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: *****

Friday, March 7, 2014

Flora and Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo (illustrated by K.G. Campbell)

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated AdventuresFlora Belle Buckman was in her room at her desk. She was very busy. She was doing two things at once. She was ignoring her mother, and she was also reading a comic book entitled The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!

"Holy unanticipated occurrences! A cynic meets an unlikely superhero in a genre-breaking new novel by master storyteller Kate DiCamillo. It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry—and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart."

I read Flora and Ulysses in the span of a day; it flew by, but I'm still not really sure what I thought of it overall or what rating to give it. On the one hand, it was entertaining and funny, and I loved the illustrations; on the other, it was such an odd specimen of a book. I have to say that I was immediately drawn in by the first scenario: a squirrel is accidentally vacuumed up by the Ulysses Vacuum Cleaner, and when he emerges, Flora gives him squirrel CPR. Ah, the absurdity of it all. The newly named Ulysses comes back to life - only now he has powers that no other squirrel has. As it turns out, Ulysses has super-squirrel strength, flies, and...he can type. Which he enjoys.

But a lot happens before all that is revealed, and it was quite amusing to be swept up along with Flora on her wild, surreal adventure. Things are not all light-hearted; Flora's parents are divorced, and she lives with her romance-writing mother, who doesn't pay much attention to her, to say the least. The cynical Flora believes that her mother loves a shepherdess lamp more than she does Flora, and it certainly seems that way, because Flora's mother is always, always criticizing her. And she's not pleased by this new addition to the home; to her mother the squirrel is just another embodiment of Flora's quirkiness. 

Quirky is how I would describe this book in general. There are so many little things just not quite right about the book; sometimes it seems realistic, but then of course it takes a turn into the wildly fantastical, with Ulysses typing up not very good poetry and craving giant donuts. It was all very goofy, yet there was also a certain charm about the book. It might appeal to younger readers, especially the cute, furry, intelligent animal aspect of it. And it's illustrated superbly.

I just loved the illustrations; they're skillful pencil drawings, and there was just such detail in each and every drawing, down to books on shelves and small objects in the scene. The drawings weren't life-like, but they were certainly realistic; it was easy to tell what everything was, and every detail fit the book. I also loved the illustrations of Ulysses; he's so cute and mischievous looking. My favorite was probably towards the beginning when he gets crackers out of the vacuum cleaner. The other characters are interestingly drawn  too, and I think the book worked very well on that level. Also, how is anyone able to draw like that??!!!? Other people's talent always inspire envy.

Flora was also a pretty awesome character; she's intelligent and animated and she longs for adventure. Her father was odd though, and I really disliked her mother, whose sudden change of heart at the end seemed rather sudden. And I have no words for William Spiver.

Some parts of the book were sort of corny, especially the exclamations of "holy bagumba" and other things. I got kind of tired of those after a while, and the insanity was a bit much. However, in short bursts it was amusing and welcome. I'm not sure that Flora and Ulysses is worthy of the Newbery Medal, but it's a fun children's book. Thanks to Candlewick for providing me with a review copy, and a worth a read for the humor.

233 pages.

Rating: 3.5 stars.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Attending the AWP

On Friday and Saturday, I had the privilege of attending the American Writers Program's annual conference, which this year was held in Seattle, near where I live. My parents were both on a panel, so I got to come along, both as a blogger and as a reader. Unlike ALA and BEA, AWP is more focused towards smaller journals and presses, although plenty of larger publishers had tables and booths as well. I had a lot of fun, though it can get quite overwhelming; the book fair was held in a giant, noisy room, and there are so many tables and so many publishers vying for your attention.

There was also a lot of free paraphernalia, designed to attract people to booths. I picked up a great deal of it, including....

Displaying 20140302_143942.jpg

 Displaying 20140302_143842.jpg

Writing utensils:

 Displaying 20140302_143213.jpg

And, of course, chocolate, mainly dark...:
Displaying 20140302_143713.jpg
They sure know the way to attract people...

Also, here are a few of the pens and pencils I found particularly amusing or nice: Displaying 20140302_143557.jpg
Displaying 20140302_143411.jpg

But of course the main things of interest are the books. Oh, so many books, of all different kinds, poetry and fiction. I saw many books that looked interesting, but I only ended up buying three (though I wrote down the titles of many more).
Displaying 20140302_142813.jpg
1. The 13 Clocks, James Thurber (published by the New York Review of Books!)
2. Momo, Michael Ende: Ende's Neverending Story is quite well-known, but I'd never heard of this one before; it sounds intriguing.
3. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, Brad Gooch

I also was fortunate enough to receive many more books from various publishers (Archipelago, New Directions, Spuyten Duyvil). Hopefully I'll be reviewing some of them very soon.

Displaying 20140302_142913.jpg
Here are the titles:
Conversations, Cesar Aire
Elsa, Tsipi Keller
The Ivory Hour, Laynie Browne
Selected Tales of the Brothers Grimm (featuring illustrations by Haitian artists, this one looks amazing).
Plants Don't Drink Coffee, Unai Elorriaga
A Treatise on Shelling Beans, Wieslaw Mysliwski
Spring Tides, Jacques Poulin
The Chukchi Bible, Yuri Rytkheu

Just as my shelf of books that I need to read was thinning out, more books came pouring in. But I'm not complaining...

Overall, I enjoyed the conference very much, although I would have liked to have been able to go to more panels (E. Lockhart was on several, and I missed it!) Despite the disapproval of many and the fact that it is rather chaotic and uncivilized, I think the conference is a great way for small publishers and journals to promote their work to a good audience, and for people to find out about less popular (and probably better) fiction and poetry. It's no BEA, but AWP probably has more books of merit.