Monday, September 30, 2013

The Lady Astronaut of Mars

Short Story # 6 The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal


What does an astronaut's retirement look like? In this realistically imagined novelette, Kowal brings to life a retired lady astronaut, living in the Martian colony she helped found. When her age and gender bring one last opportunity to go the stars though, her husband's debilitating disease presents an agonizing obstacle. The story pulls no surprises, but comments gently on double standards and the unique trials of aging.

Favorite Quotes:

"The physicists described it to me like a subway tunnel. The tesseract will bend space and allow a ship to go to the next subway station."

"Posing in my flight suit, with my lips painted red, I had smiled at more cameras than my colleagues."

Friday, September 27, 2013

The National Book Festival 2013: James McBride

I made it to the rapidly filling tent where James McBride was about to speak as a light drizzle transformed into a ferocious downpour. When McBride took the podium, he complained that another author had had beautiful weather, but here he was, having to compete with the rain.

I'd say McBride got the best of that rain though, as he talked about his new book The Good Lord Bird, his love of the abolitionist John Brown, his view that history is more complicated than we think, and his disregard for political divisions (he commented that he was thrilled to see Laura Bush in his audience the last time he spoke at the festival). Toward the end of his talk, he declared his belief that "What God wants to happen, will happen," and gestured. At the moment, the rain, which had been slowing, came to a stop! I don't know about any higher meaning, but McBride has impeccable timing.

Having read and enjoyed his memoir, The Color of Water, in high school I was interested to hear McBride speak at the festival. I came away even more intrigued and excited to read his new book, The Good Lord Bird. During his talk, he mentioned that this book is not the place to look for accurate history, he's trying to get people interested and get them to laugh. Plenty of books have been written about the serious abuses of slavery, he said. You won't find that in his book. He mentioned that he's come a long way since he wrote The Color of Water, which he's best-known for. The Good Lord Bird, he says, is his "best book so far" and he had fun writing it. It helped him, he said, through an "incredibly painful divorce."

McBride gave an especially mellifluous and dialect-infused reading from the book's first chapter. The Good Lord Bird is the story of Onion Shackleford, a young black boy who becomes attached to John Brown's posse in the 1850s. Except that John Brown thinks Onion is a girl and all manner of other hijinks and misunderstandings ensue against the backdrop of pre-Civil War America and Brown's own violent style of justice. McBride said he thinks that Brown is misunderstood, and so is how slavery was regarded in the 1850s in general. Apparently the book includes a parodic portrait of Frederick Douglass, but McBride declares it's all in good fun and he respects Douglass and his work as well.

So far, The Good Lord Bird is not disappointing, except that I can't have James McBride to read me every line!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

London Falls Flat (For Me)

I've been saying I'm going to read London Falling by Paul Cornell.

I'm not. Or rather, I'm not going to finish it.

As soon as I started reading it became clear that despite the promise of dark fantasy and the lure of a former "Dr. Who" screenwriter, this is not a book for me.

The beginning of the novel, at least, reads more like a police procedural, taking place on the dodgy side of London. It features hard-boiled and corrupt cops with Cockney accents. Some readers might eat this up with crumpets and lick their lips. It's just not my cup of tea, and I'm not going to finish it for the sake of finishing it. I gave it the old 50-page try, and if you think you'd like it better, please be my guest!


I will give away my copy, which I received from the publisher, to the first commenter who lives within the continental United States. Comment away!

*Edit* A friend of mine has claimed my copy of the book, I hope she enjoys it!

Monday, September 23, 2013

The National Book Festival 2013: Margaret Atwood

Did you know Margaret Atwood had a Twitter? I didn't.

From one side of a standing room only tent at the National Book Festival, I learned a lot more about Margaret Atwood than I knew before. Her father was an entymologist, The Complete Works of Shakespeare would be her reading of choice on the proverbial deserted island, and she won't divulge her favorite authors or her favorite among her own books.

Atwood did divulge, however, her opinions on genetic manipulation, genre, and the cover of the just-released end to her dystopian trilogy, MadAddam. As Atwood put it, genetic manipulation and other future technological/biotechnological tools have a "good use, a bad use, and a use that no one expected." She spoke in praise of the recent attempt at a lab-grown burger and in support of continuing such projects. Growing up with an entymologist father and her own inclinations seem to have made her quite scientific in thought and opinion. When asked if she had grown up with animals, she pointed out that "everyone does," as they are "all around us and some of them are inside of us." She credited the discovery of microbes with the launch of tales about truly fearsome-looking Martians. In regard to science fiction, she noted that she thinks of genre as mainly a convenience for booksellers and sometimes for readers. "Once you create a box," she said, "sometimes the wrong things will end up in the box." She seems neither to cling to genre nor rebel against it, but accept its existence as just another human imperfection. She was less sanguine about the apparently imperfect covers that went before the current iteration of MadAddam. The first two covers featured flowers and gnomes respectively, neither of which, she regrets, are largely important to her book. Her book might be for the kinds of readers who are "not into flowers and not into gnomes." Either way, she's pleased with the cover that features an egg with a hand-print--so perhaps it's for readers who are into that kind of thing.

I also learned from Ms. Atwood that The Handmaid's Tale is an opera and is going to be a ballet! She said she wouldn't miss the latter. I may have to, but I'm sure it could be quite thought-provoking.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Top Ten Books On My Fall TBR List

Here we go again, Broke and Bookish! I think the best I ever do on these is five out of ten, but here's to aspirations!

Top Ten Seven Books on My Fall TBR List

1. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I've already read Oryx and Crake and MaddAddam
just came out, so I have momentum to finish the series! Plus, I'm planning to see Margaret Atwood at the National Book Festival on Saturday!

2. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

See above.

3. Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I know I've said this before, but this time I'm planning to see her at the Fall for the Book festival.

4. London Falling by Paul Cornell

I've really been meaning to get on this.

5. Box Office Poison by Philippa Bornikova

The sequel to This Case Is Gonna Kill Me, received for review, and I'm kinda curious to see where this went.

6. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

It got a stellar review in the Washington Post and he's going to be at the National Book Festival too.

7. Short Stories in Spanish: New Penguin Parallel Text

I picked this up recently at Kramerbooks. It looks like a fun way to practice my Spanish, with short stories from the likes of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

I think I'll leave it there and make it more manageable for myself.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

26. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri, whose second novel, The Lowland, will be released on September 24, received the Pulitzer Prize for this debut collection of short stories.

Reading Jhumpa Lahiri's stories is like slipping into an old nightgown or scooping up a bowl of your favorite cultural dish. The majority of her stories follow the intimate lives of Bengali families and take place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The feeling that her stories produce in me may be somewhat unique, since one of my best friends is Bengali and I spent my college years in Boston. But no matter how foreign the trappings, I find it hard to believe that the thoughts and feelings of her characters would not elicit a sense of familiarity from any human being. The character details are almost painfully thrilling in the accuracy with which she depicts the quiet confusion of her protagonists' lives.

Yet, every time I read a Jhumpa Lahiri story, I settle into it with such feelings of comfort, joy, and sympathy, and then often find myself jerked abruptly out of the characters' lives at the end, with no sense of where they will go from here. Lahiri mimics life so accurately at times that the arc of the story seems swept under a rug, understandably abandoned, like the Christian relics left behind in her story, "The Blessed House." The reader shares in Twinkle's joy as she discovers these "treasures," left around her new home, but worries about her husband Sanjeev's strong annoyance with them. In the end, it's unclear what will happen to the objects, much less Twinkle and Sanjeev's marriage. And yet, Lahiri can be forgiven for details like this, when Sanjeev observes Twinkle's abandoned shoes, "black patent-leather mules with heels like golf tees, open toes, and slightly soiled silk labels where her soles had rested."

The titular story is not even the most interesting, it focuses on an Indian tour guide who also works as an interpreter for a physician. The central conceit does not mesh well with the storyline, and will leave the reader confused and feeling vaguely superior. The best two stories in the collection are the two with the most definitive story arcs: "A Temporary Matter" and "Sexy." The former concerns the dissolution of a marriage and the latter of an affair. "Sexy" features the only adult non-Bengali protagonist, the other non-Bengali protagonist is a small boy with a Bengali caretaker in "Mrs. Sen's." "A Temporary Matter" is the first and most touching story of the entire collection. "Sexy" teaches the most interesting lesson, wrapped up in one short quote from a Bengali child. While I won't ruin that for you, I'll leave you with a quote from an earlier scene; "Miranda went to Filene's Basement to buy herself things she thought a mistress should have...she found a cocktail dress of a slinky silvery material that matched her eyes" [Moment of Silence for Filene's Basement].

Short stories, I feel, are beginning to be more popular again, though still under the thumb of the novel. I've found them to be a great way to enjoy reading these days, as well as experience new and familiar authors. I've now read all of Lahiri's currently published oeuvre, and I'm looking forward to The Lowland, I hope I can expect the same level of character detail and intimacy with perhaps a less understated plot. And yet, there's room in this world for all kinds of writers and readers and if Lahiri sticks to the style that has done well for her, there would still be a variety of literatures in which to indulge.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind

Short Story #5. In Joy Knowing the Abyss Behind by Sarah Pinsker
Publisher: Strange Horizons Published: July 1 2013 and July 8 2013

How I Found It:

I followed a link from this post on SF Signal.

There are two parts; the first part links to the second.


If you've ever wanted a fantastical treehouse, this is the story for you. Timelines trade off between the present where an elderly Millie watches her husband George dying of a stroke and the past as Millie remembers before and after the mysterious event that quashed George's architectural ambitions. Like George's career, the story feels unfinished, but it does leave the reader longing for more.

Favorite Quotes:

"An ungraceful shimmy brought her into the crow's nest."

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

This Villain You Must Create

Short Story #4. This Villain You Must Create by Carlie St. George
Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine Issue: July 2013

How I Found It:

I followed a link from this post on SF Signal.


Granite loses his archnemesis and finds that other villains lack panache. When a similarly bereaved supervillain visits his support group, he takes her up on her unnatural offer. St. George's diction is deceptively simple and this literary-infused SF short tale serves up quite a Jamesian twist.

Favorite Quotes:

"'Fire and Ice' is an uninspired poem, cited primarily in self-indulgent fanfiction."

"'Nothing Gold Can Stay' is my favorite and yes, I've written Outsiders fanfiction. Ha!"

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Top Ten Books That I Wish Were Taught in Schools

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is quite appropriate for the start of the school year! There are so many books that I wish were taught...

1. Forever by Judy Blume

Freshman or sophomore English class. Or Health. Just reading this book would be so much more useful than the Health class at my high school was. It realistically depicts the emotional and sexual unfolding of a teenage relationship.

2. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares

I'd recommend these for junior and senior classes, for similar reasons to above. These books very realistically depict teenage lives in high school and college. I also think that the writing would be an extremely good model for kids to write stories of their own.

3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This book changed my life when I read it in a class (in college) and I think it's a particularly engaging and insightful book on issues from multiculturalism to poverty to nerd culture. Plenty of room for discussion on writing style and content.

4. Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston

A classic at universities, it's equally worthy of injecting into the high school classroom, probably at a senior level, for a more nuanced look at racism and narrator reliability. Pairs well with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

5. Dune by Frank Herbert

The richness of the characters, worlds, and politics, not to mention environmental economics, all make Dune an enlightening as well as entertaining thought experiment. For a freshman or sophomore English or Biology class, and/or a Bioethics elective.

6. Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

I feel like I promote this book for everything, but it would really be great for a junior English class. Parts of it would work well for a Photography class or a class focused on recent history. Besides being a culturally rich and slice-of-teen-life read, it is steeped in a particular historical moment; NYC's South Asian American community in the '90s.

7. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

What if there was a world where anyone could be either gender? I feel like this kind of read stimulates critical thinking and leads to productive questions about social paradigms that could lead to fantastic essays.

8. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

My friend and I were talking about how we learned as kids to please adults and peers and how instead we should have learned to balance others' needs with our own. Prep is an extreme example of what happens when you allow social pressures to rule your life. The intense self loathing and secretive loathing of others that the protagonist engages in haunts me to this day, and sophomore or junior English classes should teach students not to end up like Lee Fiora.

9. The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

Come on. Everyone needs to know more about vaginas and how our society feels about them. Plus, it's a play! Freshies, welcome to high school! (Maybe bump it up to sophomores if they're really giggly).

10. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

I was debating which Amy Tan book to pick. Almost any of them would be great for cultural reasons, but this one has an especially rich historical component and leaves lots of questions about narrator reliability. Much better than The Joy Luck Club. For freshman or sophomore English class or World History class.