Review: Long Division, Kiese Laymon

Now this would have been a good read for A More Diverse Universe, if I had but read it in time. I’m going to cunningly add a link to this post to the More Diverse Universe links page, and by the time Aarti notices it will be too late to do anything about my illicit post-linking. Mwahahahaha, I am the most cunning blogger in all the land.

Long Division is about a boy named City (short for Citoyen) in 2013 who checks out a book called Long Division about a boy named City in 1985 who time-travels forward to 2013 to meet a girl called Baize, who in City (our City)’s present has disappeared and is presumed murdered. The City in our book is staying with his grandmother, who may or may not be hiding Baize Shepherd’s murderer in her toolshed. The City in his book has promised assistance to a girl he’s half in love with, Shalaya Crump, who has discovered a means of time traveling — forward to 2013, or backward to 1965, when City’s grandfather was murdered.

Your concern — I can detect it from here — is that Long Division might seem at first glance like the sort of book that would quickly disappear up its own bottom. But Kiese Laymon writes with such a light hand — funny in places, but mainly, sincere in the way that teenage boys like City are sincere, i.e., absolutely achingly but also afraid that they are about to be laughed at, and they are still in the process of deciding whether they care enough to change how sincere they’re going to be — that the convolutions of the plot feel strangely natural. Meanwhile, Laymon depicts so many different ways of resisting the insidious effects of centuries of racism; it’s a beautifully textured look at what racism has looked like at different points in our country’s history, and how people have dealt with it.

Also cause: Metafiction! I am all about it. What about y’all? I know that you all love Jasper Fforde, and I wish I could be there with you. Apart from that, what’s some metafiction that you adore?

Review: Wit’s End, Karen Joy Fowler

The beginning: A woman called Rima, the last surviving member of her family, comes to live with her godmother, a famous mystery writer, in Santa Cruz. Addison was estranged from Rima’s father years ago, for reasons Rima has never known, and Rima has come to Santa Cruz partly to find out whether there was anything more than friendship between her father and her godmother. While living at Addison’s mansion (called Wit’s End), Rima becomes fascinated by Addison’s fans, whose online presence has given Addison’s fictional detective a life of his own.

Damn, Wit’s End (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is hard to describe. Hard to describe, but good!

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip down to “the whole” if you don’t want to know): Here are a bunch of characters whose names I do not recognize, but never mind. The major mystery is solved — Addison and Rima’s father Bim became estranged because Addison (inadvertently, but Bim thought it was on purpose) put into her book a true story of how Bim brought about someone else’s murder at the hands of a cult leader. Oh, that’s sad. There are a few other things solved too, that I didn’t think to wonder about, like that Addison turns out to have been the daughter of (real live) cult leader William E. Riker. I enjoy Karen Joy Fowler’s extremely weird blending of fact and fiction.

The whole: I enjoy Karen Joy Fowler’s extremely weird blending of fact and fiction. (I said that a second ago but maybe you missed it because you weren’t reading the spoilers section.) If you aren’t already obsessed with cults — which going from her short stories and novels, Karen Joy Fowler is — you may not know that the Holy City is a real place, and William E. Riker was a real person, and the mysterious fires that destroyed Holy City buildings after it was sold were real fires and probably arsons. And if Karen Joy Fowler hadn’t thanked the owner of Holy City Art Glass in the acknowledgements, I wouldn’t have known any of that was real. It makes the book even more intriguing, as it’s a book about a fictional book that fictionalizes the cult and its history.

I’ve said recently on the podcast that I like the depiction in books of miscommunications between characters, and Wit’s End is full of these. Although the book is from Rima’s point of view, Fowler regularly tosses in remarks about what Rima thinks is being said or intended versus what really is being sad or intended. For instance:

“Martin’s always welcome.” Addison glanced at Rima.

 

Here is what the glance meant: Don’t worry. No way will Martin stay the night. Here’s what Rima thought it meant: I know I said you’d have the whole floor to yourself, and now I’m sorry I said so. …

 

“You’ll like Martin,” Tilda told Rima, and from the darkness behind Tilda’s shoulder, Addison gave Rima another look, hard and right at her.

 

This look meant: Martin’s a conniving little snot. Here’s what Rima thought it meant: I know I said you’d have the whole floor to yourself, and now I’m sorry I said so.

Lovely, right? As in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler is fantastic at depicting the space between people, both the closeness and the inescapable separateness. The book begins with Rima having all the questions and Addison (presumably) all the answers, and it ends the other way around, with Rima understanding what Addison never has, and explaining to her the parts of it that won’t cause unnecessary pain. They are not brought closer by any of this; they are only brought closer by proximity and the shared desire for affection.

Fowler’s gift for weird, specific detail, which in her short fiction can feel like a build-up to a cymbal crash that never comes, serves her well in Wit’s End. The truth of Holy City, California mixes in seamlessly with the imagined world of Addison’s books. Addison’s home, the setting for the whole story, was formerly a bed-and-breakfast and before that belonged to a woman who survived the Donner Party. Addison’s mystery novels are created on the basis of intricate dollhouses representing the crime scenes, which Addison makes in exquisite detail prior to writing the book — a detail clearly based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of model crime scenes created in the mid-1900s by an heiress that continue to be used to train police officers in forensics. These are the kind of weird yet lifelike details that make me so fond of Karen Joy Fowler (she’s a magpie like me).

So: Recommended, but We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves puts the weirdness to better use ultimately. Not that I’m comparing. Comparisons are odious.

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Cover report: They are both a bit boring. I am going with the simpler cover, the British one, partly because the creepy eye freaks me out, and partly because yellow is my favorite color.

Review: The Nobodies Album, Carolyn Parkhurst

Author Octavia Frost has come up with the idea of rewriting the endings to each of her previous seven novels, and to put all the revised endings together as a brand new book, called The Nobodies Album. As she is traveling to deliver the manuscript to her agent, she sees a news item saying that her estranged son, Milo, has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend Bettina. Octavia and Milo (who is a rock star) have not spoken in four years, for reasons that are not immediately made clear; but when she sees that her son is in trouble, she drops everything and travels across the country to help.

Almost exactly what I wanted! I read The Nobodies Album because Kim mentioned that it was good, and I fancied a mystery that I wouldn’t be able to put down. The Nobodies Album had a lot of things going for it: The whodunit aspect of the mystery was, in a way, an afterthought; it made the rest of the plot happen but it wasn’t (for me) what created the suspense. The suspenseful stuff was the family secrets, what the Frost family’s tragedy had been all those years ago, and why Octavia and Milo fell out of contact with each other. Again, for me, because the kind of suspense I enjoy is emotional suspense.

Pankhurst is good at keeping this sort of secret without its feeling like a cheat that we haven’t found it out yet. Octavia knows what’s happened, and she doesn’t feel the need to describe it because she knows already!, as do all the other characters!, so she only hints at it obliquely over the course of the book. Interspersed with the main plot are excerpts from Octavia’s book: Jacket copy for each, then the last chapter, then the revised ending she has since written. Each of these adds layers and emotional weight to the nature of Octavia’s loss and grief, so that the reveals, when they happen, feel totally earned. Furthermore, I love it when books include “documents” from the characters’ lives to supplement the main narration. I wish that could happen more frequently.

I would have liked, though, to see a slightly meatier story. The Nobodies Album isn’t a long book, and when you account for the segments taken up by excerpts from Octavia’s novels, the main plotline is almost a novella. And really, not much happens. Octavia goes out to California, she has a few conversations with the people in her son’s life, there’s a funeral for Bettina, more chat, and then they figure out who did the murder and how and why. I can’t say exactly what else I’d have liked to see happen, but something! Something to make the primary plotline of the book feel less slight.

Thanks, Kim, for the recommendation! I really enjoyed it!

There are a plethora of other reviews. You may inspect them here.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon; trans. Lucia Graves

Y’all. What is wrong with me?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. What really is wrong with me? Lovely Kristen of We Be Reading, one of my favorite people in the blogosphere and fellow Diana Wynne Jones lover, gave me this book as part of her blogiversary giveaway last summer, and I am only just getting to it now. What? Why am I like this? I was fully aware that this was a delightful adventurey booklover’s novel, and yet I let it sit around my Louisiana room for months and months, and then I let it sit around my New York room for three months more. What? Why would I ever do this?

(That one was not a rhetorical question. I know why I would ever do this. It is because of the translation issue. I am shy of books in translation and tend to avoid them because I think I’m going to dislike them. I’ve only read like ten books in translation since I started this blog. That’s terrible. I deeply enjoyed a third of those books, which isn’t an awful record, but it should be borne in mind that I only read translated books when I am moderately to extremely confident that I will love them.)

The Shadow of the Wind was just the reading experience I was after this week. On paper it should have been the best book in the world for me, and in real life, that’s exactly how it worked out. Don’t you love that?

Our protagonist, young Daniel Sempere, discovers and adores a book called The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax. When he goes looking for more books by the author, he discovers that a mysterious figure who goes by the name of the devil character in Shadow of the Wind has been going around finding every copy of Carax’s books and burning them up. There are wicked police officers, abandoned mansions, unreceived letters, unrequited love, coveted Montblanc fountain pens: basically everything you need for a lovely, bookish, gothic mystery story.

The Shadow of the Wind was the fully satisfying version of The Thirteenth Tale. I loved the characters and wanted good things for them. I was entranced by the mystery of Julian Carax, the unraveling of the story behind the book-burner, the relationships of the characters, particularly between Daniel and his friend Fermin (I kept thinking of Phantom of the Opera — anyone else?). There was also one particular mystery strand (I won’t spoil it for you) that I was sure would resolve in a predictable way that would irritate me, but instead of that the resolution was quite unexpected, and I think far more interesting. I was delighted with Carlos Ruiz Zafon when I got to that bit.

Not that it was a perfect book, but its flaws were the kinds of flaws I like, such as straying into the realm of melodrama at times, and having slightly soapy elements. These are flaws that remind me of Victorian sensation novels, and those are novels I love in my heart. If you are not a Victorian sensation novel lover, The Shadow of the Wind might not be for you. But if you are, then this book will fill your heart with joy.

When Mumsy and I went to London in 2009, and I was strolling down the South Bank, Carlos Ruiz Zafon was having a signing in the South Bank Foyles. I didn’t care about Carlos Ruiz Zafon so I didn’t go in, but I remember thinking, Gosh, if I ever start to love Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I’m really going to regret this moment. That has happened now. Same with Shaun Tan signing books in the Charing Cross Foyles. Bother. Bother. If I still lived in Louisiana, I would regret these moments even more. I feel like in New York I’ll have a second chance to see these authors, whereas publishers don’t really send authors to the South because they think we don’t read. (This post on that subject made me want to give Neil Gaiman a hug.)

Many, many other people have read this, so I’ll refer you to the Book Blogs Search Engine. One of you who has read this and loved it, may I inquire if you felt the same way about the other two of Zafon’s books that have been translated into English? Are they equally full of letters and books and gothic streets and joyless gay-hating police officers and book-burners? Should I read them tomorrow, or will a Shadow of the Wind hangover make them less fun for me?

Review: The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

Metafiction.  That’s another challenge I should invent, if there isn’t one already, a metafiction challenge.  I always expect to love metafiction passionately, and when it lets me down, I feel hurt and betrayed.  Like the book of The Princess Bride.  Why did you be so lame, book of The Princess BrideAtonementWicked after they left school, but particularly after, um, a certain event?  That I don’t want to say because some of you maybe haven’t read the book yet?  Slaughterhouse FiveGiles Goat-Boy.

And then sometimes it is great, like The Unwritten, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Ella Minnow Pea, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, or Fire and Hemlock, it is exactly what metafiction should be, and I feel satisfied with myself for choosing to love metafiction with all my heart.

And sometimes it’s good enough, but I am tortured by the thought of how much better it could have been if only X, Y, and Z.  Like Baltimore, or The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (I know!  Everyone loved this book!  But I did not.).  Fables actually falls into this category too, because although I love it and it’s fun seeing the fairy tale characters do all sorts of decidedly un-fairy-tale-like things, I always wish the characters were more fully realized.  But Fables has the advantage of having pretty pictures, whereas The Eyre Affair, which suffers from a more serious version of this characters problem, does not.

All of this to say, The Eyre Affair is all cutesy meta references and very little heart.  Literary detective Thursday Next encounters supervillain Lex Luthor Acheron Hades when she becomes involved in a case to track down the stolen original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit.  Thereafter Hades gains access to a device that allows real people to get into books, and vice versa; he steals the original manuscript of Jane Eyre and kidnaps Jane herself.  If his demands are not met, he threatens, he will take Jane out of the manuscript permanently, effectively destroying Jane Eyre for all future generations.

Don’t get me wrong.  The cutesy meta references can be charming, enough so that I checked out the second book in the series in the hopes of its improving.  Fforde has produced some delightful details about his book-obsessed alternate England.  Automated machines recite several lines of Shakespeare when you insert a coin.  Thursday and her ex-lover Landen attend a production of Richard III in which all the actors are drawn from the audience, and the audience participates in the play through call-backs.  But the characters, though duly supplied with backstory, are cardboard, and there are long stretches where not much is happening by way of plot.

If this seems uncharacteristically harsh, you can put it down to two things.  One, I don’t buy Fforde’s versions of Rochester and Jane, or in several cases his characterization of the plot of Jane Eyre, and I don’t appreciate people messing with Jane Eyre if they’re not going to do it right.  Two, as you may know, I love it that Shakespeare was some nobody from Stratford and yet wrote these most magnificent plays, and I am not at all interested in theories that suggest otherwise.  So.

Other reviews:

The Zen Leaf
the stacks my destination
books i done read
Regular Rumination
Rebecca Reads
Eve’s Alexandria
A Striped Armchair
Necromancy Never Pays
S. Krishna’s Books
The Written World
Sam’s Book Blog
Medieval Bookworm
1 More Chapter
The Printed Page
Piling on the Books
25 Hour Books
So Many Books So Little Time
Reading and Rooibos
Miss Picky’s Column

Did I miss yours?

Review: The Unwritten, Vol. 1, Mike Carey and Peter Goss

For the Graphic Novel Challenge!

The Unwritten is about a guy called Tom whose father – long since disappeared without a trace – wrote an incredibly popular series of books about a character with Tom’s same name: Tommy Taylor.  However, it turns out that all the paperwork proving Tom is his father’s son has been forged.  At first it is theorized that he is a fraud, the son of Romanian peasants; then people begin to believe that he is, in fact, Tommy Taylor, brought into existence by the stories themselves.  The word made flesh.

The Unwritten is set in London, a place with whose literary history Tom is very familiar.  His father was always telling him stories about the places in England and how they connect to books and authors – this plays into the unfolding of the plot and will, I expect, do so more and more as the series goes on.  There is one scene that is set at the Globe, the Globe that I love, you don’t even know and words cannot express how much I love the Globe Theatre.  It is like Mike Carey wants to say, “I love literature and I know that you do too!”  If fiction is going to be meta, it should be meta exactly like this.

The final issue included in this first volume of the graphic novel is all about Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde.  While not closely connected to the main plotline, it does give us a glimpse into the means and methods employed by the villains and how it relates to stories and literature.  Also?  It has Oscar Wilde in it.  Oscar Wilde!  I love him so!  He was such a dear darling when he wasn’t being awful!

Two things that I like a lot are Oscar Wilde and London.  And metafiction – three things.  The three things that I like a lot are Oscar Wilde, and London and metafiction, and fictional characters coming to life.  Four – no.  Amongst the things that I like are such elements as Oscar Wilde, London – I’ll come in again.  (Sorry, XKCD.  I know you don’t like it when people do that.)

I have given in to temptation and subscribed to this comic on HeavyInk.  I know I shouldn’t be spending money on single issue comics, given that I will probably end up buying the collected volumes as proper books when they are released, but I cannot resist the alluring notion of getting comics each month, all wrapped up in crinkly brown paper.  Oh, HeavyInk, you seduce me with your sexy packaging.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
The Literary Omnivore
Adventures with Words
Bibliofreak

Tell me if I missed yours!

Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth

This book and I got off to a rocky start. Last time I was at the library, I picked up a bunch of books that I thought might be good, by authors who are all those weird fantasy realists and postmodern and metafictiony. I got the rest of Salman Rushdie’s books that I haven’t read – except, annoyingly enough, The Satanic Verses, which is the one I wanted to read first because I was pretty sure I was going to like it the least – and I got several books by Italo Calvino, and I got Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth. (And Invitation to a Beheading, which is neither here nor there.) So I asked my sister what I wanted to read, The Baron in the Trees or Shalimar the Clown or Giles Goat-Boy, and she thought Giles Goat-Boy was a sweet little children’s story so she said to read that one so I did.

I mean, I don’t know if you know this, but it’s about a kid who’s raised as a goat, and the university is the universe; so there you have the central conceits. There are a lot of things like the Second Campus Riot and then the west side of campus and the east side of campus had the Quiet Riot and like – okay, whatever, I will admit that the long segment of world history refigured for a university became a little trying (I guess if I’d thought it was funny, it might have been better), and the I-am-a-goat bits irritated me. I kept having to put the book down and have a brief silent soliloquoy about Why, why, why, why? which is how I sometimes feel about postmodern things. This book is damn weird, and I didn’t like it at all, so I set myself a goal: Read until chapter four of the second section, and then you can quit. After I decided that, I had a dream in which I was in jail for something, and they took us on a field trip to the bookshop, but they wouldn’t let me look at any of the good books. I could only look at the lame books. And inside my head I was thinking I will not let them break my spirit!

I was very, very close to abandoning the entire enterprise. But I sensibly consulted The Internet, and The Internet assured me that I was quite right. Giles Goat-Boy does get off to a weird start, and the university-history thing is dated and weird. The Internet also told me that The Sot-Weed Factor might be more my thing, and that John Barth, in spite of all his weirdness, does some damn good storytelling. And I am all about plot. I know a lot of people just rejoice in the joyous joys of writing, and I do too, but honestly, if there’s not a good plot there, and if it’s not being advanced well, it’s just no good. That was why (I know it’s not the generally-held opinion) I like The Ground Beneath Her Feet so much better than Midnight’s Children, which was a very cool idea and a beautifully written book but sort of carried the plot along in fits and starts. Whereas The Ground Beneath Her Feet goes steadily along, with things happening – love story, goats, photography, and all the rest and so forth.

I really was determined to get to my chapter-four cutoff point, and the thing is, I just didn’t do it. After a while I tipped it off my bedside table in my sleep, and then I read Ender’s Shadow and Ender’s Game, and then I obtained from another library branch The Satanic Verses and read that, and then I wanted to read Walk Two Moons which I always see all over my house so I looked and looked and I couldn’t find it so instead of that I read Chasing Redbird and then I hunted for Walk Two Moons some more and the damn book was nowhere but I did find Back Home, which I’d been frantically hunting for after I read Good Night, Mr. Tom earlier this month, so I read that, and then my mother got Understanding the Borderline Mother, which my family’s been dying to read because we love reading about BPD, on PaperbackSwap, and I was halfway through that and I realized that there is just no part of me that even remotely wants to read Giles Goat-Boy.

So I stopped trying.

Oh well.

The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas

Recommended by: Bride of the Book God

I’ve been reading The End of Mr. Y for untold ages (perhaps an entire fortnight), with numerous little vacations in which I read other books for purposes of duty and leisure. This is because The End of Mr. Y didn’t really grab me – I wasn’t so much uninterested in this book as I was much more interested in others.

It’s about a Ph.D. student called Ariel Manto who is studying (among other things) Victorian author Thomas Lumas, whose book The End of Mr. Y is supposed to be cursed, so that anyone who reads it dies. Happily for the world, only one known copy exists, and it is in a German bank vault. However, Ariel, that lucky duck, happens upon a copy at a used bookstore and reads it joyously. She discovers that it contains instructions on how to get to a place called the Troposphere, which can put you inside other people’s minds and all kinds of crazy shit. Hijinks ensue.

As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story with Project Starlight and Adam and that lot, so it was jarring for me when they showed back up.

I also get rapidly impatient with books in which the narrator struggles for words to describe the bizarre and foreign universe(s) in which s/he finds him- or herself, or the bizarre and foreign sensations s/he experiences as a result of the bizarre and foreign circumstances s/he is undergoing. Without wanting to be nasty to people who do this, and I include Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, both of whom I love, in this category…get a damn grip. If I wanted to hear people groping helplessly for self-expression I’d just attend my classes. Especially Symbolic Logic. Yes, okay, I can see the point – if it were a normal experience there would be no problem for the narrator; his/her difficulty in finding viable words indicates that the phenomenon s/he is attempting to describe is outside of ordinary human experience. Don’t care. Take two seconds to explain that the words you’re using are only approximations, and then forge ahead bravely. Embrace the inadequacy of the English language.

(I ♥ the English language and its copious profusion of available words. So this may be a knee-jerk defensive reaction – Oh yeah? Can’t describe it? You got something to say about my language? What’s wrong with English, huh? Huh? – rather than a valid stylistic criticism.)

One brief remark:

There is something a bit weird about how Ms. Thomas addressed the issue of sex in this book. Ariel repeatedly refers to her “transgressive” sex habits, and calls herself a slut and makes nasty comments straight along about her sexual life, which involves things like being tied up with ropes and sleeping with married guys, and she just several times describes all this as being nasty and dirty and bad. And then when she and Adam have finally had nice, good, missionary position sex (which is glorious for them both) and declared their love for each other, there is this passage, which I actually find rather disturbing:

“Why don’t you hate me?” I say, even though I already know the answer.

“What do you mean?”…

“Well, you know everything [about me] now. All the sex. All the…everything.”

Where all the [bad] sex is evidently a specific thing for which Ariel requires forgiveness from Adam (former priest and virgin until a few minutes ago). I’m probably overthinking this, and the self-loathing is just a facet of Ariel’s character, but honestly the whole question of sex in this book is set up in a way that seems quite creepy and antifeminist.