27 February 2014

Book Review: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

It's rare that I "allow" myself to read a book that has already been published.  As a bookseller, it really is my job to be reading ahead, to know what's coming out weeks, or even months, ahead of time, and (with luck) predict what the readers in my store will want to buy. I'm usually not very surprised by all of the Best Of lists that dominate the bookosphere/blogosphere in December of each year, but this time, one book kept popping up everywhere from seemingly out of nowhere. I'm talking about Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, which earned a lot of critical praise in 2013. I was only vaguely familiar with it and though I had purchased two copies for my store, only one had sold as of Christmas.

Thus it was that I decided to purchase the audio version of Kushner's book as a means of justifying my reading a book already published. Listening to it in the car, I rationalized, is entirely acceptable. I cagily waited until Brilliance Audio re-issused their compact disc set for $19.99 (down from the original price of $29.99) and I've been listening to it for the last two weeks on my drive to work each day.

The audio is read by Christina Traister, and let the record show that she was a capable performer, rendering even the male voices pretty well, easily switching among various English language accents and dialects: Western USA, Italian, and Brooklyn. The writing was occasionally noteworthy

"Reno" (we never actually learn her real name) is a young woman who moves to New York in the mid 1970s after finishing an art degree at a regional Nevada university. I hesitate to say that she makes friends among the art community, but she meets artists who use her, and whom she intends to use in return. Despite being the first person narrator for most of the book, Reno plays her cards pretty close to her chest.  It's almost impossible to tell, for example, what she really thinks of her lover Sandro, his friend Ronnie, the cafe girl Giddle (this is a phonetic spelling from the audio), or the outrageous and maddening anarchist group called the Mother Fuckers (they think women are only useful as cooks, cleaners, and sexual receptacles, they think work is for suckers, and that it's okay to loot stores and kill those people who try to tell them that looting stores isn't okay).

I certainly know what *I* think of all of them though: user, poseur, loser, and dangerously asinine and backwards-thinking, respectively. These are people whose idea of a brilliant artistic statement is to get women to punch themselves in the face, then photograph them and hang them in a gallery. Or to live outside for one year. Or to cut a house in half. Or to put a pool of water on a gallery floor and light it strategically to luminesce the walls. Or to get a job as a cafe waitress so your entire life is one big piece of performance art as a cafe waitress. I never did decide whether these people who take themselves uber-seriously were more laughable, pathetic or just plain boring.

Reno rides motorcycles and wants to make kinetic landscape art, and her big idea, the one that Sandro hails as being another brilliant artistic statement, is to ride her motorcycle on the salt flats in Utah and then take photographs of the marks left by her tires.  Uh huh. Okey-dokey.

Suffice it to say that Reno does that, but she wipes out and somehow falls in with an Italian company called Valera, who've produced tires for the car that holds the world's land speed record.  And Sandro just happens to be the son of the Italian scion Valera. So they travel to Italy together, where Reno discovers that Sandro's mother is extremely unpleasant and controlling, and she catches Sandro in flagrante delicto with his first cousin, Taglia.  She runs away, upset at his infidelity, and for the rest of the book I keep saying to myself, "Wait, does nobody else realize that Taglia and Sandro are first cousins? Why do none of the characters seem to care about that?"

I think I'm actually making this book sound a lot more interesting than it really was. Because mostly nothing happens, except people sit around talking in a self-congratulatory manner about how awesome and brilliant and revolutionary they are, when really their conversations are boorish, boring, and most of all, masturbatory.

There are a couple of bookend sections that refer to a group of soldiers during WWI who were known as flamethrowers. How they actually pertained to the content of the book is tenuous at best and non-existent at worst. And while I'm on a rant, why the hell isn't there a hyphen in the title if flamethrowers is supposed to be one word, yet written across two lines?

You can color me supremely unimpressed by this book. This was a colossal waste of my money. With most books that garner such incredible accolades, even if I don't care for them, at least I can usually see what other people might see in them. This one, though? Not one little bit.

You may well wonder why I bothered to listen to the whole thing.  Partly was because I kept thinking it would have to get better.  Partly was because I was too lazy-cheap to buy something else to listen to.

NB: This book was published by Scribner in April 2013. In case you didn't already see my disclaimer above, I purchased my own copy of the audio book.

24 February 2014

Book Review: Thirty Girls by Susan Minot

I've been a fan of Susan Minot's ever since I first read Evening back in the 1990s. Thus I was already predisposed to like her new book called Thirty Girls before I even picked it up, but by the time I came to the end of it, I thought Minot had accomplished something both subversive and marvelous.

Esther is a young Ugandan girl who has been kidnaped by the brutal nutjobs in the Lord's Resistance Army and forced to witness, participate in, and submit to various atrocities associated with children's conscription armies in sub-Saharan Africa. Jane is an American journalist who has traveled to Kenya with the hopes of writing a piece about children like Esther. Minot uses these dual narratives to great effect, alternating Jane's third person story with Esther's more urgent first person every other chapter. When Jane's and Esther's paths eventually cross, Minot starts playing her sly hand.

We follow Esther from the time she is abducted from her boarding school through her frightful experience with the LRA, all the way through to her escape and recovery in a refugee/rehabilitation camp created for such children. Jane, in turn, we follow from her arrival in Nairobi as she meets various wealthy, white ex-pats who are bored enough to accompany Jane on her trek to Uganda to find out more. There's a very Out of Africa-feel to Jane's narrative, and Minot's descriptions are lush and her style is breezily literary in these sections. Jane is undergoing some existential angst and she falls in romantically with a young man more than 15 years her junior on this group excursion that almost feels like a holiday.

Jane's chapters contrast starkly with Esther's halting and awkward first person narration, which she is ostensibly relating as part of her recovery therapy. These escaped children have endured not only the horrors inflicted on them, but the horrors they were required to inflict on other children in order to survive. Most of the girls are no longer wanted by their families, because as rape victims they are not  considered marriageable, and when the boys play in the field their games quickly escalate into violence.  This is the first way that Minot lures her readers into a false sense of security: though the content of Esther's chapters is clearly weightier than Jane's content, Jane's chapters are so much better written that it was actually difficult to make myself not skim Esther's chapters.

Now consider this: according to the Human Rights Watch, "an estimated 20,000 children have been abducted during the 16-year conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government." Twenty frickin' thousand children.  Now consider this: in 1997, Minot traveled to Uganda to report on these missing children. It seems to me that whatever she saw there has been percolating in her mind for well over a decade, and I'd say that Thirty Girls is her shining tribute to those stolen children, children whom most of the world has forgotten.

You know how Westerners and/or white people and/or people of privilege are all, like, "Oh, what a tragedy that 20,000 children have been stolen from their homes in Uganda," or "How terrible that those Hutus are systematically slaughtering the Tutsis," or "Oh, [insert your own African tragedy of choice here]," but then they put down their newspapers or turn off their televisions without really being touched by the horror? I feel that Minot is doing a bait & switch with Jane's and Esther's narratives, because though we begin and end with Jane, and even though something bad does happen in Jane's narrative, I think the whole point of the book is to make Esther's tale more memorable and important; that basically despite the bad stuff that happens indirectly to Jane, she's still the privileged and lucky one, and the small existential crises she feels are clearly *nothing* in the eyes of the reader compared to what Esther and the rest of the titular thirty girls must undergo.

It's clear to me that Minot holds up her novel like a mirror -- the reader knows which story is more important in this book and society should watch and learn: it is not acceptable to dismiss news like this in order to be consumed by our First World Problems.

NB: Knopf published Thirty Girls earlier this month.  I read an advance reading copy that was provide to me by the publisher at my request. I confess that I read this book back in December and then gave me ARC away to somebody else to read, and that's why I have no excerpts included in my review. Sorry!

14 February 2014

A little Valentine's Day book fun: The Rosie Project and Words for Worms

Despite my intentions to blog at least once a week, it's been difficult to keep up with it this year and we're only in February! I'm about 50-100 pages into more than a dozen novels and thus not ready to review anything, and I've already posted about Rosie here, so today I am going to take the easy way out by participating in a group book survey for The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, sponsored by Words for Worms. I'd never heard of that blog before, but I saw that Sarah Says Read participated in it and that inspired me to check it out. Warning: ahead there be spoilers!

1. Pop culture question here: did anybody get a serious Sheldon Cooper vibe out of Don? Well, after I looked up who Sheldon Cooper was, I can say, quite definitively, no. I've only watched a couple of episodes of The Big Bang Theory and didn't think it was particularly funny or good.  But when the author was at my bookstore last fall, he said that he gets questioned about that all the time. To me, Sheldon Cooper came off less a quirky genius and more of an asshole, and Don Tillman, awkward though he may be, is no asshole.

2. Don's social interactions are awkward at best, but his logic and adherence to routine give him some interesting habits. What's your favorite Don-ism? Oh, so many of them. I laughed so many times at his rigorous adherence to punctuality, timing everything in his life down to 30-second increments.  His anti-vegetarian stance. His learning to dance by watching videos and practicing with a skeleton. His learning to have sex by reading the Kama Sutra and practicing with a skeleton. I could go on and on, but I won't.

3. Don's "Wife Project" involves an elaborate questionnaire designed to weed out unsuitable matches. Have you ever made a list of qualities that are important to you for a potential partner? Do you think it's realistic to expect one person to live up to all of them? When I was a teenager I probably did compile actual lists with my friends for things I wanted in my boyfriends. Looking back on my various romantic affairs, I can see that I don't have a physical type, but I do most certainly have a type: smart, can make me laugh, and with a creative bent (musicians, writers, and artists). Now that I'm older and have a better idea of what works in a mature and lasting relationship, I can add some more must-have qualities to my mental list: emotionally available, supportive, and generous-spirited. Luckily my husband qualifies on all of those counts. While I don't think it's realistic to expect one's romantic partner to fulfill every need one has, I do think it's realistic (and healthy) to expect emotional availability, support, and a generous spirit from one's romantic partner.

4. What is is about Rosie that manages to break down Don's defenses? Do you think that love requires a certain abandonment of logic? Funny, but I didn't see that Rosie broke down anything about Don.  She was perceptive enough to understand that he was different and smart enough to value his differences as much as she valued his more obvious gifts. For his part, Don had to unlearn what he thought was required for love: identical doesn't always mean compatible.

5. What was your favorite scene in The Rosie Project? I have a few favorite scenes: the ice cream debacle on his first date in the beginning of the book, echoed near the end playing out a similar ice cream scene with Rosie; his argument with the maitre d' about the superiority of his outerwear jacket over a dinner jacket; the bartending scene with Rosie, where his quirks turn out to be his strongest selling points; giving a lecture to the Aspie kids and describing himself without realizing it. Really, there are so many.

What about you, gentle reader?  Have you read The Rosie Project?  Did you love it like I did? 

05 February 2014

Book Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge is a quick read, and while I definitely was not the primary audience for it, it was also an occasionally fun read. I'm also more drawn to the cover than I should be and in my opinion it's one of the best things about this book. An architectural spiral superimposed upon a natural one, both ruled by Fibonacci, is enough to make the latent math nerd in me swoon. 

Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up (with a nod to The Princess Bride and Goodreads): "Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him. With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she's ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people. But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle-a shifting maze of magical rooms-enthralls her."

The Beauty & the Beast parallels are obvious to even the most unaware reader, but Hodge borrows just as heavily from Greek mythology (most notably from Eros & Psyche, but also from Pandora and her terrible box), the robber bridegroom trope from all over folk & fairy tales, the alchemies of John Dee, the medieval Romance of the Rose, and T. S. Eliot's The Four Quartets

At first I thought that borrowing from so many traditions made for an interesting mix, but before long I grew a little weary of it.  It was less a deft melding of the various storylines and more of an authorial throw down: "Look how smart I am to incorporate elements of so many Western traditions. Aren't I clever?" To be fair, though, because Hodge had so many influences in her novel, I wasn't always able to accurately predict what direction she would take her heroine in, so that actually increased my interest level a bit. Either because the author handles the T. S. Eliot allusions more delicately, or because I am less familiar with the source material, they were the most successful borrowing in the novel. 

I can't quite decide what my final opinion is of this book, beyond a general frustration. There are parts that I thought were quite terrific, but those were more frequently overshadowed by parts that were plodding, trite, or otherwise obvious. The character of Nyx was actually pretty interesting when she wasn't  hemming and hawing over a course of action, and Ignifex was generally marvelous and reminded me nothing more than of John Milton's Lucifer in Paradise Lost.  

I think, overall, what I want from this author is to have her write a book for adults, not teens, and put all of her literary sources to bear in creating a work for more discerning readers than this book is obviously meant for.  If Hodge were to incorporate subtlety and a more streamlined approach to her subject, and couch it all in a third person narrative, I think we'd have a pretty fine piece of fantasy on our hands. 

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time."  

“Footfalls echo in the memory, 
down the passage we did not take, 
towards the door we never opened, 
into the rose garden.” 

“Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.” 

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

T. S. Eliot, various excerpts from The Four Quartets

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided by the publisher.  It is available now from Balzer & Bray publishers. 

01 February 2014

Last Month in Review: January 2014

Oh, 2014. I have lowered my reading expectations for you and already I feel better about myself than I did in 2013.  You know why?  Because every time I log into Goodreads, it tells me that I'm either ahead or on track for my reading goal for the year. Yay for achieving goals! On the other hand, I think I might be reading less because there's no sense of urgency to finish the ten books I'm currently in varying stages of reading.

Last month I read a mix of adult and children's books and I had a great time reading, not least because of the super-fun Mini Readathon that Tika hosted.  It was the first one I'd ever participated in and it was perfect: perfect length, perfect food-to-books ratio, perfect audience participation. I can't wait for the next one.

1. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler.  I may be the only person who has read this book and not fallen down in genuflection before it. My review is here and while I don't exactly pan it, I don't heap it with praise, either.  For balance check out this review, which claims that it's a "remarkable and uncompromising saga." I mean, that makes me want to roll my eyes and imagine that that particular reviewer doesn't actually read many books, but whatever.  Lots of folks I know in the book world (publishers, editors, marketing people, reps, booksellers) really do love this one.

2-3. Pippi Longstcking and Pippi Goes On Board by Astrid Lindgren. I read this book decades ago and remember it as one of my favorite characters from childhood.  I'm very glad that it held up under my more critical adult eye, though in the interest of full disclosure, there was a good bit of nostalgia involved, too. Pippi is amazing, all the more so because she was created in 1945.  Strong female characters (in this case quite literally) weren't precisely the hallmark of 1940s children's literature, but Pippi has just as much to offer today as she did then, or when I read her in the 1970s. She's instinctively kind but she resists convention. She is generous, spirited, and tender-hearted. Fiercely brave but also quite fair-minded. She lacks book smarts but her unimpeded imagination makes up for a lot. I wish she were a role model for more children.  She's a far cry from the Wimpy Kid/Junie B Jones/Princess Flavor-of-the-Month that most kids are reading these days.

4. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. I read this book when it was first published, but I lucked into a damaged (and therefore complimentary) audio book at work.  This man makes me laugh out loud in my car, sometimes in quite the deranged fashion. Here is my review of the actual book. I will only add that the audio book is even funnier because Sedaris reads it himself.  Oh, and also that the weird, short, first-person segments in the book that are clearly not Sedaris essays and which break up the flow of the narrative are explained on the audio: they're for the youth to recite at forensics competitions (allegedly). On the audio they appear all together at the end, with a brief explanation but in the physical books they're interspersed with his actual essays with no explanation at all.  They really were a little jarring, as I recall.

5. The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel.  This book was a pure treat, from beginning to end.  It's a middle grade novel set on the longest train in the world, making its maiden coast-to-coast voyage across Canada.  It's not published until later this spring, but my review of it is here.

6. All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu.  If I may quote The Millions for a moment, where they compile the 89 books they're most looking forward to for 2014: "A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it's one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu." In other words, this is a writer to pay attention to.  This book is very well done and I hope to write a review eventually.  I'm also going to take a moment to be commercial and mention that I liked the book so much that our store selected it for our signed First Editions Club.  Which means that I have about 45 days to modulate my fangirl behavior before meeting him and shaking his hand.

7. Landline by Rainbow Rowell. I pouted when my coworker received an ARC of this book before I did, and then my sweet sales rep hand-delivered a copy into my hands the very next day.  (Shout-out to Bob.  Thanks, Bob!)  It was very sweet and very funny. What Rowell did for falling in love the first time in Eleanor & Park, she does for married love (or at least, long-term love with complications and children) in this novel. Please, please, please cross all of your collective fingers that the event proposal I wrote to her publisher will result in my bookstore's getting a signing with Rainbow Rowell!

8. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. To intentionally use a double negative, I will never not love this book.  Though I came to it relatively late considering that I was a precocious and Hoovering reader  in my youth (I was probably 15-16), I have made up for lost time by reading it a couple dozen times.  At least once every other year, sometimes more often, depending on stress levels.  For this book is to me what ice cream or mac & cheese are to others: pure comfort.

What about y'all?  Have you read any of these? What was good for you in  January? And do you like using Goodreads goals/challenges for the year?