors. 

"Soon after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin received an unsettling letter that accused him of taking credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others. Realizing his error of omission, Darwin tried to trace all of the natural philosophers who had laid the groundwork for his theory, but he found that history had already forgotten many of them. Rebecca Stott goes in search of these ghosts, telling the epic story of the discovery of evolution and natural selection from Aristotle to the ninth-century Arab writer Al-Jahiz to Leonardo da Vinci to the brilliant naturalists of the Jardin des Plantes to Alfred Wallace and Erasmus Darwin, and finally to Charles Darwin himself. Evolution was not discovered single-handedly. It was an idea that was advanced over centuries by daring individuals across the globe who had the imagination to speculate on nature’s extraordinary ways—and the courage to articulate such speculations at a time when to do so was often considered heresy."

The idea behind this book is a fascinating and fairly original one; so often, many people who contributed to the creation of something great are forgotten, with only one person heralded as the genius. But through the centuries, there were many who flirted with many concepts related to evolution, even if they didn't come up with the theory of natural selection.

Although it took me quite a while to finish Darwin's Ghosts, I don't think it was because the book was uninteresting. It profiled many figures who I'd never heard of, like Jahiz and Abraham Trembley, as well as many who I had heard of but didn't know much about. The book also has a chapter on Lamarck and Cuvier, who are both quite well known for their contributions to evolutionary science (Cuvier more so than Lamarck, who tends to be ridiculed).

Some of the chapters captured my interest more than others, but nevertheless Stott writes engagingly of all of these historical figures. She provides some background information but mainly focuses on their work and on the attitudes of the period. I found the chapter on Trembley and his discovery of the polyp particularly fascinating; it's an organism that we now know as a protist, and at the time it challenged the distinctions between animals and plants, exhibiting some characteristics of each. Which as you can imagine caused a lot of religious tension.

Stott uses Darwin's compiling of a sketchy list of figures in order to begin her own; she reveals that Darwin himself was no great historian, and so wasn't entirely sure whether all of the people on his list actually contributed to evolutionary research. For instance, someone informed him that Aristotle wrote of species changing over time, but in fact that was the very thing Aristotle was deeply scornful of (in the passage in question he was actually quoting and criticizing someone else who believed in species change). Darwin, not knowing Greek, included Aristotle's name, and Stott begins with him. Aristotle did do a great deal of research on animals after all.

There's a large gap in terms of time period (from the 9th century to the 17th or 19th century), but somehow the narrative still flowed seamlessly over centuries and over continents. It's all woven together quite skillfully, and the book is also so atmospheric. There are lush, evocative descriptions of the historical settings, particularly in the sketch on Aristotle, and the general societal and scientific attitudes of each period are vividly conveyed. Stott also conveys the fascination of the research, and the various scientists' burning desire to get to the bottom of it.

Many of the chapters are short, but they are succinct and informative; however, within chapters the transitioning was sometimes a bit shaky. Although they're all tied together superbly, the conclusions of many of the chapters felt too much like a broad restatement of the chapter's topic. I was glad there was some sort of resummarizing, but all the same it felt like a bit too much.

Other than that, Darwin's Ghosts was an original and engaging book, blending science and history quite well (although I'd say there was more history). I would recommend it to those interested in evolutionary theory.

300 pages.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Beginnings, it's said, are apt to be shadowy. So it is with this story, which starts with the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred thousand years ago. The species does not yet have a name - nothing does - but it has the capacity to name things.

The Sixth Extinction tells the story of just that, of the coming major die-out of species due to humans. There have only been five such events in the history of life on the planet, so it's clearly a major deal. (I still fail to understand how some people *cough*cough*conservatives* can continue to deny that there's a problem at all). Kolbert also reveals that it is not only recently that us humans have altered the plant; there used to be megafauna on almost every part of the globe, and these large mammals were killed off by early humans. Since then, we've over-hunted many animals, and have transferred animals and plants and fungus from different continents to places where they never existed before. This also causes damage to many species which don't have the evolutionary tools to combat the invasive species.

I found The Sixth Extinction fascinating and provocative. Despite the fact that she isn't a scientist, Elizabeth Kolbert does a great job making things clear but not too simplistic. She offers analogies that make sense and shares the insights of the many scientists she talked to. Traveling all over the world, Kolbert traces the histories of different species that went extinct in the past and those are critically endangered for various reasons, all relating to humans.

The writing wasn't remarkable, but it certainly held my interest; Kolbert knows how to weave a good story. And since she travels to all sorts of fascinating places from the Great Barrier Reef to the Amazon to Iceland, the book is never boring in the slightest. She also intersperses personal observations and feelings, because a lot of things she did were rather frightening and new. This also makes the book more entertaining and compelling.

I did want a little more detail in some of the sections, but overall the book was absorbing in terms of its science. Kolbert writes with clarity and clear-headedness about the coming challenges that the globe will face, and while she's certainly not optimistic, there are some thoughts for future preservation. It was also quite heartening to see her talking to people who are aware of the problem and are trying to help. Yet it's also very sobering, as in the case of Amazonian frogs and Northeastern bats who are suffering from various fungi. There's not much that can be done.

It's also posited that it's not because humans are cruel and evil that species go extinct; it's because we're humans, and the qualities that make us so successful like altering our environment and using resources are the very properties that have always made us animal killers. It's all very gloomy and depressing, but as the author points out, that doesn't mean one can avoid reading about it because it's the truth. And it's a nasty thought that "if you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap." If you're reading this blog post, you're probably an unwitting part of the problem. Just like me, and just like everyone in the developed world.

Many people often point to the fact that there have been mass extinctions in the past, wiping out a myriad of species. They say that it occurs naturally, and that humans are not the reason for this latest problem. But that's clearly not true; many of the extinctions chronicled in this book are due to the fact that we humans reassemble the biosphere, taking species of animals, plants, and fungi from their natural home to other parts of the globe, with sometimes disastrous effects. And Kolbert also points out that many of the previous extinctions, drastic though they were, occurred over a much longer time period, a much longer scale, giving species time to adapt to their new environment and migrate to better areas. But this extinction is proceeding at a pace like never before, on the scale of a human lifetime. It's startlingly predicted that a huge percentage of species will be gone by 2050. Except for the most recent extinction, an asteroid that took out the dinosaurs and many other species, all of the other ones have occurred over at least thousands of years (still a geologic blink of an eye). Not so this time. Kolbert leaves us with the troubling thought that perhaps "homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but of its victims."

269 pages.

Rating: ****

The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff

The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American LiteratureWhat people remembered best about him, aside from his brambly red brows and rambling gait, was his strange way of speaking: a drawl that spun syllables slowly, like fallen branches on the surface of a stream.

The Bohemians is the chronicle of a certain circle of Western writers who redefined American literature, bringing the culture and feel of the West Coast to Eastern readers and in some ways uniting the country as a whole. Ben Tarnoff focuses primarily on Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith, some more famous than others, who all lived and worked in California during a certain period. Their friendships and enmities would fuel the growth of Western literary culture. In their own ways, each changed the cliched image of the West and brilliantly portrayed the spirit of California and nearby locales. The Bohemians focuses on this period in the 1860's and 70's when some of these writers rose to fame and others sunk into obscurity. But they were all important, though some were less visible than others.

Although I was never enthralled by this history, I also never put the book down out of boredom. Tarnoff does not use much humor or wit, yet he solidly engaged me with his seemingly accurate history and thought-out observations. Despite the fact that the period isn't one I'm hugely interested in or knowledgeable about, I enjoyed the book, although it was nothing to rave about.

I don't have a great deal to say about this work, but I did find certain elements of it interesting, particularly the way that in the 19th century it took so long for things and people to go from coast to coast and how isolated the two regions used to be. Of course, I knew this already, but The Bohemians reminded me even more of this separation. It was partly the writers who connected the two areas, bringing a sometimes inaccurate portrayal of the West east. The Bohemians set about righting that wrong, and Bret Harte in particular shattered the typical cliches held by many about the West. I believe that I read a few of his stories several years ago, and they turn upside down the tropes of Western stories; the hooker with a heart of gold, a man reunited with his long-lost son who turns out to be an imposter, and more.

Of course, Twain ultimately became the most well known; Ina Coolbrith and Charles Warren Stoddard are all but forgotten, and Bret Harte is very rarely read. As Tarnoff reveals, Harte was at first the toast of the east, causing Twain a lot of jealousy, but Harte ruined his popularity through various social mistakes, and it was Twain who really changed the history of literature (he was embraced wholeheartedly first by the British).

Tarnoff portrays the Bohemian scene in San Francisco quite well. They were a group of highly intelligent, witty, and sarcastic individuals who were frank and not afraid to point out the idiosyncrasies of the very society they were a part of. All of these writers got their start writing fiction, poems and editorials for various San Francisco newspapers, and this is primarily what the author focuses on, although he does also talk about Harte and Twain's first experience with publishing.

The ending was rather abrupt and I kind of wanted more, but overall The Bohemians provided a satisfying and enriching read in which I learned a fair amount about this scene. The book came out about a week ago, and I would recommend it if you're interested in this period or any of these writers. I received an ARC from the Penguin Press.

256 pages (in the ARC).

Rating: ****

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Wayward Bus, John Steinbeck

The Wayward BusForty-two miles below San Ysidro, on a great north-south highway in California, there is a crossroad which for eighty-odd years has been called Rebel Corners.

The Wayward Bus is one of Steinbeck's least known novels, yet it is a beautiful and compelling story. Not a whole lot happens, and the book is slim, yet it's another example of Steinbeck's powerful writing and his ability to capture something about America and Americans. The setting is a wayside establishment called Rebel Corners, and the story revolves mainly around the people who live there and the people, "the lost and lonely, the good and the greedy, the stupid and the scheming, the beautiful and the vicious", who pass through the town, clashing and colliding and revealing something about humanity. Despite the lack of action, I had no desire to put the book down at first because every paragraph showcased Steinbeck's masterful prose and characterization skills. 

The first chapter, setting everything up, was by far the best. After that, the book was less absorbing, though still good. Perhaps the fact that not much of interest actually happened did drag me down; the real interest is all in the way the passengers interact with each other, and the tensions that arise between friends and strangers. Often times these tensions are overtly sexual. I was surprised by howfrank The Wayward Bus was; it explicitly talks about desire and longing and a more ugly, brutal side to it all. Steinbeck doesn't mince words; I suppose the difference in this novel is a sign of the shifting times. From what I remember of other earlier Steinbeck novels, it's not so explicit, more hinted at. Like, Steinbeck usually makes references to "cathouses" and all of that, but in this book he spends a lot of time writing about men staring at women's legs and about this particular woman, "Camille", who has such power over all of the men. It's not just that she's beautiful; there's something magnetic about her. 

There's a great deal of description in The Wayward Bus, yet somehow it also feels sparse and spare. The characterization and the description are brilliantly crafted, bringing the scenes to life, scenes that seem like they could actually happen somewhere out in the California countryside. There's just so much detail, and Steinbeck does a great job of portraying a certain part of America, and the different people who collide in it. There's also one passage at the very beginning of the novel that brilliantly shows the disparity between some exalted perception of a woman held by the media and a real woman: "The walls, where there was room, were well decorated with calendars and posters showing bright, improbable girls with pumped-up breasts and no hips - blondes, brunettes and redheads, but always with this bust development, so that a visitor of another species might judge from the preoccupation of artist and audience that the seat of procreation lay in the mammaries. Alice Chicoy...who worked among the shining girls, was wide-hipped and sag-chested and she walked well back on her heels...She was not in the least jealous of the calendar girls and the Coca-Cola girls. She had never seen anyone like them, and she didn't think anyone ever had." It was quite well-written and gave me pause, because this section is scarily relevant to today. You see so many images in all medias (books, alas, are not exempt) where there are improbably skinny, improbably proportioned women, and that just doesn't reflect real women who live their lives. The harshness of the people's lives is also shown; it's nothing like the gleaming, bright posters that are tacked on the walls. Thoughts?

Perhaps uniquely American is the phenomenon of just a single building on a road as a stop for people traveling vast distances through the country, and that is where The Wayward Bus begins, at a shop that is kept where passengers can buy food. From there, the group of characters expands.

The later sections get really disturbing in terms of their violent nature, and a creeping sense of horror pervades them. There's no huge tragic event like in Of Mice and Men, but overall the latter half of the book was just kind of disgusting. That didn't make the novel bad, but perhaps not as enjoyable as it could have been. 

This is a huge cliche, but John Steinbeck is one of those writers who is able to convey the "American spirit" and also the American dream. Through vivid prose and sharp commentary, the American landscape is illuminated. It's not just America though; many of his novels, including The Wayward Bus, offer commentary on humanity in general.

The bus is one example of an excellent and oft-used device to have an unlikely group of people from different backgrounds stuck in a confined together. The passengers are all quite different, and their having to talk to each other brings out lots of excellent tension.

The characters are all really flawed, and I disliked many of them, although I also felt sorry for many of them too. In typical Steinbeck fashion, the ending isn't really a resolution, although it is a parting of the ways. However, there's a lot that's not wrapped up (although really, there wasn't a whole lot to be resolved in this one). The characters are in sight of their destination, and they all go their separate ways after a brief interlude.

The Wayward Bus didn't offer anything earthshattering, and it wasn't a hugely momentous or impactful novel, but I did enjoy many elements of it. 

261 pages.

Rating: 3.5 stars.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rags & Bones, edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt

Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless TalesFrom "That the Machine May Progress Eternally": It isn't until he's nearing the bottom of the ladder that Tavil realizes his sister hasn't followed him. He stares up the narrow tunnel to the surface expecitng to see her there, but instead he finds nothing except darkness capped by a wash of stars. 

"Literature is filled with sexy, deadly, and downright twisted tales. In this collection, award-winning and bestselling authors reimagine their favorite classic stories, ones that have inspired, awed, and enraged them; ones that have become ingrained in modern culture; and ones that have been too long overlooked. They take these stories and boil them down to their bones, and then reassemble them for a new generation of readers." 

Going in, I knew that a collection like this had the potential to either be really good or not so great, but as with most short story collections, was most likely to be a mix of the two. That actually wasn't the case; I loved almost all of the stories included, despite not having read many of the original texts or many of these authors. They each had similar elements but were distinctive, offering their own delights and thrills. 

Almost all of the stories were amazing; they all had a certain chilling element in common, with many of them ending in similar fashions, and each one kept me absorbed until I had finished. Although the first story, Carrie Ryan's "That the Machine May Progress Eternally" started off oddly, with little development, I was quickly sucked in by its chilling portrayal of an underground world in which the Machine regulates every facet of people's lives; they basically don't have to do anything. A boy from aboveground gets trapped in the Machine's world, and although he initially longs to get back home, eventually he succumbs to the torpor and the easiness of life below-ground; his descent was awful to read, and the story was quite skillfully written. It was inspired by an E.M. Forster story.

The second story,  Garth Nix's "Losing Her Divinity", was probably the oddest one in the collection, but it was quite hilarious, with a very pedantic, scholarly protagonist narrating both the past and the present (you see, he's being interrogated by a rather violent intruder who periodically interrupts his very wordy account of events). It ends rather predictably, but was good for a laugh and a chill.

The next story is by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite contemporary authors. "The Sleeper and the Spindle" is a mix of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and the traditional sleeping beauty myth is turned on its head. Yes, it is a beauty who sleeps, but not the one you might think. And it is Snow White and several faithful dwarves who journey to the palace behind the rose vines. I have to say that I wasn't expecting the twist towards the end, and I was awed and shocked by Gaiman's mastery, and yes, chilled.

"The Cold Corner" is a more contemporary story, although it's certainly still fantasy. The main character, TJ, returns to his North Carolina hometown after five years for a family reunion. But things become surreal, with the little town warping and twisting, and TJ's not sure if he's going mad or not. But then he stumbles into a bar called T.J's...I enjoyed the Southern jargon here, and while I predicted some elements of the story, not all of them were so obvious.

I'm generally not a fan of vampire-related stories, but Holly Black's "Millcara" was pretty good, certainly spine-tingling in its own way. It's intriguingly narrated by the vampire/fiend herself, and while I was disturbed her, I was also sympathetic. Which was of course the point.

"When We Were Gods" is also science fiction, set in an unnerving futuristic society where certain classes of people live forever and can frequently change their bodies (their memories are downloaded onto a card and inserted into the new bodies). There are also those who are not immortal; it's the story of a love between an immortal and mortal, and like most loves between vastly different kinds of people, it does not end well. I loved this harrowing story too.

"Sirocco" was to me one of the weakest stories in the collection; a modern-day horror story based on The Castle of Otranto. However, I didn't find it that compelling or entertaining. It was funny at times, and I suppose the ending was sort of shocking, but other than that, it wasn't impressive at all.

I enjoyed "Awakened", which deals with selkie lore. The portrayal of Leo, a not totally evil man who controls the selkie chilled me to my very bones; it was uncannily realistic and hit home. I loved the ending; it felt like such a release.

"New Chicago" was another excellent post-apocalyptic story; again, it definitely had that chill factor down pat, with a monkey's paw that grants wishes - but not in the way you'd want. Not at all. "The Soul Collector" was also set in a seedy, filthy world, and had its points too.

I admit to skipping the next story, based in part on the Faerie Queen. I really don't have an excuse except that it didn't interest me. The final story, "Uncaged", was something of a disappointment. I got what Gene Wolfe was getting it, but I didn't enjoy reading it very much.

Overall, though, I definitely enjoyed this collection, and there were only a couple of stories that I didn't love. The idea of the collection was so great, and thankfully it delivered. I love the way the original stories were used, and the new stories weren't exact modern replicas of them or anything. They really were boiled down to their bare bones and then stitched together with a dash of the author's own distinctive style and their own personal touches. Many of the contributors talking about using parts of their own heritage and background. Although many of the stories had similar elements, each was compelling in its own way.

349 pages.

Rating: *****

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Impossible Knife of Memory, Laurie Halse Anderson

The Impossible Knife of MemoryIt started in detention. No surprise there, right?

"For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own. Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over?"

I was expecting to love this one, and I did. Laurie Halse Anderson's writing is amazing, and this novel also had an excellent and heartbreaking plot and wonderful characters. I read it very quickly, and was just sucked in, oblivious to the outside world. 

The power of Anderson's writing is such that she has you laughing out loud in one moment, and then feeling like crying the next. Sometimes it's at the same time; you're laughing but you know you shouldn't be. I didn't necessarily feel that with Speak, but here, the writing was just that powerful. Anderson writes like a teenager, not like an adult trying to write like a teenager. Hayley's voice was so, so relatable and it felt so real; in fact, some of her thoughts seemed exactly like mine and in other respects her inner monologue seemed like people I know. She's so real as a character: bleak, cynical, humorous and poking fun at the system. Yet she's also deeply scarred. Some people on Goodreads said that they did not like her, but I sympathized and I loved her cynical voice, mocking the system and authority. 

I'm not sure how to express my love for this book. It was just so witty and wry and heartbreaking too. I have no experience with post traumatic stress disorder, so I don't know how realistic the portrayal was, but it certainly resonated with me. Hayley's father is such a scary character; on good days, he doesn't leave the house or do much; on bad days, he gets really drunk and angry. The result of this is that Hayley has to take on the role of caretaker, and it's very sad to see the roles reversed like that. Meanwhile, she's trying to deal with adolescence and everything else. It's all a mess of feelings and uncertainties. For example: "It [high school] was enough to make me want to flee into the mountains and live out my life as hermit, as long as I could find a hideaway that had a decent public library within walking distance and toilets that flushed...Then I'd see Finn in the hall, or I'd catch a glance of his profile out of the corner of my eye while we were driving to school, and he would turn to me and smile. And I didn't want to be a hermit anymore."

I could definitely relate to the descriptions of the high school Hayley attends, with its horrible education system and population of brainwashed "zombies", as she refers to them. While I do think that it's unfair to just label everyone like that, anyone who says that there isn't an element of truth to it either hasn't attended an American high school recently or is a zombie themselves (sorry). Some of these people aren't bad per se; not at all. It's just that they're so entrenched in the system that it's too late for them to break out of it. I see this all the time at my school, and there are plenty of people there that are nice and all, they're just, well, zombies. That's not to say that all of these people don't have their own joys and sorrows and heartbreak, but to me it feels as if they're just acting out parts scripted for them by their environment, and I feel sorry for them. It's all so fake and contrived and stupid, and it makes me angry. And then there are the Rules that Hayley refers to for how things work, and the standards for different people. Perhaps I'm too judgmental, but it's really true. However, there are also plenty of people who defy the stereotypes; for example, the cheerleaders at my school are not all skinny as sticks, and some of them are quite intelligent. People are complicated, but Laurie Halse Anderson portrays them well. There are many YA books that have undertones of this one and other novels of her's, but they fail utterly at engaging the reader. (That was quite a digression on my part).

Despite the fact that I loved it, the romance felt a little unrealistic to me; after all, Finn is somehow this really popular but really nerdy person who just sort of randomly takes an interest in Hayley, the dark, silent outcast. There's not really an explanation. The ending also felt rather rushed; it's really, really sappy, and I was not convinced at how everything got suddenly resolved. Not resolved, exactly, but how things with Hayley's dad went from an all-time low to getting better and better. Nevertheless, the ending appealed to me immensely and despite my criticisms I loved this novel. Even more than Speak.

391 pages.

Rating: *****

Friday, March 14, 2014

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories From History Without the Fairy Tale Endings, Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale EndingsPrincess Alfhild had a choice to make. On the one hand, a really awesome guy had finally managed to bypass her father's deadly defenses and call on her without being beheaded or poisoned. She could marry this brave young man and enjoy the life of domestic bliss that women of her era were supposed to aspire to. Or she could give up royal life and become a pirate. Guess which path she chose?

"You think you know her story. You’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you’ve watched the Disney cartoons, you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But the lives of real princesses couldn’t be more different. Sure, many were graceful and benevolent leaders—but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power, and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets. Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe was a Nazi spy. Empress Elizabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire slept wearing a mask of raw veal. Princess Olga of Kiev murdered thousands of men, and Princess Rani Lakshmibai waged war on the battlefield, charging into combat with her toddler son strapped to her back. Princesses Behaving Badly offers mini-biographies of all these princesses and dozens more."

That title's quite a mouthful. The book itself is pretty good. It's not great, but I came across some amusing and fascinating anecdotes. The author draws from all over the world and through many eras to find stories of princesses who had power and weren't afraid to use it, and who gloried in the strife and warfare they caused. Or did they? One thing I found quite interesting was the way the book focused on the different interpretations of some of the women; for many, not a great deal is actually known about them, so most modern images of them are guesswork at best. There are some princesses who now have a reputation for vicious bloodshed, but we don't really know what they were like. Some of this was quite annoying, as in many of the sections, it's all speculation on the author's part based on highly unreliable accounts, often written centuries after the events. For some of the mini-biographies, the author admits that it's not even known if certain things actually happened. But within each section, there are some facts, and I certainly learned a lot. I was definitely reminded of just how much history is out there. 

Each section was rather short; they are certainly mini biographies. I would have perhaps liked a little bit more information about each lady (and perhaps fewer ladies profiled), but McRobbie provided enough detail and narrative to catch my interest. I was quite surprised about how murky the history was, even through the 19th century. I guess people just don't often record details. There's also the added fact that many of these women were controversial, and their detractors tried to both tarnish their reputations and erase any record of their having existed.   

Lots of the stories had quite a bit of humor to them; many were also really, really sad. And some of the stories were simply bizarre and stretched belief. After all, many of these women were maligned, imprisoned and exploited for various reasons. The author recreates the facts pretty well, and I read each mini-biography quite quickly.

There wasn't much development in this book; it was just one story after another, which is an issue I often have with certain types of nonfiction. There was also no real conclusion or wrap up to the book; it just abruptly ended, and in that respect it was very unsatisfying. I wanted an ending which would talk collectively about the princesses. Or something.

However, for the most part this book wasn't bad; I certainly learned a lot of random and not very useful facts, which I delight in. I would recommend it to fans of quirky nonfiction; I received a copy from the publisher via Goodreads, which is incidentally is called Quirk Books.

285 pages.

Rating: ****

Rereading I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the CastleI write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy.

From the back cover: "I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle's walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has "captured the castle"-- and the heart of the reader-- in one of literature's most enchanting entertainments."

I remember enjoying I Capture the Castle when I first read it; however, I don't remember loving it. This time I did; it's such an entertaining, clever, and beautiful book. It still feels so, so fresh, even though it was published over 65 years ago, and I found myself laughing and sharing Cassandra's joys and sorrows. 

Cassandra is by turns humorous, thoughtful, and witty. She makes a great many observations about her life, people in general, and the place she lives in, and many of her musings rang true to me. She's really a great narrator, and her descriptions of the little country town she lives by are marvelous. Godsend has all the hallmarks of a quiet, picturesque little English village with a quirky old castle overlooking it; this is obviously very romantic, but it's balanced by the fact that Cassandra and her family are living in extreme poverty, and their situation is precarious, absurd, and not a little comic. The whole set-up is one that's great for a story; clearly, the Mortmain family needs some help, and this comes in the form of the two Cotton brothers, although not as you might expect.

I enjoyed all of the characters, from the denizens of the castle to the people who arrive and shake things up a bit. I did find Cassandra's sudden falling in love a bit unrealistic, but I suppose that's how love can be sometimes. Anyway, Cassandra is definitely charismatic, and so are Simon and Neil Cotton.

There's plenty of action and suspense in this book, but it's also a quiet and tranquil read. The things that happen are like little ripples on a pond. There's nothing flashy or violent, and nothing is ever life and death, but I still read the book pretty quickly, wanting to know what would happen. At the same time, I didn't want to have to be finished reading, so I tried to conserve sections of the novel. You know something's really good when you want to be immersed in it forever. 

I remembered almost nothing about I Capture the Castle, but every so often there was one page or two that triggered a vague memory; it was quite odd, and the science of that would be interesting to study. For example, there was one page that wasn't even a very important one in the story where Simon sends Cassandra a big box of chocolates, and somehow it triggered something buried way back in my brain. There were a couple of other instances like that too.

I marked many passages as being of merit, both because of the ideas in them and because of the quality of the writing. Cassandra is seventeen, and she's figuring out lots of things about love and life, about who she is, and what she wants to do. For example, the middle paragraph on page 122 is quite interesting and well-written; it's a bit too long to quote in full though. Read more intriguing and witty quotes here on the Goodreads page for them.

Cassandra's narration is very British, and I quite like it. She's fanciful and matter-of-fact at the same time, full of melancholy but remarkably clearheaded. The setting is also quite lovely, and provides an excellent backdrop for the events.

I wanted a less ambiguous ending to this one; it would have been nice for everything to have turned out very well and for the events to be resolved neatly like in a Jane Austen novel. However, that didn't happen. I was surprised by how much I loved this one reading it a second time; I was able, perhaps to appreciate more of the subtleties. It's a book that I know I'll cherish.

343 pages. 

Rating: *****