Archive for the '2011 Books' Category

My 2011 in Books

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Best Books I Read Last Year (loved): A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I finished it, then read it immediately again. It was intriguing, complex, and engagingly constructed. I hugely enjoyed William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy: Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero Country. The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall took Utah polygamy and made it sympathetic and even universal. The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson is a deep and moving American family portrait. Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse was so rich and complex I read it twice.

Other Books with both Style and Substance (really liked): The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, What Was She Thinking, Genghis Khan, The Hours, Half of a Yellow Sun, God on the Rocks, The Funny Man, Freedom, The Death of Adam, The Memory Artists

Worthy re-reads:
In the Woods, The Likeness, Gilead, Carter Beats the Devil, The Road, Handmaid’s Tale, The History of Love

Enjoyable reads: I Think I Love You, Bad Marie, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, House of Tomorrow, Lamb, D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths, News to Me, Savages, The Thousand, The Gargoyle, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, The Family Fang, Jhereg, Yendi, Miracle, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Previously recommended-to-me classics I’m glad I finally read:
Life with Jeeves, Riddley Walker, The Master and Margarita

Really Good Graphic Novels: The Alcoholic, Drinking at the Movies, Fables (though not Super Team), Dream Country, Unwritten, Finder, Batwoman: Elegy, Sweet Tooth

Kind of hated, or at least actively disliked parts:
Ex Machina v10, Room, One Day, The Finkler Question, The Red Tent, Absence of Mind, Gingerbread Girl, The Fate of the Artist, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Everything is Illuminated, An Equal Music, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Fables: Super Team, Blood, Bones & Butter

Read with the kids:
The Mouse and his Child (too complex and dark for 5 and 7yo), Odd and the Frost Giants, The Magician’s Nephew (wish we’d started with Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe), Charlotte’s Web. 5yo Guppy had trouble with most of these, but liked Odd and Charlotte by the end. My husband is now reading them Lord of the Rings following the Hobbit, and they’re enjoying them a lot; I think the enthusiasm of the reader in this case helps a lot.

No links or even italics here: too much info to cram in on the last day of the year. For links, look in 2011 Books link to the right.

Ex Machina v 10 by Bryan K Vaughn
The Alchoholic by Jonathan Ames
Drinking at the Movies: Julisa Wertz
Fables v 14: Bill Willingham
Pattern Recognition: William Gibson
Life with Jeeves: Wodehouse
In the Woods: Tana French
The Likeness: Tana French
Spook Country: William Gibson
Zero History: William Gibson
Room: Emma Donaghue
Gilead: Marilynne Robinson
I Think I Love You by Alison Pearson
One Day: David Nicholls
Carter Beats the Devil: Glen David Gold
The Finkler Question: Harold Jacobson
The Road: Cormac McCarthy
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky
Nox: Anne Carson
Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: Aimee Bender
Handmaid’s Tale: Atwood
What Was She Thinking (Notes on a Scandal): Zoe Heller
Negotiating with the Dead: Atwood
Riddley Walker: Russell Hoban
The Death of Adam: Marilynne Robinson
House of Tomorrow: Peter Bognanni
The Red Tent: Anita Diamant
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Lamb by Christopher Moore
Dream Country: Neil Gaiman
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World:
Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse: Louise Erdrich
The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
Unwritten v1 by Peter Gross
Fables: Rose Red by Bill Willingham
Absence of Mind: Marilynne Robinson
Finder: Voice: Carla Speed McNeil
Batwoman: Elegy: Greg Rucka
The Wordy Shipmates: Sarah Vowell
Gingerbread Girl: Paul Tobin
Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse again
American Gods: Neil Gaiman
The Magician’s Nephew: C.S. Lewis
Odd and the Frost Giants: Neil Gaiman
D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths
Mrs Dalloway: Woolf
Planetary: Warren Ellis
The Hours: Michael Cunningham
News to Me: Laurie Hertzel
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: Douglas Adams
The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul: Douglas Adams
The Mrs. Dalloway Reader: ed. Francine Prose
Half of a Yellow Sun: C. Adiche
Everything is Illuminated: Jonathan Safran Foer
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Jonathan Safran Foer
The Lonely Polygamist: Brady Udall
Savages: Dan Wilson
The Magician’s Elephant: Kate DiCamillo
The Fate of the Artist: Eddie Campbell
God on the Rocks: Jane Gardam
The Thousand: Kevin Guilfoile
Finder, library 1: Carla Speed McNeil
The Gargoyle: Andrew Davidson
The History of Love: Nicole Krauss
An Equal Music: Vikram Seth
The Year We Left Home: Jean Thompson
Master and Margarita: Bulgakov
Unwritten v 4: Peter Carey
Sweet Tooth v1: Jeff Lemire
Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Marisha Pessl
Sweet Tooth v2: Jeff Lemire
Get in if You Want to Live: John Jodzio
The Girl of Fire and Thorns: Rae Carson
Sweet Tooth v3: Lemire
The Funny Man: John Warner
Freedom: Jonathan Franzen
Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? Mindy Kaling
The Family Fang: Kevin Wilson
Jhereg: Steven Brust
The Memory Artists: Jeffrey Moore
Fables v16: Willingham
Yendi: Brust
Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine: Alina Bronsky
Blood Bones and Butter: Gabrielle Hamilton
Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White

“Blood, Bones and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Subtitled “The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef,” Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood Bones and Butter was one I wanted to love. Then, as I read it, I wanted to like it in a sustained manner. By the end, though, I was finishing it just to finish it.

It has some wonderful stuff in it, particularly about the value of hard work, the echoes of childhood trauma, and kitchen culture. But for me, Hamilton’s book lacks a key element to a good memoir: a sense of humor, about oneself particularly. The book’s subject matter is not light stuff: childhood neglect, early drug abuse and an unpleasant marriage. But these felt all the heavier to read because of skipping around in time, and describing things in detail, multiple times, like her relationship with her sister:

“She’s the only one in my family who’s held on tight to me, and I will never let go of her.” (153)

“I fully and completely and 100 percent understand and comprehend what she is saying–to its fullest meaning–within hte first fifteen seconds. And unfailingly by the end of the third sentence. I’m not saying I’m that smart. I’m saying I get her that well. We Two Are One.” (154)

“I understand every single word of it, every stop for gas, every detour. I think exactly what she thinks.” (154)

“she’s the only member of my family that I still know the entire, detailed landscape of.” (156)

A few times she would announce an event as if the reader should know it, then go on to describe it. Why not just lead up to it? Further, she includes the insight of an older person who’s gone through therapy when writing events and relationships, rather than showing us those things through herself at that stage.

This book made my fingers itch to edit it: arrange events in chronological order, cut excessive description, remove the hindsight, and gently emphasize points of tenderness and humor. Despite some good parts, I can’t recommend it. It’s reviews are positive, though, so I’m in the minority on this one. YMMV.

“The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine” by Alina Bronsky

Friday, December 30th, 2011

My friend of New Century Reading recommended The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky. She mentioned it was an interesting contrast to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, I found this novel had the same kind of staggering, head-tilting, WTF-ness as that Russian classic. It’s a funny, bizarre and tragic story (sometimes all at once) of three generations of Russian women with a Tartar background told by the fearsome and boggling grandmother, Rosalinda who was hateful, but not necessarily without charm, or at least wit, however lacerating:

Sulfia wasn’t very gifted. In fact, to be honest, I’d say she was rather stupid. And yet somehow she was my daughter–worse still, my only daughter…

But I also felt sorry for her…This daughter I did have was deformed and bore no resemblance to her mother. She was short–she only came up to my shoulders. She had no figure whatsoever. She had small eyes, and a crooked mouth. And, as I said, she was stupid. She was already seventeen years old, too, so there was little chance she would get any smarter.

But as the book goes on, we learn that perhaps Sulfia isn’t as stupid as Rosa thinks, and perhaps Rosa is not the most reliable narrator. Bizarre, but entertaining.

“Miracle, and Other Christmas Stories” by Connie Willis

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

My husband’s a fan of Willis’ books, but I’d not yet read them, so figured her Christmas book Miracle and Other Christmas Stories was as good as any to start with. In it, she has several short stories, all about weird aspects of Christmas, like what if a spirit turned up in your house, or if Mary and Joseph showed up at a church on Christmas Eve? The stories are good, but even better is her introduction and her end notes, in which she details her love of the holidays (e.g., Miracle on 34th Street), her dislike of certain aspects (the universal adulation of It’s a Wonderful Life) and includes lists of recommended reading and movies, several of which I hadn’t even heard of that are now on my list. (The Lemon Drop Kid? The Three Godfathers?) And I’ll certainly be seeking out more Willis books in the new year.

“Yendi” by Steven Brust

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

I dove into Steven Brust’s second Vlad Taltos novel, Yendi, and finished the next day, kind of bummed I had other reading to do before tearing into the third book. These are wildly entertaining sword-and-sorcery tales, and Brust can plot like a mothereffer. The world of the books is fascinating and complex. These books hold up marvelously these 20 years later, even if they do conform to a lot of the fantasy tropes that Diana Wynne Jones tweaked in her clever The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

My only gripe is that there are brothels and the league of witches is called The Bitch Patrol. If we can create a fantasy world, can’t we imagine a world without prostitution, of where sex workers are honored, not exploited? Joss Whedon tried and failed epically to do the latter in Firefly, though Carla Speed McNeil does an interesting take on it in her series Finder.

Fables v. 16: Super Team

Friday, December 16th, 2011

The sixteenth graphic novel in the Fables series, Fables: Super Team didn’t move me much. While it was a more light-hearted counter to the last, very dark, book (to which it was a coda), it still felt…thin. Rather like they hadn’t been able to contain the story in the last collection, it spilled over a little, then they stretched it to its own collection. Not a good one to start with. Go back to the first graphic novel for that.

Also, a plug to visit your local comic store, which you can find at the Comic Shop Locator, where it was available a week before it is at bookshops and amazon.

“The Memory Artists” by Jeffrey Moore

Friday, December 16th, 2011

I was spurred to re-read (original post here) Jeffrey Moore’s The Memory Artists when I resumed work on my endless novel-in-progress.*

One of the main characters (there are several), Noel Burun, has a combination of synesthesia (he sees letters and sounds in color) which is linked to hypermnesia, an overly elaborate memory system (similar ot photographic, or eidetic, memory). The different way his brain works makes it hard for him to function in society, so he mostly spends time in a psychology lab doing tests with his mentor, Emile Vorta, the fictional editor of the book, adding sometimes illuminating, sometimes hilarious, and always suspect end notes. He lives in a crumbling mansion with his mother, whose memory is deteriorating rapidly as a result of Alzheimer’s disease and is fast becoming exhausted of money and physical resources in caring for her.

Orbiting Noel are a sarcastic friend from the lab, a woman with a singular hole in her memory, and a genial doofus-savant. Chapters switch from third person, focusing on one of two of these at time, or individual journals, the mother’s being particularly heartbreaking. All these combine for a complex portrait of friendship, a few mysteries, and an interesting consideration of opposites and extremes. While it had a bit too much wrapping up in just a few pages at the end, the entire book, its characters, and its neurological topics were all utterly engaging to me. A lovely book, with lots of great visuals, that’s worth tracking down, since it seems to be out of print in the US.

* When Guppy started kindergarten this fall, I rejoined my writing group and decided I wanted to have another go at a novel where the main character has synesthesia (a cross wiring of the senses). I’ve been working on it for years (9 as of November; sigh) yet the break I took from when Guppy was 1.5 to starting school at 5.5 felt like a productive one, generating a few plot ideas to make the novel more complex, timely, and (I hope) interesting.

“Jhereg” by Steven Brust

Friday, December 9th, 2011

A few weeks ago, I had three daunting books to finish for three different book groups: The Master and Margarita, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and Freedom. I read them more quickly than I’d anticipated, so December’s ended up kind of a free month for me to read whatever I want. All this choice is a little daunting (one of the themes from Freedom, in fact) and I’m trying to strike a balance between edifying books like Master and Margarita, and flat-out enjoyable books like Jhereg by Steven Brust. So far, December has been a very good reading month.

Though a short book by itself, Jhereg is the first of many Vlad Taltos novels by Brust, and was one of the first books my now-husband lent to me when we started dating. Vlad is an assassin with a dragon-y familiar in a complicated world called Dragaera.

There is a similarity, if I may be permitted an excursion into tenuous metaphor, between the feel of a chilly breeze and the feel of a knife’s blade, as either is laid across the back of the neck. I can call up memories of booth, if I work at it. The chilly breeze is invariably going to be the more pleasant memory.

In this first novel, he’s hired to kill someone but keeps uncovering reasons why he can’t, or shouldn’t. The world, and the comprehensive cast of characters in it, feel fully formed, and like the author has much more control over the bazillion narrative balls he’s juggling than he has any right to. Reading this was like hanging out with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, one who I’d forgotten was so entertaining and funny. My hope is that I can re-read the Vlad novels in between longer ones and maybe even catch up, since several have come out since I last visited Dragaera. Jhereg and the two novels that follow it are collected in the omnibus The Book of Jhereg, but since I’m reading them piecemeal, I’ll post about them one by one.

“The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson

Friday, December 9th, 2011

It’s NOT ABOUT VAMPIRES! If that’s what you were looking for, well, move along. If that’s what you feared, then bide a while, and see how The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson sounds to you. It was recommended to me at a Biblioracle session at The Morning News.

Parents Caleb and Camille Fang, along with their children Annie and Buster (aka Child A and Child B), aren’t quite normal:

Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief. “You make a mess and then you walk away from it,” their daughter, Annie told them. “It’s a lot more complicated than that, honey,” Mrs. Fang said as she handed detailed breakdowns of the event to each member of the family.

You see, they’re performance artists. Tales of their performances alternate with tales of Annie and Buster as adults, struggling to find their own way as individuals and as artists. They flail in the long shadow of their parents’ art and their own history with it.

More than one review has likened this book to a Wes Anderson film, and it has that weird, kooky-cool vibe to it as well as the ability to veer between hilarity and the truly bizarre. Reading the history of the Fang’s performances was like watching a series of car crashes; I was never able to turn away. Instead, I just kept reading into the next chapter, having sworn I’d stop when I got to the end of the previous one. It’s weird, sweet, a little creepy, and I enjoyed it a lot.

“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” by Mindy Kaling

Friday, December 9th, 2011

After reading Franzen’s Freedom, I wanted something lighter, funnier, and shorter. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy Kaling, writer and actor for NBC’s The Office, fit the bill perfectly. It has that ideal balance of smart and self-deprecating that good memoir-y books have. Kaling is honest and resigned about being a pudgy child on through to her struggles and eventual success in Hollywood. This made me laugh, a lot, so be careful if you’re reading it in public, during nap time or when your spouse has already fallen asleep. And if I ever get the chance to have a coffee with Kaling, I’m totally taking it. She’s the funny, smart, honest kind of girl friend we all could use one more of.

“Freedom” by Franzen

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Of course I was going to read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. So much praise! So much backlash(!) including the amusing (if linguistically dodgy) “franzenfreude” which Jennifer Weiner coined and defined as “taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.”

Now that it’s been out over a year, the dust has settled in the various Franzen feuds. Interestingly, it has won no major awards. It was famously snubbed for the National Book Award and wasn’t a finalist for the Pulitzer, which went to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which beat out Freedom for the major award it was a finalist for, the National Book Critics Circle Award. Goon Squad also bested it, barely, in The Morning News Tournament of Books. While one scene came in second at the Salon Good Sex awards, it got much more press when it was a finalist for the Literary Reviews Bad Sex Award. So perhaps Franzenfreude can now refer to the joy Jennifer Weiner probably takes in how Freedom’s critical reception over time didn’t live up to its initial hype.

Freedom centers on the marriage of Patty and Walter Berglund, and includes chapters from their points of view as well as their children and Walter’s best friend Richard, to whom Patty had long been attracted. Patty and Walter and painstakingly drawn complex characters. Along with the others, they’re sympathetic but also easy to despise at times. I found the Berglunds and Richard to be good company, and I was interested in what happened, even as it often was emotionally twisting, especially as the book went on and the characters grew on me.

I did feel its sex scenes were decidedly on the bad, squirm-inducing TMI side. I found it fascinating that one plot of the book was very much like one in Egan’s Goon Squad, and these felt timely in their zeitgeist-y critique of modern media consumption. In the end, I thought it was very good, liked it and read it quickly. These characters will stick with me for some time.

“The Funny Man” by John Warner

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

John Warner is a writer for The Morning News and one of the color commentators of its literary twist on March Madness, the Tournament of Books. In that role he started one of my favorite internet events, the Biblioracle (most recent session here), where you send in the last 5 books you read and enjoyed and he’ll recommend the next one. I’ve really enjoyed the recommendations I’ve gotten thus far: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, What Was She Thinking? by Zoe Heller, and The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile. I’m currently reading his most recent recommendation for me, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson.

In the most recent round of the Biblioracle, he politely requested that those who appreciated the event buy a book from an indie bookstore, then pass it on to someone who wasn’t an indie bookstore shopper. I bought his first novel, The Funny Man at Magers and Quinn, and did just that.

It’s a dark satire of celebrity culture told in alternating chapters with The Funny Man of the title rising to fame in the past while on trial for murder in the present. The second half of the book details his fall from grace and the ostensible recovering of his faculties at a covert rehab called the White Hot Center. It’s a challenging structure to have attempted, yet it works, and ends provocatively. I was thoroughly engaged throughout, and had a complicated mix of feelings for The Funny Man of sympathy and outraged disgust. As dark and satiric as it is, it’s not for everyone, but if you’re up for an enjoyable challenge that makes you think, laugh and cringe, I do recommend it.

“The Girl of Fire and Thorns” by Rae Carson

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

First, my mom sent me this article from The Columbus Dispatch on a new YA fantasy book author who’d bucked some of the usual conventions of the genre. Then a friend said it was one of the best YA novels she’d read in recent memory. So I sought out Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

It’s about a girl chosen by God, which is signified by a jewel in her belly button, who is pursued by many who think they know what God’s will is. Elisa is a sympathetic character–she’s fat, she’s insecure, she pees herself at one point. And it’s not a romance. Romance-y things happen, but so do many bad things. It reminded me strongly of Hunger Games, but was more realistic about sexuality to balance its violence. I raced through this, and look forward to the sequel.

I was, though, disappointed that the “God” parts were so conventional. Why was God unquestionably a single entity, and “he”? Even though it’s fantasy, it’s so conventionally Christian it could read as religious fiction. I would have liked to see a more complex, provocative take on religion since it plays such a central part in the story.

“Get in If You Want to Live” by John Jodzio

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

Get in If You Want to Live by John Jodzio is a series of 19 short shorts illustrated by 19 different artists, the first book published by Paper Darts, a Twin Cities literary magazine. It’s consistently raunchy, sometimes shocking and often laugh-out-loud funny. The book itself, as an object, is a lovely little thing, with its odd size, utilitarian-looking brown cover, and collection of striking typefaces and artists. Did I mention already that it’s raunchy, with drugs, hookers, sex and creepy though usually amusing narrators? Not for everyone, but if you like weird stories, short shorts, or zine-y books, definitely check this out.

Sweet Tooth: In Captivity and Animal Armies by Jeff Lemire

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

After one of my comic book guys recommend the series Sweet Tooth to me, I read and enjoyed volume one. It was hard for me to put down volume 2 In Captivity in the middle, then wait to buy volume 3 Animal Armies, and again begrudge anything that took me away from tearing through volume 3 to find out what happened to young Gus, a deer-antlered little boy in a post-apocalyptic world where all the children are now human/animal hybrids. It shares some themes with Y the Last Man, but the art is more distinctive and evocative, and I find Gus a much more charming main character. I’m eager for volume 4 to be collected.

“Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Special Topics in Calamity Physics was one of the “it” books of 2006, with lots of media attention paid to the young, attractive author and her 500+ page mystery.

Blue Van Meer is a preternaturally precocious high schooler who rarely stays in the same school for several months, much less an entire year at a time. Her father is a much-in-demand adjunct professor in world history and political science, so they crisscross the country as he teaches at this and that small-town school. For her senior year, he says he wants to give her some stability and they go to a small North Carolina town, home of a prestigious private school where Blue can put the finishing touches on her application to Harvard. She is soon singled out by the charismatic Hannah, a film teacher at the school, who introduces her to the Blue Bloods, a coterie of privileged yet messed up kids who reluctantly take Blue into their midst. It starts in the future, where we know a key point right away:

Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it….

It began with simple sleeplessness. It had been almost a year since I’d found Hannah dead, and I thought I’d managed to erase all traces of that night within myself, much in the way Henry Higgins with his relentless elocution exercises had scrubbed away Eliza’s Cockney accent.

I was wrong.

Death, mystery, and deception abound. This kept me reading till the end to find out exactly how all the pieces fit together. It was a fun read, reminding me a lot of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. As literary fiction, though, I found it had aspirations to grandeur it didn’t quite reach. The chapters had titles of famous works, yet the events in them rarely had more than a surface connection to the book of the title. The Woman in White was about a mysterious woman, not even in white, with no allusions to any of the many other distinct aspects of the Wilkie Collins mystery.

Blue’s habit of citing articles and books in reference to her own comments wore on me as the book went on. I got that Blue and her father were intelligent and intellectual; the parenthetical device wasn’t necessary. Another thing that nagged was the time period of the book. Ostensibly set in the 00’s, none of the characters had cell phones or communicated by email. The reverse anachronism made it often hard to suspend disbelief. It also made me read to the very end to find out what happened; I’d say 80 to 90% of the details happened in the last 10% of the book; it felt very end heavy and author ex machina.

In spite of my concerns, though, I still enjoyed it and read it quickly despite its 500+ pages. It was smart, often funny, and engaging. I recommend it with reservations, but nonetheless do recommend it.

“The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

The Master and Margarita was recommended to me long ago by my friend Trash, who is married to M. Giant who blogs at Velcrometer. Christopher Moore mentioned the Pontius Pilate chapters as an influence in interviews about his book Lamb, a fictional account of the early life of Jesus, which one of my book groups read earlier this year. When I offered it as an option for our group to read, several people clamored for it. (In the manner of book groups, most of those did not attend the discussion. Hmmph.)

After reading this article and its links, I chose the Burgin/O’Connor translation because it was a more complete text than some earlier editions, which were censored versions. The most recent translation by Pevear/Volkhonsky had some detractors online, though seemed fine when I compared first paragraphs in a bookstore. (I tried to do that on my nook, but found one of the nook’s shortcomings is the inability to pick a particular edition of a particular classic. The Kindle has the Penguin version but the nook had no translation at all. Again, hmmph.)

I’d known the book was about the devil, so I’d always assumed he was the Master of the title, while Margarita was the black cat on the cover. Completely wrong. But not a bad guess in a book where the devil appears on page 5, yet the Master doesn’t appear until a third of the way through, and Margarita not till the halfway point! This is a good example of why I found the book confounding, yet engaging. I could not predict what was going to happen. And when things did happen, it wasn’t like, oh, yes, that makes sense. It was a constant series of jaw-dropping, What-The? moments. Chapter 12’s theater show, and Chapter 20’s significant transformation were particularly mind boggling to me.

The chapters in which the devil and his crew appear and make mischief in Moscow drip with magic, some of it nicely presaging Harry Potter, Twilight, et al. These alternate with chapters from a book within a book, a straightforward, utterly non-mystical telling of the encounter between Pilate and Jesus, named here as Yeshua Ha-Notsri.

This was hard to get into, and a few of my friends who tried to gave up, based on the Nancy Pearl 50-page rule. Those who persevered, though, said they were glad they did, even if it won few fans as fervent as those who’d urged the picking of it.

I’m very glad to have finally read it. I appreciated its themes of repression, fear and bravery. The bizarre narratives swayed me, as did the background of the book, written by a dying man who knew it would not be published in his lifetime, or perhaps ever.

If you do want to give it a go, I strongly recommend reviewing the Faustian legend beforehand, and following up with this site, which has links out the wazoo, helps to explain its continued popularity in Russia, and includes video from various television and movie adaptations.

Have you read it? Are you a disciple, a liker, or a hater?

“The Finder Library volume 1″ by Carla Speed McNeil

Monday, November 14th, 2011

I recently read Voice, the latest collection of Carla Speed McNeil’s long-running comic book series Finder. It reminded me how I loved the series. Even though I own all the single issues cected in it, I picked up the recently published Finder Library volume 1, put out by Dark Horse, a comic book publisher known for respecting artists’ rights. The first four story lines, all 22 issues, are included in this volume, as well as covers of individual issues and previous collections, plus pages and pages of notes. Kudos to Dark Horse for recognizing a quality series, and for packaging it in a smart, attractive edition.

At $24.99, this is a bargain for what it includes (coming out to slightly more than $1 per issue) yet a steep ticket to entry to those who don’t know the series. Here’s what I recommend. Check out McNeil’s website, on which she has art samples and a webcomic of the ongoing series. Or buy or borrow the Talisman graphic novel. It’s a great example of the kind of art, humor, complex fantasy world, and characters that populate Finder. I’m trying to think of something to compare it to, as in “if you like x, you’ll like this” but I’m drawing a blank. I can’t even come up with “it’s x crossed with y.” McNeil calls it aboriginal science fiction. I call it a solidly plotted, well-drawn fantasy comic book series with characters I love.

“The Year We Left Home” by Jean Thompson

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

I have almost completely broken myself of the habit of requesting new/bestsellers from the library. Almost always, they come in when I have a boatload of reading to do for my three book groups, and I can’t possibly squeeze in whatever book happens to show up when it’s finally my turn. I returned both Swamplandia and Chris Adrian’s Great Night without reading them.

(Yes, yes, I know I can put freeze the reserve for a time to hold my place, but I’m not quite organized enough to be able to do that efficiently. So they show up seemingly randomly.)

I should not have even requested Jean Thompson’s new novel The Year We Left Home. Her short story collection, Who Do You Love? has been on my to-read shelf since about 2002. Nonetheless, I requested it long ago when I read glowing reviews, and when I got it from the library I had a short break between books. Thus I read it. And am glad I did.

The book is labeled a novel, but reads more like a series of linked short stories, all told by members of the Erickson’s, a middle-class Iowa family. It begins with a wedding in the 70’s, and continues to the early 00’s. There is a great deal of sadness, some tragedy, and also some happiness, though it’s usually short lived. The family, the struggles of its members, and how they grow and change over time, felt very true and real to me. The Booklist blurb on the back of the hardcover captured one of the themes well: “the lure of away and the gravitational pull of home.”

The bride and groom had two wedding receptions: the first was in the basement of the Lutheran church right after the ceremony, with punch and cake and coffee and pastel mints. This was for those of the bride’s relatives who were stern about alcohol. The basement was low-ceilinged and smelled of metallic furnace heat. Old ladies wearing corsages sat on folding chairs, while other guests stood and managed their cake plates and plastic forks as best they could. The pastor smiled with professional benevolence. The bride and groom posed for pictures, buoyed by adrenaline and relief. There had been so much promised and prepared, and now everything had finally come to pass.

In its style, writing and structure I was reminded of Olive Kitteridge. In its subject, I was reminded of Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys. It was moving, with terrific characters.

“The Unwritten v4: Leviathan” by Mike Carey

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

I was delighted to see the latest collection of the comic book series The Unwritten: Leviathan, on the shelf last week. Tom Taylor is the real-life son of a famous author who penned a Harry-Potter-esque series featuring a boy named Tommy Taylor. Good and evil are battling on the grounds of fiction and storytelling in this series that manages to be hyper-meta while still telling a good story. If you are a fan of the series Fables, or the novels of Jasper Fforde, this will likely be your cuppa.