When I finished reading Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith, I immediately went back to the beginning and started it again, which is something I’ve done before with books of poems but not so much with collections of short stories, but for some reason with this one I felt like I should, and I’m glad I did. I think partly I felt like I would enjoy this book more on a re-read, which is true: this may say more about my reading style and/or the kind of week I’d been having than about the book, which consists of 24 pieces, alternating between fiction (short stories) and nonfiction (brief pieces about the importance of public libraries, with input/personal stories from various writers and other people Smith knows). I liked some bits more than I liked others, and I feel like I would have appreciated this even more if I had a personal connection to any of the writers who serve as touchstones in some of the fictional pieces (DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Herrick), but overall I really like Smith’s style, her allusiveness and wordplay and humor and smarts.

The fictional pieces in this book are themselves often about books, or about narrative, or about writers, or about memory, and are also often about possibility, about an ordinary day becoming something out of the ordinary in some way, and about the larger sense of opening or possibility that’s tied to memory and story and also to stepping outside normal routines. Highlights for me include the first story, “Last,” which starts with clichés about endings that turn literal and includes a whole bunch of wordplay and etymology,”The Definite Article,” which is about Regent’s Park and is full of really excellent details, and “The Human Claim,” which includes DH Lawrence and credit card fraud and Google Street View, and totally works. There are so many good phrases and descriptions and sentences and paragraphs in these and the rest of the stories in this book: a ride on a very crowded train, for example, is “an exercise in aloofness” (6). A mild winter day in London is “one of the days in January that spring sends ahead of itself” (157). And oh I love this sentence, about reading about Robert Herrick:

There wasn’t much known about this poet’s actual life, the book said, other than that his father killed himself by jumping out of a fourth-floor window, so the book was a lot about what it was like to be on the edge of poverty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the part of London called Cheapside, and about how the houses jutted out from themselves above their first floors, overhung themselves like mushrooms, or galleons, and how until 1661 the people in London had been duty-bound to see to the lighting of their own streets, required by law to hang out lit candles on dark nights. (174)

In the nonfiction bits, I loved Sophie Mayer’s description of the public library as “the best possible shared space, a community of consent — an anarcho-syndicalist collective where each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings, and knowledge: the book” (75-76). Also, this, from Emma Wilson, on going to the library as a child: “Choosing books each week was like laying out the dreams I could have” (124). I have had public library cards from the library wherever I’ve lived from childhood on; I got one in Cambridge, MA in college even though I was only there for a summer and I remember reading Philip Pullman and Walter Benjamin sprawled on the grass in the park; more recently, so many of the books I’ve read over the past decade-plus have been checked out from the Brooklyn Public Library, some that I’ve sought out specifically and others that I’ve just found by chance on the shelves. It’s preaching to the choir to tell me that public libraries expand horizons and provide important services for a huge range of people, but I did enjoy reading about other people’s library-moments and library-memories.

When I was about thirty pages into this book, I told my boyfriend I felt like it was going to be an unsubtle comedy, and I think it pretty much was, but that was totally what I was in the mood for. I wanted a fast-paced and plot-driven book that I was going to be totally engrossed in, and this book was exactly that: I regularly found myself completely absorbed in it on the subway or at lunchtime, and definitely stayed up past my bedtime reading it one night, only to decide to stop before the end so I’d have the pleasure of more of the book on my morning commute. This is Connie Willis in To Say Nothing of the Dog mode, more or less, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

The book is set in the near future and centers around characters working at Commspan, a smartphone manufacturer that’s trying to build the next big thing to try to compete with Apple. Briddey’s boyfriend, Trent, has just asked her to get an EED (empathy-enhancing device? the abbreviation isn’t spelled out anywhere that I noticed) with him: it’s a surgical procedure that will supposedly let the two of them sense each other’s feelings. He says he wants to propose to her, but wants to be connected via the EED first, so she’ll know how much he loves her. But, um, they’ve been dating for six weeks, and I decided on page 6, when it’s mentioned that Trent drives a Porsche, that he’s clearly going to be a jerk with ulterior motives. Briddey’s female co-workers are all telling her how excited they are for her, but another co-worker, C.B, a genius tech guy who works by himself in a lab in the company’s basement, keeps trying to tell her that maybe elective brain surgery is not such a great idea, for a whole lot of reasons. But Briddey and Trent get the surgery anyway, and it’s no surprise to C.B., or to the reader, that there are unintended consequences, which Briddey then has to deal with.

I had a few issues with Crosstalk, like the fact that by the end of the book I still had no idea what Briddey’s job actually was, despite that she’s apparently important enough to have an assistant. (Trent, meanwhile, has a secretary, which was a difference in terminology that felt gendered and weird.) And C.B. is apparently the only tech guy in the company? Or are there other tech people but he just works on his own? Also, this book is really straight: we hear about a bunch of other couples who have gotten the EED, and all of them seem to be male/female, which was a minor annoyance for me: it would have been easy to have the Commspan co-worker who tells Briddey how transformative the EED has been in her relationship to have been in a relationship with a woman rather than a man, or for any of the celebrities name-dropped to have been in a same-sex partnership. And some of the surgery’s unintended consequences and the explanations around them felt a bit thrown together or problematic, in ways it’s hard to talk about without being spoiler-y. But overall, I was so swept along by the plot that I didn’t really care.

The Bone People is another book that was recommended to me as pre-New-Zealand reading, and I spent the past week finding it pretty hard to put down, to the point (well, actually, this isn’t so unusual for me) where I was reading it while walking down the hallway between the elevator and the door to the office at work (prompting a maintenance/construction worker to grin at me and say, “wow, that must be a really good book”). It is a complicated book: poetic and twisty, with language that is sometimes fun/playful, sometimes gorgeous, and a plot that goes from unsettling to dark and then veers into magic in a way that totally works, in some ways, but also is hard to reconcile with what came before. I don’t think I can talk about this book without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know some significant plot details, maybe stop reading now.

The book starts with disorientation, with a section called “The End at the Beginning,” in which the reader doesn’t have much idea what’s going on, but in which there’s this, which Sam Jordison in the Guardian books blog holds up as an example of bad writing, but which I rather like, both for the sentiment it offers and for how it ultimately fits into the story:

They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great.
Together, all together, they are the instruments of change. (4)

So, OK, the story. We meet Kerewin, who is a wealthy and isolated artist who finds herself unable to create new work. She lives in a lovely and idiosyncratic tower she’s had built on the coast; her family is part Maori and part European (though she says at one point she feels “all Maori”); she’s estranged from her relatives (76). One day she comes home to find a child in her tower: this is Simon, who’s around seven years old and mute; he’s not Maori, but his foster father, Joe, (mostly) is. Simon, we learn, was the sole survivor of a shipwreck a few years back; Joe and his family took him in, but then Joe’s wife and biological son both died, leaving Joe to raise Simon on his own. Joe drinks rather a lot (as does Kerewin) and regularly beats Simon, who often skips school and has a habit of stealing. Joe and Simon enter Kerewin’s life, breaking her solitude: “I am in limbo,” she thinks to herself at one point earlier in the book, “and in limbo there are no races, no prizes, no changes, no chances”: well, now there is change (34). But then there is a crisis, or a few crises: Joe beats Simon so badly that he ends up in a coma; Kerewin partly blames herself, and oh, she also seems to have stomach cancer, and nearly dies. Simon does end up recovering somewhat, though his hearing has been damaged, and he just wants to reunite with Joe and Kerewin. And here’s where the magic comes in: Joe, after serving his jail sentence, meets a Maori elder who has apparently been waiting for his arrival: the elder guards a sacred stone and Joe is to be its new guardian. Kerewin, in self-imposed exile awaiting death, has an encounter with a strange being, after which she is cured. Kerewin and Simon and Joe are all reunited, and Kerewin is reconciled with her family for good measure. This is the part I have trouble with. If we take care of the spirit of the land, the end of the book seems to be saying, the spirit of the land may take care of us. And also: if we work at building a community, that community can be there for us. Both of which are heartening and hopeful ideas, but at the same time, a story that ends with the reunion of an abused child and the person who abused him (and others who failed to stop the abuse, despite knowing about it) makes me feel pretty uncomfortable, as does the way the book doesn’t really present any better alternatives. Read more allegorically and less literally, with Joe representing Maori culture, Simon representing European culture, and Kerewin representing a mix of them, maybe the ending works better/differently: the three can come together with others to build something that is a mix of all their perspectives and that has a strength that’s tied to the land itself. But that allegorical reading feels like a stretch to me, after the realistic brutality and violence of the earlier sections of the book.

Jo Walton wrote about this book on tor.com back in 2009; I like her post a lot, though she feels differently about the ending.

Library book stack

February 5th, 2017

Library books

I went to the library yesterday to return one book, and ended up checking out four more – oops/yay! From top to bottom: 1) The Bone People by Keri Hulme – I already had this checked out, just took it out of my bag for the picture. This one’s another pre-New-Zealand-trip reading recommendation. I started it last night and it’s really satisfying so far, with lots of satisfyingly-rendered quirky inner monologue. 2) Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, because I’ve been meaning to read this for ages but haven’t yet. 3) Public Library by Ali Smith, because I generally love her playfulness/smarts/inventiveness. 4) The Chimes by Anna Smaill, because I’ve been vaguely meaning to check it out since this 2015 post by Teresa over at Shelf Love. 5) Crosstalk by Connie Willis, because I want to get lost in a story and in the past I’ve found her work really good for that.

Two things that are relevant to my reading of this book:
1) I’m going on vacation to New Zealand at the start of April! I’m very excited. One of my favorite people has lived in Auckland for several years now and has kept telling me I should come visit and I finally am going to. She gave me some NZ-centric book and movie recommendations and this comic, by NZ artist Dylan Horrocks, was one of them.
2) In general, I like graphic memoirs more than I like graphic novels or other kinds of comics. It’s hard for me to articulate why that is, but something about a personal narrative in words + pictures is really appealing to me. As such, possibly my favorite part of this book was the introduction to this new (2010) edition, in which Horrocks talks about his own childhood connections to comics, Tintin especially, and his subsequent work as an artist creating them. The drawings of Tintin panels are great, and so is the rest of the introduction – I especially like a bit where we see Horrocks looking out a window at a view of sea and sky and mountains, his own frowning reflection looking back at him.

Not that I didn’t like the book itself, too, which is about a journalist, Leonard Batts, who travels to Hicksville, a (fictional) tiny town in New Zealand, to learn more about his comic-book-writing hero, Dick Burger, who is from there. When he arrives, he finds that everyone in town really loves comics, and no one particularly seems to like Dick Burger: part of the story is Leonard (and us) finding out why. The book is full of comics quotes and references and in-jokes, and also full of comics itself—we get a mysterious strip about Captain Cook and the Māori leader Hōne Heke and the surveyor Charles Heaphy, plus a character’s weekly strip for a humor magazine, plus a character’s autobiographical mini-comic, and more. We also get the Māori story of how the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) came to be, and digressions on maps and map-making and navigating and art-making/storytelling, and a fair bit of tea, which Leonard, unfortunately, does not enjoy at all. Even outside of the comics within the book, the story jumps in location and time: we see one character, Grace, in the present/returning to Hicksville after time away; we also see some of her time away. There’s a lot going on, is I guess what I am trying to say, and it mostly works, though some of the comics references were lost on me (there is a helpful glossary at the back, which I wish I’d known about sooner)! I like both the writing and the art, which is good at both big wordless pages full of water and sky and light and at detailed panels that show things like, for example, one character having a copy of If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

I don’t generally read romance novels (semi-exception: I did have fun with Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books, though after the first one they didn’t feel that romance-y) and when I started this one I wasn’t sure I was going to be into it. And I do sort of think that if I were to want to find a romance novel I would really really like, my best bet would be something more modern and less straight. But happily, Sprig Muslin isn’t actually that heavy on the romance: it’s more focused on a madcap series of (mis)adventures, with romance as a frame.

Early in the book we meet Sir Gareth Ludlow, who’s 35, rich, handsome, and single: the woman he loved died in a carriage accident seven years earlier, and he’s never loved anyone since. But as a sole surviving son, he feels like it’s his duty to marry and have a family so the Ludlow name/line won’t end with him. He’s therefore decided to propose to an old friend, Lady Hester Theale, who’s smart and kind but rather plain; she’s 29 and her (fairly horrid/overbearing) father, sisters, brother, and sister-in-law are sure she’ll never get any suitable marriage offers now. Gareth is pretty sure Hester will say yes: I mean, she’ll get out of her unpleasant home situation, he’ll provide for her, and they’re friends, right? But (I don’t feel it’s spoilery to say this, because it’s on the back cover) Hester refuses. And meanwhile, there’s Amanda to reckon with.

Gareth meets Amanda in an inn as he’s en route to propose to Hester: she’s arguing with the landlord (who won’t give her a room) and he’s shocked to see a clearly well-off young lady traveling without a chaperon. He doesn’t know what her story might be, but he feels that as a gentleman, it’s his duty to get her back home safely. Except she won’t tell him her last name. She’s sixteen, and she’s run off, she explains, because her grandfather won’t consent to her marrying her love, who’s a 24-year-old soldier named Neil. Neil won’t elope with her, which leaves her at an impasse: she’s decided that running off and being a governess or maid or something will show her grandfather that she can take care of herself, and that he should listen to what she wants. Gareth takes Amanda under his care as he tries to figure out how he can reunite her with her grandfather, but meanwhile she keeps trying to give him the slip because she’s set on seeing her plan of independence through. Hilarity ensues, not least in the interplay between Gareth’s amused and avuncular interactions with Amanda and her indignant /stubborn/scheming attempts to run off. And of course, Hester’s refusal of Gareth’s proposal ends up not being the last we see of her. This was a fun light read, full of entertaining dialogue and pleasing period slang and detail.

Empty Streets, which was originally published in Czech in 2004, is the third of Michal Ajvaz’s novels to be published in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press, and the third that I’ve read and enjoyed. This one is set in Prague in the summer of 1999: when it opens we meet our unnamed narrator, a writer who’s working on a novella but is finding himself buried in paper and unable to tame the story he’s trying to write, which is a “mass of restless, elusive, metamorphosing, barely legible pages” that’s taken over his desk and is “turning into a monstrosity” (4). He takes a walk to take a break, and cuts through a dump on a construction site; he steps on a strange wooden double-trident, and finds himself dreaming up fantastical uses for it as he tries to figure out what it is/does/is for. And then he sees the symbol again, as a screensaver on the computer of a designer he knows, who tells him the story of how he rents a room in a villa from an old man, and saw the double trident appear and disappear again in a framed picture. After which the narrator gets a call from the designer’s landlord, Jakub Jonáš, who tells him the picture is a portrait of his 24-year-old daughter, Viola, who disappeared two years ago.

Despite his initial reluctance, the narrator finds himself agreeing to look for Jonáš’s daughter: as the novel progresses, he finds himself caught up in the search, crossing from one part of the city to another following different leads and hearing different stories that might be related to Viola and/or the strange symbol and/or other possible mysteries that surface along the way. I like the way the stories gradually unspool, the way one person leads the narrator to another and then the way that person leads him on to the next. I found myself thinking, a bit, of the TV show Search Party, with our narrator as analogous to Alia Shawkat’s Dory: they’re each at a point of being stuck in life/work, and for each of them, a mystery rouses them to action, though there’s rather less melodrama in Empty Streets. It’s hard to say more without getting into the lovely convolutions of this book’s plot, which I think are best experienced without knowing much beforehand.

So I’ll just close with an image I like a whole lot: Ajvaz’s narrator has been watching a TV show in which “people at a mansion in (probably) Scotland untangle problems in their love affairs” (26). He then looks out the window, to other apartments on his street, and notices that “In almost every window the light gained and lost intensity to the same rhythm, as the residents of the Scottish mansion moved from the darkness of the drawing room to the terrace and back again” (28).

The Luck Uglies is a pleasing middle-grade fantasy novel, the kind that starts with a charmingly-drawn map of the place where the book is set, which in this case is a village called Drowning, though really it’s “more of a sprawling town than a village, one built on a foundation of secrets, rules, and lies, but mostly just mud” (3). As the book opens, we meet eleven-year-old Rye O’Chanter and her friends Folly and Quinn, who are running across the town’s rooftops with an accidentally-stolen book, its owner in hot pursuit: it’s clear this is going to be a story with significant amounts of adventure.

The stolen book, though, isn’t really at the center of things, though it does feature a bit in the plot. Drowning has problems, and not just because of the Earl who governs it with heavy taxes, arbitrary fines, and repressive laws. Drowning has a river on one side and bogs on the other, and the bogs have historically been home to dangerous creatures called Bog Noblins—though they’re supposed to be extinct, vanquished by a quasi-criminal gang called the Luck Uglies who were then pushed out of town themselves. But what if the Bog Noblins are still out there? When Rye actually sees one, this becomes more than a theoretical question. If the Luck Uglies are gone, who will protect the town now? Or are the Luck Uglies still around, too?

Rye (who lives just outside the town walls, near the bogs, with her mom and her younger sister and their cat) learns rather more than she expects to over the course of the book, about Bog Noblins and Luck Uglies and also about her family, her friends, and herself. I appreciated the characters and the writing: Riley’s bookish friend Quinn, for example, lives alone with his dad, and we learn that at their house, with its piles of books and other things, there’s “a fine line between hidden and lost” (38). A description of the Bog Noblins, read out by the town crier, is this totally great sentence: “Typical Bog Noblin activities include clawing, biting, growling, consumption of humans and livestock, vandalism, and recreational dismemberment” (124). A library is described as having “a scent that was part mildew, part magic” (254). And I liked the excitement of the plot, even though a few of the revelations were obvious to me well before they become obvious to Rye: I was having enough fun that I didn’t particularly mind. This book is the first in a trilogy, and I’m looking forward to reading more about this world.

I wasn’t necessarily planning to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—I mean, I like the Harry Potter universe and I’ve read all the books but, eh, a play written by someone other than J.K. Rowling, based on a story that she co-wrote with him and another guy? I don’t know; I wasn’t convinced I’d be into it. But then my boyfriend borrowed it from a friend, and then, after he finished it, it somehow ended up on the top of my pile of books to read. And while there are things I didn’t like about it, I’m totally glad I read it.

A thing you should know about this play is that it’s quite plot-heavy, and I’m not sure how much I can actually say about the plot without giving away too much. It’s set 19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts and it focuses partly on one of Harry’s kids, Albus Severus, who’s about to start his first year at Hogwarts when the play opens. Albus ends up being friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, and adventures ensue. Scorpius, for me, was the best thing about this play: he’s smart and charming and brave and kind and my only problem with his friendship with Albus is that it’s not more than a friendship. (Maybe I should just go re-read Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On?)

This was a really quick read and I was totally engrossed in it while reading, despite a few clunky/overwrought pieces of dialogue and some quibbles about characterization (Ron Weasley in particular, who felt much flatter than I think he should have, aside from a few choice moments in climactic scenes).

2016 Wrap-Up

December 31st, 2016

I read 52 books in 2016, which is not as many as I read last year or the year before, but that’s OK. The break-down:

Picture books for kids/middle-grade books/YA: 15. Highlights included Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, which was gripping and made me cry; several of Luke Pearson’s charming “Hilda” books, and Brian Selznick’s beautiful Wonderstruck. I also listened to my first-ever audiobook, which was How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, narrated by David Tennant. I continued pleasantly working my way through Lois Lowry’s “Anastasia” books with Anastasia Has the Answers and am looking forward to the next in the series.

Fiction (for grown-ups): 21. I unexpectedly loved Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, a werewolf novel in verse. I had way more fun with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age than I thought I would. I loved Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor even though alien-arrival stories are not normally exciting to me. I quite enjoyed re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, especially because I was in England for part of it and it felt really apt. And I finished the year really strongly with the delicious writing of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First and the unputdownable Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple and The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas.

Non-fiction: 16, including autobiographical comics. Hyperbole and a Half was as amazing and funny as I expected it to be. I liked the essays in Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, differently. And I had lots of fun with Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, not just because of the interactive/text-messaging element, though that was pretty neat.

I did about half of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, and am undecided as to whether I want to try the 2017 one or not particularly: I like the idea of these challenges, but I also like reading without a plan.