Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Books of 2013 Survey-From Boston Bibliophile

How many books read in 2013?

34, as of December 29th.

How many fiction and non-fiction?

Officially, 3 non-fiction and the rest fiction. However, that's not counting the vast amounts of literary criticism I read this year.

Male/Female author ratio?

21 female and 9 male authors (some were repeats). It's funny, I've gone from slightly slanting toward male authors to strongly slanting towards female authors!

Favorite book of 2013?

The Best of All Possible Worlds, Wanderlust, and Woman on the Edge of Time.

Least favorite?

I mostly DNF'ed books I didn't like this year...so of those I did finish, Patternmaster by Octavia Butler.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?

Having other priorities this year really freed me up to just say "no" to books for pleasure that I wasn't getting into. That would include London Falling and The Wet and the Dry. The former was just not my style, the latter was interesting in terms of content, but badly organized and not as insightful as it could have been.

Oldest book read:

Probably Gerusalemme liberata, published in 1575.

Newest?

MaddAddam came out in September 2013.

Longest and shortest book titles?

The Best of All Possible Worlds; MaddAddam

Longest and shortest books?

A Discovery of Witches; Every Boy Should Have a Man

How many books from the library?

At least 10 (not counting lit crit, of which I had at least 20 out at one time).

Any translated books?

Only poor lonely Gerusalemme liberata aka The Liberation of Jerusalem.

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?

Margaret Atwood, and two. Actually, she is tied with Jerry Spinelli, I also read two of his.

Any re-reads?

None that I counted for the blog.

Favorite character of the year?

Elisabeth Eaves, in Wanderlust.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?

Spain, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Portugal, India, France, Canada, Australia, Peru, the planet Cygnus Beta, the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, England, the planets Urras and Anarres, and the moon Triton.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?

I was definitely encouraged to read Insurgent, The Good Lord Bird, and MadAddam via blog zeitgeist.

Which author was new to you in 2012 that you now want to read the entire works of?

Karen Lord, Preston L. Allen, Marge Piercy

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?

The final two Malloreon books!

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?

I finally read Insurgent, and The Female Man had been on my TBR list for years. Other than that, it was more reading authors I'd wanted to read more of, like Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Margaret Atwood.

*Bonus*

How many SFF books did you read this year?

12

How many of the books you read were published this year?

7

Friday, December 27, 2013

Short Story Catch-Up

I have still been reading short stories as per my goal this year (especially on Tor.com), but I've neglected to record a few of them. So, here goes:

Short Story #8 Brimstone and Marmalade by Aaron Corwin
Publisher: Tor.com

Summary:

A little girl wants a pony for her birthday. Instead, she gets a demon.

Favorite Quotes:

"Mathilde knew what 'we'll see' meant. It was one of those special lies only grownups were allowed to tell. When a grownup said, 'we'll see,' it really meant 'never'."

Short Story #9 In the Greenwood by Mari Ness

Publisher: Tor.com

Summary:

"Robin Hood" from Maid Marian's point of view is not so cheery, at least in Ness' rendition. Apparently, I don't like to have my fairy, folk,and mythical tales messed with, as will be evident coming up...

Short Story #10 Psyche's Dark Night by Francesca Lia Block
Anthology: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer



I bought this collection a few years ago, at the Boston Book Festival, and since then, I've dipped into it occasionally. I've probably read more than half of the stories in the book-and the truth is, I disliked most of them, and was ashamed to admit this. This is because, you see, it's not at all what I would call outright "bad writing." Many of the authors in this book are very well-respected and famous. Rather, I would say that a lot of the stylistic and content choices in this book were simply not my cup of tea. A lot of the stories were altered to be violently and sexually graphic, to turn tables and characterize heroes as monsters and vice versa. Essentially, to complicate fairy tale worlds and bring them down to an earthly level or at least a new kind of confusion, whether in terms of format or content. I didn't like it. But I bet there are many out there who will, so if you think you can handle it, I would urge you to disregard my opinion.

That said, there was at least one story in this collection that I liked very much. It is probably one of the more conventionally written ones, but I thought it was a charming update of the Cupid and Psyche myth. Francesca Lia Block turns Cupid and Psyche into wary online daters, and the conceit works very well with the premise of the myth. Her Cupid and Psyche really demonstrate the human factor though, that is missing in the bare-bones myth. And that's really what I would like fairy tale re-tellings to do-relate it to our world in an understandable way, not add to the confusion and mystification. But to each, their won. In any case, I have found a new author whose work I may want to look into more. That, I think, is one of the many advantages of short stories over novels (of course novels have advantages over short stories as well), to be able to quickly identify authors that you like, without having to invest so much time.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Second Story Books

My friend was in town for the weekend, and we traveled to Second Story Books. I'd been there before, but not in many years.

Second Story Books almost feels more like a warehouse than a bookstore. This feeling was exacerbated as, while we were there, a loading dock at the front of the store was open, letting in air. This was more than an aesthetic choice, as we found ourselves (and other customers) continually sneezing in the midst of the rather musty collection. Mustiness aside, however, the selection was quite impressive and reasonably well organized. I did come across a few grab-bag boxes in the sci-fi section, but they rather added to the sense of adventure and exploration that often accompanies used bookstores (for me, at least). In addition to generous fiction selections, Second Story Books really shined in the non-fiction, references, and antiques sections. Unfortunately, the latter means many of their wares are more expensive than in your average used bookstore, but extra interesting to browse!

While I felt a bit guilty for the three books I picked up, my friend's stack quite dwarfed mine. I asked if I might share her bounty with you as an example of the many obscure gems that might be available (though her selections are mostly representative of the Psychology and Human Sexuality sections). Her books are as follows:


My more meager selections included The Tolkien Reader by J.R.R. Tolkien, Babylon Revisited and Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

34. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood



Stories are what makes us human. But which stories? The stories that we tell to ourselves, the stories that we tell to our confidants, or the stories that we tell to our children?

The final book in Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy suggests that it is the last that is most important, and which will have the most lasting and unpredictable effects. It reminds me of Atwood's comment at the National Book Festival about new technologies having "a good use, a bad use, and a use that no one expects." In a trilogy that has opened against an immense background of advanced science and technology, which has both theoretically ruined and potentially saved the world, here is a return to the true building blocks of civilization-and surprise! the most dangerous, powerful, and potent tool of all is the Word, written and spoken.

Toby, the primary point-of-view character, teaches a Craker child how to write, and then thinks, "How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?" Although the Crakers are lab-created people, engineered by the famous Crake not to experience jealousy or strife, it is an open question how "human" the Crakers really are. They prove more than capable of imitation, and burst out into song and hero-worship that their creator did not intend. After all, perhaps the Crakers will repeat the mistakes of their human predecessors. Or, perhaps, they will fulfill their greatest potential. Like each of the first two books, MaddAddam leaves more questions than it answers.

It does, however, wrap up the stories of the characters followed in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. This time, the sermons and the point-of-view belong largely to Toby, who while she was probably my favorite of the earlier books' three narrators, was not quite up to the vastness of this last book. Or, rather, the vastness it should have been. MadAddam is far more constrained in time and place than either of the previous books, and suffers for it. The story of Zeb, alias Mad Adam, is interspersed here with Toby's, and his adventurous stories are a breath of fresh air, but not enough. Toward the end, there are more and more contributions from the Craker child Blackbeard, but his voice, the voice of the future, is uncomfortably infantile, even when he is grown.

I longed to hear more of Ren and Jimmy, and while upset that Atwood did not reinvigorate their childhood romance, I was even more upset not to get some more at least of Jimmy's humorous narration. The one lucid conversation he has with Toby are some of the book's most entertaining lines. And while I enjoyed learning more about Zeb, I wished also that I could learn more about Ren's friend, Amanda, and about Swift Fox, a character who comes into play (but not enough) in MaddAddam.

Overall, I would highly recommend the trilogy, but The Year of the Flood is probably my favorite of the three.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2013

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2013

1. Karen Lord

I've been raving about The Best of All Possible Worlds all year, and I know it's only a matter of time before I read Redemption in Indigo. Lord has a voice that's both fresh and familiar, and while her writing is simple, she asks questions about the nature of humanity that force the reader to think.

2. Marge Piercy

Although she's not new on the literary scene by any means, Piercy was new to me this year, and while Woman on the Edge of Time was hard-hitting, I definitely intend to pursue more of her work in the future.

3. Joanna Russ

Russ, like Piercy, a feminist extraordinaire, was also new to me this year. I really admire the thoughts behind her writing, even though it is written in a style that I generally find difficult.

4. Elisabeth Eaves

Wanderlust is a book that I just related to so much and will return to again and again. I don't know if I will read her other memoir about stripping, but I am glad I read her.

5. Francine du Plessix Gray

Her writing was charmingly subdued and richly detailed, I would love to read that kind of historical novel again.

6. Preston L. Allen

Every Boy Needs a Man was a surprise to me in every way, even its very arrival. But it was most welcome and I would read more of Allen's work.

7. Samuel R. Delaney

Not new, but new to me, I really liked Triton despite the unlikable protagonist and complicated world (or because of them?) and am eager to read more.

8. Beth Bernobich

I actually only read Bernobich's short story "Thief of War" on Tor.com, but I definitely want to read the books set in the same world.

9. Erin Morgenstern

If she can come up with another world like The Night Circus, I'm in.

10. Torquato Tasso

Tasso is a sixteenth century Italian who wrote an epic about the Crusades (Gerusalemme liberata). He was one interesting dude, I would like to read more of and about him.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Return to Six-Word Reviews

33. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness



Vampire porn, exquisitely written, starring witch.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Top Ten Books on My Winter TBR List

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

I love Top Ten Tuesdays and all the beautiful aspirations, but I'm not one to set myself up for failure, so let's just see if I can finish the books I set out to read in 2013...

Top Ten Books on My Winter TBR List

From My Fall TBR List:

1. MadAddam by Margaret Atwood

2. Short Stories in Spanish: New Penguin Parallel Text

3. Box Office Poison by Philippa Bornikova

From My Summer TBR List:

4. The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne

5. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel

6. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

7. Night Film by Marisha Pessl

From My 2013 TBR List:

8. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

9. The Seeress of Kell by David Eddings

10. The Sorceress of Darshiva by David Eddings

Monday, December 9, 2013

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

WARNING: Use of the n-word below, in a socio-literary context. Please do not read if this will offend you.

32. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride



Everyone seems to be comparing The Good Lord Bird to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I will confess, when I first heard the voice of Onion Shackleford, I heard the echo of the earlier charmingly uneducated picaresque. But Onion is not just an uneducated young boy, nor just a young boy pretending to be a girl (who remembers that scene from Huck Finn?!?), he is a young boy performing both as a girl and as a Negro. And this brings something new to the performance of the novel.

McBride brings home an observation that seems like an aside in Twain. In Twain's day, he probably couldn't do more than allude to it obliquely, but McBride can spell it out to those to whom it may not occur.

There is a scene in Huck Finn where Huck makes up a story about a boat accident and a concerned lady asks if anyone has been killed. "No'm," Huck replies, then adds, "Just a nigger."

Those few words say so much. No one has been killed, just a nigger, who doesn't even count as a person. But in McBride, he elaborates on the view of that unnamed, fictional victim, how did the "nigger" feel about being a nigger? McBride writes as Onion:

"Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day...You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog, a shovel, or a horse." (343)

If you are treated and considered as just a thing, it changes your self-presentation. You are not free to be the complicated person that you are, but instead you take on this "Negro" persona, instead you become the thing. Or rather, you act the thing. But because the whole thing is an act, acting becomes second nature. This is where it becomes clear that Onion's disguise as a girl is not merely a gimmick, but a powerful metaphor (and comment on how forced shape-shifting creates liars and tricksters):

"I'd gotten used to living a lie-being a girl-it come to me this way: Being a Negro's a lie anyway. Nobody sees the real you." (318)

There is so much more I could say about The Good Lord Bird. The voice is exquisite. Every word is precisely placed. James McBride is correct in suggesting that this is his best novel, and I say this confidently without having read all the others. But while it is in conversation with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it also speaks to Cervantes' Don Quixote, to Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey, to many other novels about blackness and otherness and weirdness. It speaks to the history and legends surrounding John Brown, as well as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. It speaks to the truths and the lies that we tell each other today about race and gender and sexual orientation and being human. Above all, The Good Lord Bird is a novel that SPEAKS.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

31. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood



I didn't realize Oryx & Crake was meant to be a trilogy (and had resigned myself to never knowing what happened after Jimmy went to find the fire), until Year of the Flood came out and I was so excited! I started reading it right away...and then for some reason stopped, and well, I kind of forgot about it. But then MadAddam came out, and so I have finally finished reading Year of the Flood.

Flood is a more expansive and immersive novel than Oryx & Crake, even if it is nominally about two women trapped in separate hiding places after an apocalypse. Toby, trapped in the AnooYoo Spa, has a storyline that demonstrates the evolution of the CorpSeCorps, the corporations that run the world. Ren, younger than Toby and trapped in an upscale sex club,has a storyline that emerges more slowly, but demonstrates the nearer past of the CorpSeCorps and resistance movements. Her storyline also crosses with that of Snowman the Jimmy, from Oryx.

Both Toby and Ren are former members of God's Gardeners, a religious sect that believed in a Waterless Flood, which would wipe the Earth clean of humanity's sins. The God's Gardeners, led by Adam One, are almost like a wet dream of what a religion should be. Sure, they pull weird cultish shenanigans like plain shapeless uniforms and infrequent washing, but all that they do has a purpose. They teach the children to recognize edible plants in nature, to respect animal and human life, but also how to defend themselves. Adam One's sermons mix science with religion, and admit uncertainties and practicalities. And the Gardeners are truly, unwaveringly kind to human beings. And while they are strict vegetarians, they acknowledge that eating animal flesh may at times be necessary to sustaining human life.

Anyone with any interest in dystopia, utopia, apocalypse, biology, technology, animal, and gender politics should probably rush out to read these books right now, if they haven't already. But I want to leave you with a line from one of Toby's sections that I read over and over again. It makes so much sense, and yet I don't think we think like this enough. Toby is observing a group of pigoons (pigs with human neural tissue) that have dug up her garden. She shot one in retaliation, and now she and the pigoons are silent enemies:

"And if we eat pigs, why shouldn't pigs eat us? If they find us lying around." (320)