Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (1963)

My Debbie Downer book club (only sad books need apply) recently met to discuss A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (1963). Actually, when we picked this one, none of us were really sure how much of a downer it even was (although it did show up on some "sad young adult books" lists). I'm not sure how, but I somehow avoided reading this book for my entire childhood, even though I have been reading pretty much constantly (with short breaks for eating, sleeping, and working) since I was 4, and this book would have been right up my alley!

Never fear, guys, it does have some solid downer content, including: missing father, bullies, scary physics-involved space travel, realization that adults can't save or protect you, isolation and loneliness, potential loss of favorite sibling, etc. And things don't really wrap up happily until the last three pages!

In case you are a weirdo like me who never read this one before, the basic outline is that Meg's father, a scientist for the government, disappeared mysteriously. She is teased at school because of her father and her temper is a little out of control. Her brother, Charles Wallace, was a baby when their father vanished. He is five going on twenty-five with some unusual psychic abilities. They, together with Calvin O'Keefe, a popular kid from school who has some of the same psychic connections as Charles Wallace, are whisked away by the very unusual Mrs. Whatsit (and soon joined by her colleagues, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which) and set out on the adventure of finding Meg's father and saving the world from evil / darkness / the cloud / IT.

There is some solid sci-fi in here, as well as a good dose of Christianity (which I totally would not have noticed as a kid) and some pro-American / anti-communist mindsets. I was particularly into a nice little homage to Flatland, one of my favorite mathematically-based science-fiction books. The characters are types, but they are lovable types, and there is a lot to enjoy in Meg's journey towards independence and (of course!) the power of love. This is the first book in a short series, and I'm down for checking out the rest.

Finally, thanks to my book club, I did discover the existence of this really horrible and extremely dated 2003 film version of the book that features possibly the weirdest line delivery, most awkward special effects, and downright creepiest Charles Wallace ever.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)

We read P.D. James' dystopian science fiction novel, The Children of Men (1992) for my free-form book club (go DAFFODILS!). I was very into this choice since I (a) like dystopian science fiction and (b) really liked the movie version and figured if nothing else I could day dream about Clive Owen while reading it. I did end up really enjoying the book, although it has little in common with the movie version beyond the general premise and the character names.

The book takes place in 2021, 26 years after all the men on the planet became infertile. The last generation of humans, known as the Omegas, are beautiful nihilistic jerks and our narrator, Theo Faron, is a cynical and disconnected history professor who sometimes tries to teach them. Theo is divorced after his shaky marriage fell completely apart with the death of their daughter in a tragic accident that was his fault. He lives alone and is comfortable but dissatisfied. He is thrown into the politics of post-Omega England when he is approached by a young woman from one of his classes who asks him to talk to the Warden of England on behalf of her and a small group of protesters. They want to stop the government regulated mass suicides of the elderly, the mandatory fertility testing, the unsupervised prison islands, and the poor treatment of immigrants from other countries. Theo is in a place to help because his cousin, Xan, is the Warden -- a replacement for the prime minister and the King who makes all the decisions for the country, together with a small council. The meeting with the council doesn't go well, but now Theo has a cause and something to actually do, and he can't separate himself from the work of the rebel group. When the unimaginable happens, he finds himself willing to sacrifice everything for the cause.

This is a pretty philosophical and extremely British book with digressions on politics, theological implications, and moral and ethical tests of its characters and readers. While the plot and the action move the story along quickly, this is no sweaty Clive Owen action-filled story like the film. Wikipedia tells me that the late P.D. James was pleased with the film version even though it was so different from her original novel, and I can see why she liked it. It captures the world she created, but comes at it in a way that plays better on the screen. The novel, on the other hand, is the perfect way to explore the cold, intellectual, privileged mind of Theo and experience the slow warming and opening that he undergoes as he becomes more and more involved with Julian and her friends. Literary science fiction doesn't always work for me, but in this case, James really pulls it off. There is a lot to think about here, and it's a rewarding read.

And the cats! The cats!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In a French Kitchen: Tales and Traditions of Everyday Home Cooking in France by Susan Herrmann Loomis (2015)

I got an advance reader's copy of In a French Kitchen: Tales and Traditions of Everyday Home Cooking in France by Susan Herrmann Loomis (2015) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The concept sounds right up my alley, and the LibraryThing algorithm usually doesn't steer me wrong, but in this case the book and I just did not connect.

Loomis is an American who has lived in France for decades. She is well known for books on French cooking and a well-received memoir about her live abroad. I haven't read her other books, but a generous interpretation of In a French Kitchen might be that she was resting on her laurels a bit and that fans who are familiar with her history and style will like even the most casually written combination of anecdotes and recipes.

The recipes almost save the book -- they are without exception interesting, well composed, hearty, simple, and very French. I could see fitting many of these into my regular cooking routine, and I'm glad I had a chance to look through them.

Unfortunately the "tales and traditions" part of the book reads more like a rambling blog post (a familiar format for Loomis) and don't translate well to the printed page. Sweeping declarations about all the French and all Americans rubbed me the wrong way and one more description of a beautiful Frenchwoman who had a challenging job and came home to throw together an economical and delicious meal from scratch for her lovely children AND THEN created a multi-course dinner party for her friends after the kids went to bed and I would have had to throw the book off a bridge. This scenario really happened more than once in the book. The secret: the French are 1) organized and 2) don't eat processed food and 3) learn everything from their grandmothers. And maybe just the atmosphere of France. Also, men don't cook and if any Frenchmen do cook, the author notes that it is the exception and not the rule.

I don't know, maybe I was feeling cranky when I read this, but the tone really did not work, neither as a memoir nor as a cookbook. Fans may have a different view, but this was not a good introduction to Loomis for me.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets by Fletcher Hanks (2007)

My next pick from the St. Denis storage shelf of delight is I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets by Fletcher Hanks, edited and with an afterword by Paul Karasik (2007).

As you may know, I love classic sci fi and adventure novels, and yet I always forget that I would also probably love their counterpart in 1930s/1940s boy and manhood, the classic comic book. Fletcher Hanks was a mysterious comic artist. He only worked for a few years in the late 1930s and early 1940s and then disappeared. When Paul Karasik found a man with the same (unusual) name, he looked him up and happened upon Hanks' elderly, estranged son.

The story of Karasik's meeting with Hanks, Jr. and the answers to some of the mysteries surrounding Hanks is illustrated by Karasik and included as an afterward to this pretty damn exciting collection of the senior Hanks' work in the comic genre. First, take a quick minute to Google image search "Fletcher Hanks" so you can see what I'm talking about. Pretty great, right? Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle is my new life coach. Stardust, The Super Wizard needs to have a movie made about him right now. They are simple and exciting characters with clear motivations (stop evil!) and a rough, colorful drawing style that works perfectly with a cheaply printed comic book. In pretty much every case, the stories start with evil being identified. Then the threat is explained in more detail (usually all of New York is going to be destroyed). Then the hero comes in to save the day, but not before quite a few people are killed or hurt. Then the evildoers are punished in the most weird ways possible (example: Fantomah catches the bad guys, she turns them all into one man (easier to punish that way), she puts the man into the Pit of Horrors, he tries to escape, a giant hand attacks him, he slips to his death, BUT a whirlwind picks him up and saves him, BUT it drops him into a cave filled with cobras, they bite him and then Fantomah whisks him out of the cave, then she suspends him in mid-air, then a different giant hand comes out of a rock wall and pulls him inside to rot forever). Whew. That is just one story.

Like much of popular culture from the period, you do have to put up with some pretty blatant racism and sexism. It's not great, but it's there. If you can work around that and enjoy some jaw droppingly exciting adventures (and punishments!), then this is the book for you.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau (2016)

My friend Monique is one of the first people I met when I moved to Austin in 2000. We were both starting library school at the same time, and my tall lady radar immediately picked her out at the orientation. Later, Dr. M and I ran into her in line for an Austin Film Society screening at the Dobie theater (Godard, I think). We kept in touch a little in person and mostly through the internet as I followed her journey as a novelist, her move to Ann Arbor to get her MFA, and her fulfillment of a lifelong dream to move to Portland. And then, this happened: actual publication of her debut novel by a real life publisher. Book tour (see my pictures of the Austin stop at BookPeople here)! Translation into numerous languages! Audio book! I'm so proud of her, and I know the amount of work behind this well-deserved attention. Way to go, Mo!

To top it all off, the book really is great. After about 20 pages, I completely forgot that my friend had written it. At the book signing, Mo noted that her goal was to write a feminist novel with a male protagonist, and she definitely succeeded at that. Karl Bender is a 40-year-old who owns a bar in Chicago. He used to be the guitar player for Axis, a moderately successful band in the 90s. And he has discovered a time-traveling worm hole in his closet. Along with his friend Wayne, a computer programmer that helps set up the wormhole infrastructure, he decides that the best use of the portal is to travel back to rock shows in the past. Soon he and Wayne are selling tickets and sending people back to relive their own history as well as the shows they never had a chance to see. Everything is going great until Karl accidentally sends Wayne back to the year 980 instead of 1980 (typo!) and there isn't enough extant electricity in pre-European Manhattan to get Wayne back.

Karl contacts the coolest looking person in a nearby astrophysics department, Lena Geduldig, to help him bring his best friend back to the present. She is smart, dry, tattooed, and guarded. Karl falls for her instantly and, eventually, she kind of falls for him too. 

The novel eventually spins into a mixture of science-fiction tinged romance and music tinged emotion. While a love for and knowledge of time-travel tropes, alternative music, Sassy Magazine, and 90s-era feminism certainly enhance the experience of the narrative, everything is so nicely balanced that even someone who dislikes all the above couldn't help but be drawn into Karl and Lena's world. I'm a person who is often disappointed by endings, but the climax of the novel is just perfect. 

Also, can we take a second to marvel at the cover? I can't get enough of high-quality book design.
So go get yourself to your nearest independent bookstore (or, you know, click on it in Amazon Prime, no judgement here). BookPeople in Austin is even selling a deluxe version that includes a limited-edition Axis poster and pin! However you get it, just go ahead and get it. This is one that is worth having in hardcover and dipping into right away.

Friday, February 26, 2016

My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese (1994)

My sad-books-only book club (go Debbie Downers!) most recently read My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese (1994), a book about the early years of the AIDS crisis told from the perspective of an Indian doctor (by way of Ethiopia) who was with AIDS patients in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Verghese is an engaging writer with a fascinating story that touches on much more than just AIDS and its devastating effect on people and their families. Through his writing we learn about medical school; being a foreign doctor in small(ish)-town USA; Kerala, the region of India Christianized by the apostle Thomas; the practice of tapping on a body to diagnose problems with internal organs; the complex relationships between doctors, nurses and other staff; how to navigate around Johnson City; the inner workings of a big VA hospital and much much more. And that's just the side stories! The heart of the book is, of course, Verghese's relationship with his patients. Some we see for only a short time, but others are woven throughout the book, along with their families, and the reader becomes just as tied up in their lives and their pain as Verghese.

While the book is well-written and worth reading, there are a few dim spots. Verghese somehow completely misses any hint of racism or (oddly) black people, even though he is living in the south. There is some wrestling with his identity as a foreign doctor, but this is generally spun in a positive light -- patients open up to him because he is different, and he is able to treat them more effectively because of the trust that that difference provides. Beyond the blind spot for race, Verghese is much much better at describing the men in his story than the women -- his wife comes off as disconnected and nagging (but also sympathetic, since she is pretty much left alone with two young children and the fear that her husband is going to catch AIDS at work), and his description of the rocky parts of their marriage come across like a plot device. Finally, while Verghese has a great writing style and perceptive insights into his own thoughts and background, his recreation of other people's dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. I understand wanting to break up the memoir with some speeches, but I'm not sure that device should have been relied upon so heavily.

Beyond those criticisms, though, this is a good book. It provides a snapshot of not-that-long-ago America where neither AIDS nor homosexuality were understood by the general population at all. Verghese confronts some of his own biases and misconceptions about gay people through the course of the book, and while he doesn't get everything right, his journey and his effort come off well. While this book is definitely a downer, there is a bright side in looking at how much the conversation has changed in the past 25 years, and how much doctors and researchers like Verghese have helped people living with HIV and AIDS. Definitely worth reading if you don't mind a few bumps in the road.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

100 Posters, 134 Squirrels: A decade of hot dogs, large mammals, and independent rock -- the handcrafted art of Jay Ryan (2005)

I had never heard of Jay Ryan (although, in retrospect, his style is certainly familiar), but since it was the next book in my St. Denis book pile, I gave 100 Posters, 134 Squirrels: A decade of hot dogs, large mammals, and independent rock -- the handcrafted art of Jay Ryan (2005) a go.

Ryan is a Chicago-area screen-printing artist who started out making posters for bands that he knew, and gradually became part of the music poster renaissance starting in the early 2000s, including creating some iconic posters for bands like Silkworm and Shellac. His style is easily recognizable and unique (a Google image search for "jay ryan posters" will give you a nice taste), and his mix of soft colors, hand-lettering, cute animals, and violent or odd circumstances (attack by adorable squirrels!) is pretty enchanting.

The book itself is nicely produced, in full color, with a good size (not to big and not too small), and quality paper. Introductory essays by Steve Albini and other Ryan supporters provide some nice context, and Ryan himself includes some annotations of his work at the back. The bulk of the book, of course, is the posters themselves, and they really are great. This is a fun one to pick up and browse through, and then return to again with fresh eyes.