Fireboat by Maira Kalman

December 27th, 2019

Maira Kalman is one of my favorite artists, so when I found a copy of Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey on the street, I clearly had to bring it home. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to actually reading it: I like Kalman, I like boats, I like books about NYC. Well, no matter: I finally read it, and aww, what a sweet/touching picture book this is. I actually got to take a (free!) ride on the John J. Harvey in 2010, so I think I must have learned the boat’s story at that time, but I’d forgotten. The John J. Harvey was built in 1931 and served as a fireboat in NYC for decades, fighting fires on the piers when they were crowded with passenger ships and cargo ships—but was due to be sold for scrap after being retired in 1995. Instead, the boat was bought and restored, and ended up being called into service on September 11, 2001—first to ferry people uptown, and then to actually pump water at the World Trade Center site. The gouache artwork in this book is classic Maira Kalman (I find her style really quirky and charming), and I like the way Kalman tells the story, too, starting with the background of what else was happening the same year the John J. Harvey was first launched and then moving on to the boat itself, and then to the events of 9/11. From other work I’ve seen of hers, it seems like she’s very much interested in stories told through things from the past, and also in how things from the past can still be interesting/useful/beautiful, and this book fits in with that sensibility perfectly.

I generally like Max Gladstone’s writing, and I like this book’s message of community/collaboration, but space opera as a genre is not particularly my thing. The way the characters escape from one dangerous situation straight into another one sometimes leaves me feeling bored; I don’t particularly care about enormous spaceships and epic battles and deadly robots, which this book has in abundance; it also doesn’t help that a major plot point is way too obvious, way too early. That said, this was a pretty fun vacation read: it starts with Vivian Liao, a tech genius who thinks she’s about to be in trouble with a government that isn’t above torturing its enemies, throwing herself a birthday party only to disappear from it. She heads to a server farm in Boston, as planned, and starts running a script that she thinks will self-optimize to solve all sorts of problems. At that point, things go wrong, and Viv finds herself in a different story entirely, one where she has to defeat the Empress of the book’s title, working together with a cast of characters including a monk, a long-imprisoned pirate queen, a woman born to be a pilot, and a matter-devouring shape-shifting monster (who might be my favorite character of all) to save the galaxy from the Empress’s tyranny. Like I said: not particularly my thing, but I didn’t consider abandoning it, and I like the book’s sense of humor and heart.

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

December 15th, 2019

It’s summertime, and fifteen-year-old Maggie Thrash is at the same Appalachian all-girls camp she’s been attending for years, which her mom and grandmother also attended when they were young. She thinks it’ll be a summer like any other, full of practice at the rifle range and rainy-day talent-show performances and hanging out with friends. And it is full of those things, at least in part. But it’s also the summer in which Thrash first realizes she likes girls, when she falls for a counselor named Erin who’s four years older, who also turns out not to be straight. In addition to grappling with her own feelings, Maggie is worried about others realizing she’s queer and ostracizing her for it; she’s in her head a whole lot, except when she’s at the rifle range, where she goes from OK shooting to amazing shooting when a counselor advises her to just pretend to be someone else. She realizes that she can empty her mind when she’s at the range, but even that isn’t a perfect escape: there’s another girl working toward the same rifle certification as Maggie who gets really jealous of Maggie’s sudden improvement.

There’s so much longing and wistfulness in this book, and my favorite parts, in terms of the art, are the big quiet panels that capture some of that sense of the vastness of feelings: tents and trees and a dark blue sky speckled with stars, or two girls silhouetted against a sky tinged purple and lighter blue and darker blue. But it’s not all seriousness: one of my favorite sections is when Maggie and other campers are stranded away from camp (they went to see a play in town; there was a huge storm; they couldn’t get across the river to go back) and we get to see all their cabin fever, hours and hours of watching movies and eating Skittles and wondering when they’ll be able to get back to their normal camp lives.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

December 1st, 2019

In her foreword, Nicola Yoon says this book is “a small, glittering world of beauty and emotion and truth,” which I think sums it up pretty nicely. I read this book over the course of two days and loved being immersed in Marin’s world, raw as it felt. (I cried near the end of the book. Twice.) The dual-timeline narration goes back and forth between Marin’s present (a winter break that she’s spending in her freshman dorm) and recent past (the end of her senior year of high school in San Francisco, and the summer before college started). That kind of narration can sometimes feel gimmicky to me (like the author doesn’t trust the story to be engaging enough on its own), but here it worked: Marin is dealing with grief and coming back to herself, and the dual narration lets us see how Marin got to where she is when the book opens.

It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I’ll be vague, but one thing I love is the way that Marin and her best friend Mabel talk about art and literature—the way that Marin spins out interpretations of a painting or a novel, the way that the ambiguity or complications of a narrative are exciting to her or stressful to her, the way that coming to terms with her grief involves thinking about how things could have been different but accepting how they are, while also realizing that there isn’t actually a single interpretation for or explanation of that.

I read and liked the first three books in this kids’ series in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and also read and liked the prequel in 2012, so I was delighted to learn, this year, that there was now another Mysterious Benedict Society novel. Like the others, it’s about super-smart kids (well, they’re a bit older now) solving puzzles and fighting bad guys; also like the others, I found it to be a quick and fun read. At the start of the book, we learn that the Ten Men (the muscle of the evil genius Mr. Curtain, so called because they have ten ways to hurt you) have escaped from a supposedly escape-proof prison, and are no doubt planning to spring Mr. Curtain (who is imprisoned in a separate facility) loose as well. This means that Constance, Kate, Reynie, and Sticky have to act fast to prevent that from happening. Everyone’s a bit older than they were in the other books: Constance has better control over both her temper and her telepathy, and the other three are all figuring out what they want to do next. That’s a big element of the book—the story of childhood best friends growing apart/not knowing how their old selves and old friends fit with the people they’re becoming. But there’s also a lot of straight-up adventure, and a sweet new addition to the crew, a five-year-old boy named Tai who gets to the town where the others are by hiding amongst sheep on a freight car: “I petted every single one of them,” he says, and I was totally charmed.

I read a few sentences of This Is How You Lose the Time War aloud to my boyfriend because I was liking it so much, and he just looked at me and asked if this book was written for me. It really is full of things I’m into: tea and cities and literary allusions and lush prose and crystalline details; there’s also letter-writing, and the kind of time-travel plot I really enjoy. The book follows two characters we know as Red and Blue: they’re rivals from different futures, each of whom is sent to various points in time to influence the outcome of events in their future’s favor. There’s narrative about them, but we also get letters by them, to each other: letters that start as brags and taunts and shift as the book progresses; letters that are mostly encoded in things, rather than being written on paper: a letter in the flight of a bee or the flow of lava.

It’s a really pleasing conceit, and when it comes with sentences like the ones I read aloud…Yeah, I’m here for this:

London Next—the same day, month, year, but one strand over—is the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar. Mannered as a novel, filthy only where story requires it, all meat pies and monarchy—this is a place Blue loves, and hates herself for loving. (55)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

November 13th, 2019

Having never read Dracula before, I didn’t know what kind of reading experience I was in for when I picked it up, in ways good, bad, and funny. The good: I didn’t realize that it was presented as the journal/diary entries and letters of various characters, plus things like newspaper clippings and telegrams, rather than as a single-perspective narrative. I like the way the story is pieced together from all the little bits. The bad: I could have done without all the misogyny. I definitely felt myself scowling as I was reading on the train and reached a sentence about how a female character has a man’s brain and a woman’s heart, ugh. The funny: I obviously knew before I started reading that Dracula is a vampire. But the book’s characters don’t know this at the beginning, which makes for some amusing moments: like, a character gets a letter signed “Your friend, Dracula,” because, you know, that’s just the guy’s name, but it’s as if the letter were signed “Your friend, the vampire,” because we all know that Castle Dracula is not some charming/comfortable place, but of course the character getting the letter doesn’t yet know what he’s in for. Also: I wouldn’t have guessed this book would have so much snow in it, or so many wolves, both of which are excellent additions to the overall mood. There are some extremely creepy moments in this book, and also some passages of tedious narration (there is one character in particular who isn’t a native English speaker whose speech patterns are super-annoying) but also descriptions of things like “the wonderful smoky beauty of a sunset over London, with its lurid lights and inky shadows and all the marvellous tints that come on foul clouds even as on foul water” (120).

As I was reading The Wind in the Willows (which I somehow never read as a kid), I found myself wondering whether I should picture the anthropomorphized animals as human-sized, animal-sized, or somewhere in between. Like, if a toad has a horse, and his friend who is a mole can walk down the road having a conversation with the horse, is the horse a tiny creature, or are the toad and mole as big as people? As the book progressed, I decided to imagine them as people-sized, for plot-based reasons, but I think this book really might be a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat situation where the protagonists are both human-sized and animal-sized, all at once. Leaving that oddity aside, I found myself glad to have finally read this. Its chapters tell the story of impulsive Toad, his poetic but still more sensible friend Rat (who is actually a water-vole), their loyal pal Mole, and a no-nonsense Badger, all of whose paths intersect in the English countryside, by a riverbank, not far from the Wild Wood. The book is as much about a sense of home and place and safety as anything, and it’s also about the seasonal rhythms of the natural world, all of which serve as a counterpoint to Rat’s dreams of elsewhere or Toad’s madcap adventures. There are excellent humorous passages throughout the book, and lovely descriptive ones. The river is described as being all “glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble”; a character walking through a winter landscape that’s all bare earth and barren trees thinks that “he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things” (3,42). And there’s a great scene where Toad, when he’s cold while he’s asleep, dreams that “his bedclothes had got up, grumbling and protesting they couldn’t stand the cold any longer, and had run down to the kitchen fire to warm themselves,” obligating him to chase after them (176).

Though Walking is a short book made mostly of brief vignettes, there are several different kinds of things in it. It’s partly about the mental and physical benefits of walking, both anecdotally and backed by research. It’s partly about a certain kind of philosophy of walking as tied to a certain kind of way of being: walking and paying attention, walking and connection to the natural world, walking and the senses and the body. There’s a little about walking in literature and other art: Kagge talks to the theatre director Robert Wilson about walking, and also writes about how central walking is to Joyce’s Ulysses, and how Nabokov made maps of the paths that Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom take through Dublin in that book. There are color artworks, some of which are photos of scenes from walks/treks Kagge has taken. And there are bits of narrative about some of Kagge’s walking experiences, which were probably my favorite parts of the book: he talks about walking in LA with two friends, and the experience of walking in an unfamiliar place that isn’t made for pedestrians, and about walking (or crawling) through sewer tunnels in New York with an urban explorer.

Some quotes:
“Walking, I become the centre of my own life, while completely forgetting myself shortly afterwards” (15).

“You are shaped by buildings, faces, signs, weather and the atmosphere” (28)

“Everything moves more slowly when I walk, the world seems softer and for a short while I am not doing household chores, having meetings or reading manuscripts” (15)

I’ve been meaning to read this book for literally a decade, and I’m glad I finally got around to it, even though it didn’t totally click for me. Basically, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a multi-generational family saga, and that is generally not my thing, and this book isn’t really an exception. I like how Díaz uses different chapters to focus on different characters/time periods in a non-linear way, and I like the way the book moves between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, as its characters do, and I like the use of footnotes and the snappy narration, but I also wanted maybe a little more description, maybe a little less plot. Near the end of the book there are a few pages where we get sprawling page-long sentences full of observation, full of detail, and when I got to those parts I was so delighted, and subsequently wished the rest of the book had had more of that. Like this, which is just a short snippet:

after he’d gotten somewhat used to the surreal whirligig that was life in La Capital—the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin’ Donuts, the beggars, the Haitians selling roasted peanuts at the intersections, the mind-boggling poverty, the asshole tourists hogging up all the beaches, the Xica de Silva novelas where homegirl got naked every five seconds that Lola and his female cousins were cracked on, the afternoon walks on the Conde […] (276-277)

But right: “Oscar Wao” is the story of Oscar de León, an overweight Dominican-American nerd from Paterson, NJ, whose mom has raised him and his older sister Lola by herself. It’s also the story of his mom, Beli, and her family: how she ended up in America to begin with, how the brutality of Trujillo’s regime tore her family apart, and whether there might be such a thing as a family curse, and what that might look like. We hear about Oscar’s childhood and his teen years and his college years; we hear about his mom’s teen years and his sister’s teen years, too; we hear about his grandfather and how the family’s troubles all got started. I like how the different pieces of the story fit together, and I like the historical footnotes and the mix of Spanish and English and I like Oscar’s sister Lola a whole lot, and I’ll probably read more by Junot Díaz at some point, but this book wasn’t entirely the book for me.