28 November 2011

Post 452: The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. ISBN: 9780385534642 (ebook).

Morgenstern did something a little unusual in this book, and for some people it worked better than others. Rather than including all of the description in the narrative, she set aside somewhat introductory chapters each time a new part of the circus was going to be involved in the story. If the Cloud Maze was going to appear soon, Morgenstern would first give us a chapter in 2nd person, which allowed us to "explore" the circus without the interference of the story. Yet the story enriched the setting in the same way that a TV show about how candy is made might enrich the taste of the candy. You can enjoy one or the other independently, but knowing that it takes 500 pounds of sugar and a modified jet engine* to make your candy might make you appreciate it more. Whereas you might be interested in a show featuring said candy, it definitely helps if you are already invested.

So while the description chapters might have been slow or distracting for some, I viewed it more as a mirroring of how the Night Circus, or a circus in general, is set up. While the typical circus takes place under one tent and has multiple shows, the Night Circus takes place in many different tents. Yet both contain an element of exploration, allowing patrons to visit a variety of booths or view different shows, or at the very least focus on one element out of the chaos of clowns, acrobats, and motorcycles in flaming cages.

Taken altogether these elements are somewhat hard to keep track of. One could easily get lost if their eyes didn't focus on one point or another, or they decided to try to visit every single tent or carnival game. It might be possible, but much of the depth would be lost unless we allow ourselves to take some time, or accept that we will not be able to see everything. Meanwhile, Morgenstern wants us to see everything, and so she has divided things up for us into smaller, more easily digestible portions. We can have our cake and our ice cream and our candied apples and our marzipan and eat it too: the portions are just going to be meted out for us.

So while this conglomeration of vivid world building with loosely tied plot may not blend well on everyone's palate, it does at least afford the reader a chance to try a little bit of everything under the tent(s), and if you'd rather just sit down and watch the show, well, you can do that, but then you'd also miss out on the chaos.

Although I enjoyed this book much more than Nicole Bonia, her reivew at Linus's Blanket covers many of the strengths and weaknesses of The Night Circus.

LibsNote: Library copy via Overdrive Media.
*I am writing hyperbole, I don't actually know of a candy made this way. However, if you do, send it to me and I will eat it.

24 November 2011

Post 451: The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. ISBN: 9781440697661 (ebook).

I have serious guilt issues about being white, you guys. And this book was all, "Nnnnnnggghhh, dammit Skeeter, you have no clue what is going on, do you?" There were even times where I wondered if the author understood what it meant for her, as a white person, to write this book. This book does an amazingly fantastic job of looking at the issue of race from the white (and totally unaware) viewpoint.

In fact, the story is mostly framed by the white point of view. Even though we do get to see glimpses from Aibileen and Minny about what their lives are like, they still seem to ring somewhat hollow in comparison to the richness and attention given to the development of Skeeter's character. Perhaps that is okay, but it would have been awesome if perhaps there was a suggested reading list (like this one) that provided a more accurate and in depth look at things from the Black American point of view, because The Help is definitely a whitewashed fairy tale version of the risks these women would have faced, along with ignoring other uncomfortable subject matter. On the other hand, this is the way white people deal with their guilt about subjugating and oppressing other races, so it makes sense that it would show up in this way in our literature.

If you're thinking about bitching to me about how it's Thanksgiving and you don't want to read stuff about race, I am going to glare at you and point you to an Indian reservation and ask whether you should be thankful your ancestors stole land, raped Native women, and gave children smallpox infected blankets. Also, calm down, I am getting to that.

One of the few authentic and redeeming passages of the book involved a brief moment between Skeeter and Pascagoula. Skeeter thanks her genuinely for the first time and it surprises Pascagoula. But I doubt that it ever occurs to Skeeter why that was surprising, and mostly it has to do with the general invisibility of women of color in this society unless someone needs a scapegoat. Even in the novel we see this, as white women try to figure out if they're in the book and if they should fire their maids. Then of course there was Minny who did not allow herself to melt into the background because she was "mouthy," which left her open as a frequent target despite her desirable skills. It seems even the novel took the stance of, "Well if she would have just kept her mouth shut..." Yet Minny is the one who has truly risked herself for the publication of Skeeter's book. While this is eventually recognized, it's almost too little too late.

So, to sum up, thank the people in your life who serve you, because they probably don't want to do it, and you have probably behaved like an asshole to them at some point. It's easier to say thank you and mean it than to prevent the people who make your food from serving you shit instead. And that, my friends, ought to be the real meaning of Thanksgiving (enjoy your pie).

The Reading Ape writes an apt reflection on the issues brought on by (reading and liking) The Help (while white).
LibsNote: Library copy via Overdrive Media.

22 November 2011

Post 450: general update

So, uh, I am apparently catching up on some popular fiction that I missed earlier this year. The Help and The Night Circus are the two biggies on this list with the last three being from previous years (or YA) and therefore being somewhat less important. Or not. I like to read randomly and rapaciously, possibly even rabidly. I am a strong believer in reading outside of one's preferred genres... which I've been doing a lot of because publishers and whatnot are all, "Hey, hey, you wanna read my book?" And my typical response is, "Er, yeah, okay, that sounds interesting enough." So, these are all actually books I wanted to read, if only because everyone else is talking about them, and I don't want to feel like Mindy Kaling. I already feel like that in real life, thank you much.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
 I finished this one a while ago. I have conflicted feelings about it. For now I will say it was an entertaining diversion, but there is a whole lot of discomfort regarding Skeeter's naiveté about race relations (even after figuring out she had issues with them) that makes me really, uh, leery about saying I outright liked the book. It was a good read, and I hope Stockett tackles a different issue in a way that I can wholeheartedly like for her next book.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
The blogosphere went ape shit over this one. It was good. It definitely got a little overblown, but I can see the appeal of it. I think I'll be talking about joining the circus. Because I totally did that (Antioch is almost more circus than educational institution).

Bonk by Mary Roach
Sssssssssssssssssex. This book is about it. How you doin'?

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.
 Sounds a bit like a techno-mystery novel. I dunno, it was one of those library sale buys. One of the people I talk to on Twitter said it was pretty good. Twitter always has good information, right?

Divergent by Veronica Roth.
I've started this one already. It's actually pretty good. Dystopian fiction is perfect for Thanksgiving with the family right? Especially when the premise is based on choosing one of five factions at the age of 16 that will determine how you live the rest of your life.

21 November 2011

Post 449: Sunset Park

Sunset Park by Paul Auster. ISBN: 9780805092868.

Sunset Park is about the kind of people who would take over an abandoned house in New York. We see who they are through various vignettes from the viewpoints of the four people involved in the house, as well as a few involved in the life of Miles, the house's newest member. Each person has their own reasons for occupying the house on Sunset Park (hello title): running away from their past, trying to complete a dissertation after being kicked out of a rent controlled apartment, etc.

The idea of occupying an abandoned property has always appealed to me, and given the number of empty houses in this country it seems a shame to let them go to rot and rodents. But empty houses I can understand. Sometimes a house just doesn't get sold, it stands vacant too long and becomes less and less appealing, or the economy tanks and the people who can still afford to buy can buy in much better areas. What really pisses me off is vacant and unused businesses.

I've always felt that chain stores that leave vacant properties should be held more accountable for empty store fronts. Particularly the massive ones, or those that have required additional infrastructure (roads, traffic lights, strip malls, etc.). More people than not can afford to buy and repair a crumbling home; not so many can afford to buy 108,000* sq. ft. of soul crushing fluorescent lit retail hellscape. And if a shmuck like me did buy it, what the hell would I do with it?

But what if we actually required retail chains to properly reoccupy or dispose of big box stores? Maybe we'd get some pretty neat projects going on in those empty stores. Perhaps the local governments could require them to retrofit the space for a homeless shelter; it might still smell like soul crushing despair caused by capitalism, but at least this time it would actually benefit someone. Or even just turn it into a bunch of basket ball courts or an indoor jogging track. Or raze the building and return it to green space, a community garden even. While one or two or even a row of abandoned houses may be an eyesore, at least those were never built with the intention of being left behind and emptied. For the most part those houses did not start as a drain on tax payers via tax cuts and concessions to those who built the properties.

Oh, and why are we letting corporations take away our homes to begin with? Those fuckers can't pay their bills either.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided via the FirstReads Program on Goodreads.
*This is likely a conservative estimate given the source.

17 November 2011

Post 448: The Printmaker's Daughter

The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier. ISBN: 9780062000361 (eGalley - publishes November 22, 2011).

There has been some not-so-recent kvetching about the trend of titles with [Occupation]'s [Female Relative]. I agree, there are a lot of more of them than there probably ought to be, especially considering there aren't many male-titled counterparts. But in this case, I think it was appropriate. Mostly because Ei* never really got out from under her father's influence and reputation. The other reason is because this book is more about her relationship with her father: even after he dies she struggles to form her identity without him. In the novel, Ei's father is not an easy man to get along with. He is selfish and has affected mannerisms (such as refusing to count money), which prevent Ei from having a healthy and respectful relationship with him. Despite this, she recognizes how much he has taught her and reflects on this throughout the novel.

My own relationship with my father, as much as it pains me to say so, continues to influence who I am and how I view myself. In the past I have been the daughter of a reasonably successful restaurant owner. Then he sold his share in the restaurant and my mother joined the military. This reduced me to being the daughter of a man with erratic employment. Currently I am the daughter of an unemployed man with bladder cancer who hasn't called me in about 8 months. That he has been an unsuccessful and miserable lump of a human being for most of my life has not weighed lightly on me, especially given my own ongoing inability to obtain a motherfucking J-O-B.

One of the most painful things about being unemployed is that I in no way want to be associated with my father, and yet our circumstances are not terribly different at the moment. I imagine it is difficult for people not to conclude that it was only logical I should end up in a similar situation, especially given my brother has also seemingly followed in my father's footsteps.

Yet, the three of us have gotten there in very different ways. While I'm not going to say I ended up where I am now through absolutely no fault of my own, I will say that much of my situation is due to prolonged hope that I would eventually get a good job in a terrible economy. Had I realized how optimistic I was being, I would have signed up for a temp agency from day one and applied to countless numbers of shitty jobs in between applying for the more desirable jobs. But I didn't do that, because who could fathom that someone who has done everything else right would be unemployed for two years?

Meanwhile, both my brother and my father seem to be able to find employment if they want it. My brother has a criminal record for throwing bricks into a former employer's window, and possibly other charges I don't know about. My father has been known to walk off of jobs or become so erratic in his performance that the company has to fire him. They can get these jobs, but they usually can't keep them. Whereas I am so fed up with looking for work that I would practically consider it a vacation to work even the lowest of jobs. Yes, right now working at McDonald's sounds like it might be a bit of heaven.

At least for the first month.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.
*Her name in the book is represented as "Ei" but more commonly seems to appear as Katsushika Oi, the daughter of Hokusai.

14 November 2011

Post 447: The Complete Maus

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman. ISBN 9780679406419.

I wasn't planning to throw this during this set of books, but the library notified me that my hold for The Help came in and so I couldn't read the next book in the lineup fast enough to post it, and I don't want to be put in the back of the 200+ person line. But you probably don't care, so moving on.

From some reviews* I've read of this book, some people feel that the method of story telling is a bit too blunt and is therefore insensitive in relaying the horror of the Holocaust. However, given that this is told mostly from the viewpoint of Art Spiegelman, I felt this tone was appropriate, and it was much easier to relate to his perspective than to that of a survivor. Stories from survivors are important, but Maus is also important because eventually there will be generations who won't even have known someone who survived the Holocaust and/or WWII. As someone coming from that background, this story made more sense to me on a personal level than some of the direct stories I've read. A lot of that comes from the fact that Spiegelman stops his father during the narrative and asks him the questions that I would want to ask a survivor, but would never be able to unless I already had a relationship with one.

Additionally, this offers a candid look at how the Holocaust has affected more than one generation, as well as the lifetime repercussions. Many survivor tales end with rescue or death and a tiny bit of epilogue: "And then things were better." But Spiegelman's work shows that the suffering didn't really end with the Nazi regime. Vladek (Art's father) continued to suffer from mental and physical health issues stemming from his malnourishment, emotional stress, and physical abuse while in the camp. This behavior has an obvious negative impact on Art, his wife, and Vladek's current wife Mala, while Anya (Art's mother) committed suicide from dealing with her own Holocaust experiences.

That these experiences are relayed in a back and forth interview style does not make Vladek's story any less powerful, but merely changes it and adds the impact it has had on his relationship with his son. The cartoon style of drawing, while seemingly childish and trivializing in its animal depictions, actually captures the inhumanity of the experience and in some ways makes it easier to process the information relayed. Yet, Spiegelman does not allow the animal depictions to stand alone. He reveals that this is a coping method by showing later story arcs with various masks covering both animal and human faces as an indication that while the story may seem simplified through this method of telling, there are layers hidden beneath that should be taken into account.

Matt Guion of moderate YouTube fame has reviewed this story in two parts. I will embed below the LibsNote, or you can click here and here. His review of Part II is particularly interesting.
LibsNote: Library Copy.
*I'm sorry I can't link, but I can't seem to find them or remember who wrote them.

10 November 2011

Post 446: Theft of Swords

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan. ISBN: 9780316187749 (eGalley - publishes November 23, 2011).

With as much as I bitch about the formulaic tendencies of Mystery novels, many fantasy novels suffer from the same issue. Theft of Swords definitely suffers a bit from formula: most of the plot elements are fairly predictable, there's a bit of Side Quest Syndrome, and the female characters are, uh, flaky, even the ones who aren't supposed to be. But somehow this doesn't bother me as much with fantasy books and there's probably a good reason for that: It's not my world.

Most mystery novels are set in present day or recent history, which I am both familiar with and have a personal vested interest in. The idea of all females being vapid and indecisive is frustrating and obnoxious. However, in fantasy I can kind of let that go a little more and say, "Well, they're referring to a society that purposefully keeps women from being anything but decorations, so..." I know it isn't true, but it does make it easier to not get so angry I throw the book across the room. Also, there tends to be less victim blaming with the Princess in Distress type in fantasy novels (because they are valued as plot points) versus the same type in Mystery novels (because they are devalued as being "sluts" who were "asking for it" or meddling shrews).

Additionally, mystery novels typically don't have unique background elements to hold my interest. Fantasy novels on the other hand, even if they have formulaic elements, usually have different interpretations of elves, dwarves, dragons, magic, etc. Sometimes I like to read fantasy novels just to see how that interpretation works out, much for the same reason I like discussing religion (particularly with people who are not strongly attached to specific religious ideas). And I'm more interested in a society, even if they are full of macho misogynists, than I am in following one misogynist as he tries to discover who murdered and killed the husband of a smokin' hot broad he'd love to bang, but won't because he's a "good guy" and already has a smokin' hot broad for a girlfriend.*

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.
*I know not all murder mystery novels are like this, but I've read enough that have similar problems to not be interested in most of the genre's offerings.

07 November 2011

Post 445:The Prague Cemetery

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. ISBN: 9780547577531 (eGalley - publishes November 8, 2011).

I've had a rough day and probably shouldn't be blogging, but here I am. So forgive me if this is a bit self-pitying and perhaps a bit morose. My life isn't exactly sunshine and puppies these days.

One of our main characters/narrators is Simonini, an intelligence agent of sorts, who begins keeping a diary because he discovers he is losing time. In the diary he reveals that he enjoys having secret identities because it gives him a sense of superiority for people not to know who he really is. I imagine that to some degree, all of us enjoy that little secret, even without the false beards and glasses. It is somewhat gratifying to know that there are people out there, however close they are to you, who do not know that you are interested in dressing up as a cartoon character on the weekends or that you still play with Barbies or that you once went to jail for stealing your grandmother's medication and tried to sell it at school.

There are aspects of our personalities and histories that represent who we are more at one time than at others. It makes more sense to us to hide those when they no longer become relevant, or to wait to present them to someone we feel "deserves" to know who we are. But sometimes holding onto that secret can be terribly lonely. And it's not that we don't want people to know who are, but that we don't want them to judge us negatively or assume things about who we are based on information that is only relevant in the sense that it influenced who we have become, rather than who we actively are. I believe that's why sites like Post Secret are so popular.

That Simonini has no desire to share himself with anyone (he actually manages to trump Holden Caufield with the amount and kinds of people he hates), is undeniably sad. What I find sadder is that the current consensus (at least on Goodreads) seems to be outright hatred for Simonini rather than pity. He is constantly alone, always looking to betray or be betrayed, or at the very least profit off of someone else. He is so alone that the only person he can turn to when he begins losing days and memory is himself, and he's not even certain he can rely on his own diary. While I may find myself increasingly alone in this world, at least I know that there are people that I can trust with my secret aspects, even if I choose not to at the moment.

My review can be found on Goodreads. Kirkus has a good overview of the book without giving too much away.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley. Published previously in another language.

03 November 2011

Post 444: The Corn Maiden and Other Stories

The Corn Maiden and Other Stories by Joyce Carol Oates. ISBN: 9780802126023 (eGalley - publishes November 6, 2011).

I think I'll be focusing on the two stories (of seven total) about twins in this collection, "Death-Cup" and "Fossil-Figures." For one thing, they're two of the stronger stories in the collection, although "Death-Cup" has the weaker ending and they share a similar theme regarding self worth versus perceived worth. Interestingly, they're also the only stories that contain a hyphen in the title, as if Oates is stating that without one of the pair the other is meaningless, but I'm probably reading into that.

In "Death-Cup," we have the twin pair Lyle-Alastor. Lyle is the beloved nephew of his recently deceased and well-off uncle, whereas Alastor is the charming, manipulative, money-grubbing nephew of same uncle. Like most of us with siblings, Lyle observes Alastor's behavior and wonders why he gets away with it. Some of us have also observed coworkers and other peers behaving similarly. It feels completely discouraging and frustrating to do the right thing in these situations, because even if you warn people your own Alastor is capable of presenting himself in such a way that these issues become negligible to the victims. Of course Alastor is going to pay us back; of course Alastor didn't mean to drive his cousin crazy after seducing her at the age of fifteen; and yet, someone is responsible for those actions. Alastor not only believes that he is not responsible, he also manages to make others believe he is not responsible, leaving the Lyles of the world utterly frustrated.

Meanwhile in "Fossil-Figures," Edward-Edgar start out with one twin diminished, while the other grows in ability and stature. Edward stagnates at home, becoming weak physically, supposedly destroying his parents' marriage, and becoming more and more removed from the outside world. He loses sight of his self-worth, seeing that, of course, Edgar is the "better" twin, the one more deserving of recognition, love, and happiness. Even where Edward is successful, it is because no one has come into direct contact with him; he is a nameless, faceless entity creating artwork and it is the artwork that receives the recognition instead of Edward himself.

What these two stories have in common, besides the hyphenated title and the twins, is that everyone is a combination of both twins. We almost always see ourselves as Lyle/Edward instead of Alastor/Edgar. For one thing, it is easier to feel sympathy for those we see as being the better people, but only in stories are twins people sides of a coin to each other. The person who feels like Lyle/Edward one day may the next day suck up to his boss in an Alastor/Edgar fashion and receive praise or recognition they may not actually deserve. Why so many writers, and people in general, feel the need to present this in the form or perception of twins is beyond me. Duality exists just as much in individuals as in twins, and often it is seen in twins where it does not exist. I am not successful because my brother is not and vice versa, we are combinations of characteristics and often we have both at the same time in varying degrees. To relegate that to one or the other simplifies our human quality and turns us, and your characters, into caricatures.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.

01 November 2011

Post 443: a general update

I hope everyone enjoyed Zombies and Lovecraft. I know I did, well, except Jack Barnes is still an asshole. What's more awesome is this week proved that book bloggers DO sell books. I have proof! Granted, the conversation took place over Twitter, but I wouldn't have read Lovecraft if it weren't for my blog. So, Barnes and Noble, where's my 10%?

THE UNDENIABLE PROOF (if you have trouble with small fonts you can click the image)

So yeah, let's move some more books, people. Also, if you've bought/read a book because of my blog, I'd appreciate comments that you have done so. Oh, and follow me on Twitter already. Geez.


The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates.
I have not, to my knowledge, actually read any Joyce Carol Oates. This looked fascinating and it was on Netgalley. And yes, I have read a lot of things from Netgalley recently. That tends to happen when they actually have books I'm interested in. It hasn't happened much lately, so Netgalley titles will probably drop off until summer; summer tends to be a big publicity push for fall titles. This is apparently an unplanned continuation of Spooky Shit I Read. Looks good though.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco.
Again, a first for a particular author I've been meaning to read that popped up on Netgalley. This appears to be a plotty plot of twisty turns and turny twists. Cloak and dagger are makin' out in the darkest closet, ya'll.

The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier.
I really need to start writing notes to myself about why I want to read these, because I cannot remember. Lemme look at the description, brb. Okay, it's about the daughter of a Japanese printmaker who should be famous in her own right for her artwork, so Govier wrote a novel about her... that identifies her as the daughter of a printmaker rather than as a printmaker herself. Yep. Anyway, looks interesting.

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan.
There will be actual cloaks and actual daggers in this novel, as it is fantasy, and fantasy has those things. Appears to be a bit of mistaken identity with Our Dashing Heroes being mistaken for king murderers. Sometimes I will read anything.

Sunset Park by Paul Auster.
I won this from Goodreads. Auster is another author I've been meaning to read. I think I'm going to decline forming expectations about this one. I am afraid it will be far more pretentious than what I like, but I hope to be wrong about that.

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