May 14th, 2013
Meg, the narrator of Our Tragic Universe, is a writer: she’s been working for years on a novel that she can’t seem to finish, or even properly start. In the meantime, she’s been ghostwriting YA books, and also writing her own genre fiction, and also reviewing pop science books for a newspaper, the latter of which she’s in the midst of doing when this book starts: the review is due the following day, and she hasn’t actually finished reading the book she’s reviewing. (Meg’s a procrastinator, clearly: two days before the review is due, she’s worried because she hasn’t even looked yet to see what book she’s reviewing, exactly. Which totally made her appealing to me.) So right: she’s reading the book, which is called The Science of Living Forever and turns out to be about the Omega Point (which is a real theory: go read about Frank Tipler): the moment when the universe is “pure energy, capable of everything imaginable, just for a moment” (5). And in this moment, according to the book Meg’s reading, the universe creates a new universe, an eternal one, in which everyone who has ever lived is brought back to life, forever. This is all definitely unappealing to Meg, who’s not so interested in this whole living forever thing: she’s more interested a universe structured like human life as we know it: which is to say, with an end-point.
Meg’s interested in structure in general, actually, and so, clearly, is Scarlett Thomas: a lot of this book is about different ideas of narrative structure, different ways to construct a story, and also about different ways to live. Early in the book, Meg’s talking to a friend who’s having an affair, trying to help the friend construct a plausible alibi for herself. “How do you tell a really good story?” is what Meg’s friend asks her, and Meg’s advice is to “keep it simple,” to “base the story on cause and effect,” and to have “a problem, a climax, and a solution” (13). But that’s not the only kind of story you can tell, and in life cause and effect aren’t necessarily clear: at one point Meg talks about her academic friends Frank and Vi and their re-enactment of Captain Cook’s death: “Was he killed because he demanded too much generosity? Or was it because he’d inadvertently become a character in a ritual, and this character wasn’t supposed to return?” (23). Stories can be dangerous, see?
Captain Cook’s not the only one in danger of becoming a character in a story, with possible negative consequences: the author of the book Meg reads about the Omega Point has a second book that’s all about how to gain immortality, which is basically all about going on a hero’s quest. But that idea of the quest, the idea of being a hero and traveling a set path with a set goal, can be limiting (it leaves out all the things to do in life that aren’t quests, and all the things to be that aren’t heroes). But the hero’s quest isn’t the only possibility. Meg’s friend Vi is doing work on the “storyless story” and reading lots of Zen stories and looking at other non-linear narrative as research.
Not that this book is all about theories of the universe and narrative structure: there are concrete bits, too. Meg’s got a sweet dog, and a boyfriend who’s not particularly a good match for her, and a crush on an older man; she lives in Devonshire, whose landscape, with the River Dart and the sea, the towns and the ferries across the river, is pleasingly described, in passages like this:
I drove out of Dartmouth and after a while Start Bay emerged out of the brightening gloom like the end of a set of parentheses in a book about the natural world. Inside the parentheses was a story about the sea. Outside them, the land: green, red and brown fields, and hills curling over the landscape. I saw small, delicate clumps of snowdrops, big rough patches of gorse, and along the thin road, houses with yellow roses and mimosa growing in their gardens. (268)
But oh, the writerly bits might be my favorite. I loved this, about the things Meg has written and scrapped:
I’d invented a writer character from New York who deletes a whole book until it’s a haiku and then deletes that, but then I deleted him too. […] In the past few years I’d invented a couple of sisters, called Io and Xanthe, who have lost everything in their lives, a building site with yellow cranes, a run-down B&B owned by a chewed-up old woman called Sylvia, an inconsiderate boyfriend, a married lover, a girl in a coma telling her life story from the beginning in real-time, a life-support machine wired up to the Internet, a charismatic A-level physics teacher called Dylan, a psychic game show, an extended game of ‘Dare’ that goes wrong, some people trapped in a sauna, a car accident, a meaningful tattoo, dreams of a post-oil world full of flickering candles, a plane crash, an imposter, a character with OCD who follows any written instructions she sees, some creepy junk mail, a sweet teenage boy on a skateboard and various other things, all of which had now been deleted as well. (31)
April 30th, 2013
The ten stories in Errantry range in length from sixty pages to three pages, with most falling somewhere in the middle, and, as the subtitle puts it, they’re all “strange.” Often, the strangeness is something unexplained or not fully resolved: a man goes to Cornwall in part to repeat a trip his now-dead wife took when she was a teenager, goes inside a fogou (an underground stone structure), and has an odd experience that parallels one recounted to him by one of his wife’s friends who was on the Cornwall trip with her. Or a fantastical creature is living in a park in London. Or a woman explores a strange city and finds a dead bird that isn’t quite a bird. Sometimes the strangeness is more explicit: there’s a werewolf story, and a story that plays with Finnish myth/the Finnish land of the dead.
That story with the Finnish land of the dead, “The Far Shore,” is totally my favorite: a middle-aged former dancer whose career was cut short due to injury, and who’s just lost his teaching job, arranges to stay in the off-season at a camp in Maine owned by his oldest friend. Part of the appeal is the setting and mood, the descriptions of the winter landscape, an early storm and the wind and darkness, in passages like this:
No lights shone beyond the windows of his room. The reflection from the bedside lamp seemed insubstantial as a candle flame; the darkness outside a solid mass, huge and inescapable, that pressed against the panes. His room sat beneath the eaves, where the wind didn’t roar but crooned, a sound like mourning doves. (141)
But “The Far Shore” also appeals because it’s got elements of a love story and of myth and of fairy tale: it’s about the strangeness at the edges of our world, but it’s also about transformation: the appeal of a crossing-over that doesn’t come with a crossing-back. I love this:
Life did not work like this, love did not work like this. Philip knew that. Only stories did, where wonder trumped despair and desire overcame death. The fairy’s kiss, the sacrificial faun; enchanted swans and shoes that sliced like blades, like ice. That was why he had become a dancer, not just to dream of fellowship and flight, but to partake, however fleetingly, in something close to ecstasy—and how long since he had experienced that? (150)
In other stories, I was less interested in the characters or plot or even the strangeness, sometimes, but did appreciate Hand’s lush descriptions: one story includes a trip to the Carolinas and describes getting out of the car at a rest stop after driving south, the transformation of the landscape into a place of honeysuckle and kudzu and the sound of frogs and insects, a world away from the story’s start in DC; another has some vivid descriptions of central London in the snow; the story about Cornwall has this gorgeous bit about the view from the train window on the trip from Plymouth to Penzance:
He’d bought a novel in London at Waterstones, but instead of reading gazed out at a landscape that was a dream of books he’d read as a child—granite farmhouses, woolly-coated ponies in stone paddocks, fields improbably green against lowering grey sky, graphite clouds broken by blades of golden sun, a rainbow that pierced a thunderhead then faded as though erased by some unseen hand. Ringnecked pheasants, a running fox. More fields planted with something that shone a starting goldfinch-yellow. A silvery coastline hemmed by arches of russet stone. Children wrestling in the middle of an empty road. A woman walking with head bowed against the wind, hands extended before her like a diviner. (82)
I’m pleased to have read this, though I wish it had been proofread/copy-edited better: typos that made me wince included “soundlesss” for “soundless,” “ever” for “every,” “majety” for “majesty,” “wanings” for “warnings,” and more that I didn’t bother to note down.
The Patagonian Hare by Claude Lanzmann
Translated by Frank Wynne
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
(English translation originally Atlantic Books, 2012)
April 23rd, 2013
Claude Lanzmann knows how to get a reader’s attention: the first sentence of the first chapter of his memoir (originally published in French in 2009) is this: “The guillotine – more generally, capital punishment and the various methods of meting out death – has been the abiding obsession of my life” (1). He goes on to talk about seeing a film featuring a scene with a guillotine when he was a child, how it stayed with him: how later, as an adult, he paid attention to executions: “I compelled myself to anticipate or relive the last moments […] of the condemned men,” he says (3). He’s concerned with the moments of “the irreversible,” “the irreparable” (4, 8). This all ties in, of course, to the work for which he’s best known—Shoah—of which he says this: “it is not about the point of departure but about the last leg of the journey, the last junction, when it is too late, when what cannot be undone is about to be done” (513).
But meanwhile, there’s been a whole lot of stuff in Lanzmann’s life, between his birth in 1925 and this book’s writing in 2009, and the book is wonderfully full of so much experience. I like how interesting so much of it is: whether he’s talking about being a passenger in an Israeli army F-16 in his 60s or harvesting grapes in the south of France at age 14, or talking about paintings (El Greco, Goya), Lanzmann makes me want to pay attention. There are some slow stretches (I wasn’t as interested in the sections about fighting in the Resistance—ambushes, weapons, convoys—or the section about visiting Egypt then Israel just before the Six Day War), but mostly I was entranced by Lanzmann’s story, and by his wonderful long sentences: like this, when he’s talking about a painting by Goya:
But one would be wrong to think these legless men are trying to defend themselves; their chief concern is killing, and the resolve of each consciousness to secure the other’s death is so primal that – and this is the excruciating lesson of the painting – there can be no master, no slave, no victor and no vanquished, but since neither values life over death, only two bloody, battered, twisted corpses lying dead beneath a great dark luminous sky of dread, the sky of Aragon or of Castile with its flashes of turquoise peeping through the dense black clouds. (30)
That idea, the idea of valuing life over death, is also clearly part of the story of the survivors who speak in Shoah, and is another one of Lanzmann’s big concerns: he talks, at the end of the book, about “incarnation,” about “wild joy,” about a sense of life, and that, and the way that he captures it, is a big part of the book’s appeal (527-528).
Also excellent are the stories of Lanzmann’s various amorous adventures: going out walking with his stepfather to learn how to seduce ladies with words, having an older married lover, being taken to a brothel for the first time by his father and stepfather, loving and living with Simone de Beauvoir, vacationing with her and Sartre, seducing/being seduced by a nurse in North Korea despite their lack of a common language: there are moments where bits of it feel like picaresque swagger, but mostly it reads as pure delight in life. The sections about travel capture this too, in passages like this, about Lanzmann’s first trip to Italy:
I was intensely excited, the connecting of names with places, the names of stations fleetingly glimpsed in the darkness – Brig, Simplon, Domodossola, Stresa – all attested to the truth of the world, merging language and reality, poignantly revealing the truth. (178-179).
This theme repeats, too, when Lanzmann talks about the making of Shoah, about going to Poland and being staggered by the continued existence of Treblinka: the village alongside the extermination camp, the village that was there when the camp was active, the peasants who were there when the camp was active. There’s also a great bit about the past becoming present in a passage about buying postcards of the Bund in pre-Communist China from a hawker in Shanghai, and more of that same sensation on Lanzmann’s second trip to North Korea, when he tries to revisit the sites of his decades-past unconsummated affair with that nurse. Sometimes this sense that the past is still present leads to sections that feel like settling old scores or trying to have the last word, but the annoyance I felt at those sections was small compared to my interest in the rest.
Having abandoned my TBR Double Dog Dare plans of reading from my own shelves until April 1st by checking out Speaking from Among the Bones from the library, I couldn’t resist checking out Etiquette & Espionage, too. It might not have been the right book at the right time for me, though: reading this particular kind of YA book after the particular kind of mystery that Speaking from Among the Bones is might be too much light reading all at once. Fun, but a little lacking: now I really want to read something thorny, or something beautiful, or something true.
Which isn’t to say Etiquette & Espionage was bad. It’s the first book in Gail Carriger’s new “Finishing School” series, which is set in the same world as the five books in Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, which I’ve read and enjoyed over the past few years. Think steampunk alternate Victorian London (this book is set in 1851), with vampires and werewolves and robotic butlers, though the vampires and werewolves are so far more on the fringes of this series than the last one.
Sophronia Temminick, the heroine of this book, is fourteen and a bit of a handful. As her mother puts it, “when she isn’t reading, she’s taking something apart or flirting with the footman, or climbing things—trees, furniture, even other people” (9). Something needs to be done, Mrs. Temminick decides, so she sends Sophronia off to finishing school. Sophronia is horrified, though she brightens up a bit when she finds that her new school is housed in three connected dirigibles “bobbing above [a moor] in chubby floating majesty” (45). And as it turns out, Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Quality Finishing School for Young Ladies doesn’t only teach dance steps and etiquette: it also teaches espionage and intrigue.
And to make things more exciting, Sophronia’s very arrival at the school is fraught with danger and excitement: as she’s en route to the moor with Dimity (another girl in her class), Dimity’s brother Pillover (who’s en route to the nearby boys’ school), and Monique (an older student who’s meant to be on her final assignment before graduation), the carriage they’re in gets attacked by highway robbers who seem to be looking for something very specific, a prototype of something, though Sophronia doesn’t know what.
The book is a mix of steampunk adventure and standard boarding-school-story fare: Sophronia gets to know the teachers and her classmates, and explores out-of-bounds places after hours, and also tries to figure out what the prototype is and where it might be hidden (and what Monique might be up to, since clearly she’s up to no good). As in the Parasol Protectorate series, the narration is sometimes funny, and sometimes over the top, and sometimes both: I loved the introductory descriptions of Pillover: “Mummy and Daddy want him to be an evil genius, but he has his heart set on Latin verse,” Dimity says (19). And then, commenting on how good he is: “poor Pillover can’t even bring himself to murder ants with his Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification” (ibid.). Also, this, when Sophronia and others are exploring:
Before they could push inside, Pillover said, “Careful! It might be booby-trapped.”
Everyone stopped and looked at him.
“Evil genius training school, remember? I’d booby-trap it, if I were them, and I’m only discourteous genius level.” (pp 190-191)
The other highlight, for me, was getting to see some characters from the Parasol Protectorate series as their younger selves, “Vieve” in particular.
Oops, so much for sticking to the TBR Double Dog Dare until April 1st. I heard that there was a new Flavia de Luce mystery out, and promptly put a hold on it at the library, expecting it might take a while to get to me. But it didn’t, and once I got the email telling me it was ready to pick up, well, I couldn’t not go get it, and once I had it, I couldn’t not read it. These mysteries are good light reading for me when I’m not sure what to read next: Flavia (the eleven-year-old heroine/sleuth) is clever and funny, and Bradley’s writing can be pleasingly playful: this book, for example, starts with a description of Flavia staring raptly at a severed head dripping blood: it takes a few sentences for it to become apparent that it’s a stained-glass window showing Salome and Herodias with the head of John the Baptist.
Blood is a recurring image in the book, which Flavia herself comments on: blood as a clue in a crime, but also blood in the sense of family ties, and as a subject of scientific investigation (in addition to being into detection, Flavia is passionate about chemistry, and analyzes her own blood (and that of her family members) under her fancy microscope). But right, the crime, and the mystery: it’s 1951, the quincentennial of the death of Saint Tancred, patron saint of the village of Bishop’s Lacey, and the saint’s tomb is to be opened by archaeologists. When the crypt is opened, though, there’s the surprise of a much more recent corpse: the church’s organist, who hasn’t been seen in about six weeks, and who, oddly, is wearing a gas mask.
Naturally, Flavia figures out who killed the organist and why, and the process of her doing so is, as usual, full of adventure and danger: she sneaks into places she shouldn’t, takes a late-night trip to the churchyard to investigate a tunnel between an outdoor grave and the church’s crypt, and has to contend with the criminals themselves. Meanwhile, ongoing family drama from the earlier books continues: Flavia’s older sisters still sometimes make life difficult for her (though they also have moments of humor or sweetness together), and the fate of Buckshaw, the de Luce family home, is still in peril.
The one thing that got on my nerves in this book was how much dialogue there is featuring Mrs. Mullet, Flavia’s family’s housekeeper, who’s perpetually dropping her aitches and spouting malapropisms (“A real fright, she ‘ad, babblin’ on about Mr. Collicutt and the four ‘orsemen of the pocket lips,” Mrs. Mullet says at one point (188).) Other than that, this was a fun read, with a cliffhanger of an ending that pretty much ensures I’ll pick up the next one when it comes out.
February 26th, 2013
Un Lun Dun seems, at first, like it’s going to be one of those standard YA fantasy stories where a young person is somehow chosen to learn about another world whose existence he or she hadn’t ever imagined And, you know how it goes, that other world is in peril, and the chosen one has to undertake a quest to save it, just as the prophecies of that other world foretold. Except it doesn’t turn out to be like that, not quite, and the way Un Lun Dun subverts those tropes is part of what’s pleasing about it.
But right: there is another world, or at least, another city: UnLondon is London’s uncanny counterpart, its “abcity.” (“Abcities have existed at least as long as the cities,” one character explains. “Each dreams the other.” (109)) And UnLondon is in peril: it’s threatened by the Smog, animate and malevolent pollution. And all the signs seem to point to Zanna being the one who will save it, despite the fact that she’s an ordinary London schoolgirl: she’s in the book of UnLondon prophecies, after all. After a series of strange events (including a fox that seems to be watching her from the edge of the playground, an excited stranger who approaches her in a café and calls her “Shwazzy”—i.e., choisi— and a mysterious letter, complete with an UnLondon travelcard tucked inside the envelope), Zanna and her friend Deeba find their way to UnLondon, without yet knowing what it’s called or that they’re going to it. All they can tell, when they first arrive, is that they’re not at home in Kilburn—they’re “somewhere very else” (32).
Zanna, being the Shwazzy, is meant to visit the Propheseers: they and their book will explain to her how she’s meant to defeat the Smog. But her first encounter with the Smog doesn’t match the prophecies at all, and she and Deeba end up back in London, where Deeba finds that Zanna’s memory of their journey is entirely gone. Deeba, though, can’t stop thinking about the people she and Zanna met, and about the danger UnLondon’s in. Something she and Zanna were told by someone who claimed to be fighting the Smog doesn’t seem right to her, and she’s increasingly concerned that things are very wrong in UnLondon. Since Zanna’s in no position to go back, Deeba realizes it’s up to her to return and find out if her fears and suspicions are true. This is good, because she’s much more interesting than Zanna as a protagonist: where Zanna was more or less blindly (and sometimes befuddledly) acting out her destiny (or not), Deeba is smart and curious and observant: she pays attention to people and circumstances and figures things out. And since she’s not the Shwazzy, and since the prophecies have already been shown to be wrong, she doesn’t feel the need to go through every step of the quest in her efforts to fight the Smog.
The way Miéville plays with and subverts fantasy tropes isn’t the only pleasing thing about the book, though: its other big strength, for me, was the setting, the descriptions of UnLondon itself. The abcity is full of fantastical things: houses and buildings made of discarded objects from the city, buses that navigate through the air suspended from balloons, a roaming bridge, a forest/jungle inside a house, a market where vendors sell arrangements of tools like arrangements of flowers, and other wonders, too. I especially love the description of Wraithtown, where UnLondon’s ghosts live, and where the buildings are ghostly as well:
Each of the houses, halls, shops, factories, churches, and temples was a core of brick, wood, concrete or whatever, surrounded by a wispy corona of earlier versions of itself. Every extension that had ever been built and knocked down, every smaller, squatter outline, every different design: all hung on to existence as spectres. Their insubstantial, colourless forms shimmered in and out of sight. Every building was cocooned in its older, dead selves. (202)
Miéville’s illustrations—crosshatched drawings of the cityscape and its inhabitants—are also satisfying (the title page, above, is totally my favorite).
February 15th, 2013
I should perhaps start by saying that Cryptonomicon probably isn’t a book I would have picked up on my own. I’d heard good things about it, and all my friends on Goodreads who have rated this book either liked it or really liked it (four gave it five stars, two gave it four stars, and one gave it three stars), but there wasn’t anything that made me think that I would necessarily really like it. But then my boyfriend gave me a copy for Christmas (it’s one of his favorite books) because we were planning a trip to Manila (I had to go for work; he decided to come along for fun), and chunks of the book are set there. He was re-reading it while I was reading it, which was pretty excellent: one of this book’s big strengths, for me, is the humor, and it was nice to have someone to share funny lines with.
Another strength of the book is its structure: it jumps around in time between the years before and during WWII and the late 1990s, and follows the intersecting stories of several characters/families of characters. There’s Bobby Shaftoe, a haiku-composing Marine who’s stationed in Shanghai at the book’s start. There’s Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a socially clueless math-and-organ-playing prodigy who’s friends with Alan Turing and becomes a cryptanalyst during the war (and invents a computer). There’s Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier with a knack for poetry and engineering, who becomes unlikely friends with Bobby Shaftoe. There’s Randy Waterhouse, Lawrence’s grandson, who’s a little less socially clueless but definitely a computer nerd, and who happens to meet and fall for Amy Shaftoe, Bobby’s granddaughter, who runs a marine services company in the Philippines with her father, which entails sonar scans, laying submarine cable, and diving for treasure. The shifting focus of the narratives and the way everything/everyone comes together is pretty satisfying, and the other pleasing thing about the structure is how much is in it besides straight narrative and dialogue: there are haiku, decoded messages, emails, and mathematical problems/digressions, along with occasional diagrams.
All those stories and all those things, though, make for a sprawling book, and sometimes Cryptonomicon was a slog for me. I think most of it was the characters: it bothered me, after a while, that basically all the main characters are dudes, and the women in the story are basically all relatives of the men or love-interests of the men. There are a few exceptions—the company Randy’s part of has a female partner (though she gets less time in the story than any of the other stakeholders of the company) and a female secretary (who’s kind of an intentional token character). I’m pretty sure that this book does not pass the Bechdel test. I don’t normally think of myself as wanting/needing significant female characters in order to really like a book—I mean, I’m not a gender essentialist/I don’t actually believe in a gender binary—but here it irked me. I think it was partly to do with the ensemble nature of the story/structure: if I’m reading a book that’s told through first-person narration, or even is a narrative centered around a single person, I don’t necessarily care if that person is a man or a woman or whatever. But if I’m getting a story that alternates its center/shifts its focus, but somehow keeps focusing on people who are dudes, that grates a bit. My other problem with the book was that sometimes Stephenson’s style veers close to over-written: there are moments when it seems fully intentional and therefore works for me: there’s a great moment in a chapter focused on Lawrence that takes a metaphor too far in a way that’s somehow totally apt: there’s talk about how when he crosses the street in London he can’t remember which way the traffic is coming from, which “diverts his train of thought onto a siding, much to the disturbance of its passengers and crew” (143-144). But then there are sentences like this, which kind of makes me want to grind my teeth: “The sun has made a long, skidding crash-landing along the Malay Peninsula a few hundred kilometers west, breaking open and spilling its thermonuclear fuel over about half of the horizon, trailing out a wall of salmon and magenta clouds that have blown a gash all the way through the shell of the atmosphere and erupted into space” (pp 890-891).
Still, those complaints aside, I’m glad to have read this and liked it more than not; I’m even kind of pondering reading Quicksilver, another book by Stephenson, after I finish my TBR Double Dog Dare.
January 10th, 2013
It was Ian Parker’s piece in the New Yorker back in October that made me want to read The Casual Vacancy: in that piece, Parker describes it as “a rural comedy of manners that, having taken on state-of-the-nation social themes, builds into black melodrama,” and says the plot focuses on several households in a fictional village in the Southwest of England called Pagford. I like books that are about a place and the intersecting lives of the people in it (e.g. Zadie Smith’s NW), so this sounded promising. Where NW has the exuberance of London (and of Smith’s stylistic playfulness) going for it, The Casual Vacancy has the claustrophobia of a tiny village where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and where local politics (the events of the book are set in motion by the death of a town councillor, and the question of who will take his vacant seat) come with acrimony and scandal. It also has a lot of unhappy and/or smug and unlikeable characters doing fairly awful things to one another: there’s a man who verbally and physically abuses his wife and sons; there’s a wishy-washy man who’s let his girlfriend move to town from London even though he’s not that into her; there’s a teenage boy who bullies a girl in his class; there’s a heroin addict; there are gossips and pompous jerks who make each other unhappy in smaller ways.
But despite all that, a lot of this book is really pleasing to read. Rowling is great at rendering the shifts and flows of her characters’ thoughts, and how information travels in a small town, and how individuals and families hold secrets. Near the end of the book, there’s a section describing one fateful morning and how various characters’ paths cross: the pacing and rhythm of it is really satisfying. And throughout, there are some good turns of phrase, and some wonderfully described moments: at one point the narrator describes two characters thinking about the vacant council seat “not as an empty space, but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities” (38). In another scene, when a pop song is played as the closing music at a funeral, there’s this, which is so right on and hilarious:
The congregation filed slowly out of the church, trying not to walk in time to the beat of the song. (164)
At times, though, scenes or characters feel clichéd: there are pieces of the sections concerned with class/poverty (a big concern in Pagford is the local housing project and whether it can be redistricted to belong to the nearby city, Yarvil) that felt that way to me, and some of the scenes of teen angst did, too. I wasn’t really a fan of the ending, either: oh, look, bad things happen to the girl who has sex—sigh.
January 1st, 2013
Happy 2013! I hope yours is off to a good start: mine definitely is. Today has included, among other things: very good coffee, ice skating on newly-sharpened skates at a not-too-crowded rink, and a handstand on the beach. My day has not yet included any curling up with a book, but that’s coming next: I started The Casual Vacancy the other day and am enjoying it so far, and am planning to sit on the couch with it and some rooibos chai shortly. But first: what I read and liked in 2012.
I read 54 books in 2012—though that does include some picture books, which don’t exactly count, but I’m counting them anyhow.
Picture books: 2
Other kids’/YA books: 9
Fiction (for grown-ups): 29
Works in translation: 7
Favorites: There but for the by Ali Smith. So smart and engaged and human. Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, which I couldn’t shut up about for months because of how good it was: self-aware and introspective and interesting. NW by Zadie Smith, for its stylistic play and cleverness but also for how it’s as much about a corner of a city as it is about the people who inhabit it. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, because it’s a play off A Wrinkle in Time. Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere by André Aciman, for the way Aciman explores place and memory and nostalgia and being in the world as a certain kind of person.
2013 plans: the plan for 2013, reading-wise, is basically to have no plans, other than the 2013 edition of the TBR Double Dog Dare, which means I’ll be reading off my bookshelves between now and April 1. I’m looking forward to it.
December 31st, 2012
One of the quotes on the back cover of Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty is from Ben Marcus, who calls Diane Williams’s stories the “ideal delivery system” for “the uncanny”: that was the closest thing I could find as a point of entry to these fifty-one short short stories. Or maybe that’s not entirely true: I could see the appeal on the level of words or sentences or phrases, like: “I want to end this at the flabber, although I am flabbergasted” (13)—that’s from the first piece in the book, “My Defects,” which is quoted in full in Daniel Green’s review of this book over at identitytheory.com. I liked the moments of wordplay or verbal slips: in “Between Midnight and 6 AM” (which you can read in full on the McSweeney’s site) the narrator says: “To get anywhere in my life at this time!—rather, to get anywhere near my wife at this time!—that can take days” (16). And I liked this, from “Woman in Rose Dress”: “She hadn’t been married long, it was a spring day, and she was uninterested still in her own love story” (35). But I felt uncomfortably adrift in many of the pieces and in the book as a whole: this is a world made strange, a world of dream logic, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I realize this is probably part of the point: in the almost-title story (“Vicky Swanky Was a Beauty”) there’s this: “Cruelly, I’ve seen nothing in the book I am reading—about me. I need to see specifically my life with pointers in the book” (66). Touché?