September 30, 2014

Artists’ Colony in a Time Warp

The Hundred-Year House: A Novel, by Rebecca Makkai, (Viking Adult), 352 pages

The Hundred-Year House is a novel in reverse. Its four sections move back in time: from 1999 to 1955 to 1929, and finally ending in 1900. This makes reading it a bit of a game. Each step backwards offers new pieces of the puzzle to snap into place, assuming the reader is alert enough to catch them all.

The house of the title is Laurelfield, which began as a private home, became an artists’ retreat, then became a private home once more. Laurelfield may or may not have ghosts. The house has seen tragedy aplenty, but the rapping may be spirit communication or falling acorns.

My primary complaint about The Hundred-Year House is that as the novel progresses, the sections grow shorter and less filled-out. The 1999 characters are developed in detail, surprising readers as new aspects of their personalities are revealed. By time the novel reaches 1900 the characters are essentially stick figures: we’re told things about them, but aren’t given enough to feel as if we’re entering their inner world.

That said, The Hundred-Year House is an engaging read. When I reached the end of the 1999 section exactly halfway through the story, I was uncertain where the writer was headed; I felt as if I’d read a complete novel by the time I got there. Even though I found the later sections less well-developed, I enjoyed the backward journey Makkai took me on. There most certainly was more to say—and 1999 was truly more of a beginning than an ending.

Pick this book up when you’re looking for a mix of entertainment and riddle. It always offers enough of at least one of these (and often both) to keep the reading pleasurable.

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September 30, 2014

Need a Wonderful Gift for Someone in the 8 to 12 Age Range? This Is the Perfect Book!

The Swallow: A Ghost Story, by Charis Cotter, (Tundra Books), 320 pages

I’ve just finished Charis Cotter’s The Swallow and am in that good-novel afterglow—smiling and a bit teary and wishing I could read this book again for the first time.

On the surface, The Swallow‘s plot is fairly simple: two isolated girls who spend time in connecting attics meet and befriend each other. One can see ghosts; the other is fascinated by them. Cotter deftly manages to maintain an otherworldly uncertainty throughout the book. Is Rose, who can see ghosts, a ghost herself? Who is the malevolent spirit residing in Rose’s attic who seems determined to kill Rose’s new friend Polly? What is the story of the aunt Rose never met, the one who no one speaks about?

The above questions give you a taste of the sort of book The Swallow is. It’s an unsettling read that leads readers first one way, then another. But throughout the twists it has an inherent sweetness that draws readers to the central characters. There’s nothing maudlin: just two girls the reader grows closer and closer to as she tries to understand who they are and what the relationship between them is.

If you need to buy birthday or holiday gifts in the next few months for your favorite ‘tween, The Swallow is a sure winner. And I’d like to suggest you read it yourself before wrapping it up for gift-giving. You don’t want to miss the pleasure of this read.

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September 25, 2014

A Murderous Victorian Lark

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, by Julie Berry, (Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group), 368 pages

If you’re looking for a romp of a book, either for yourself or for gift-giving, I highly recommend Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. Ostensibly this is a young-adult novel, but it’s also plenty of fun for adult-adult readers.

Set in Victorian England in the town of Ely, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place features an engaging group of seven core characters, all boarding students at a small girls’ finishing school. When the director of the school dies, along with her brother, the girls decide to bury their bodies in secret so that they can continue living with one another and can take control of their own lives.

Watching the girls rise to this situation is an absolute delight. Each of them finds strengths she didn’t know she had—and they all draw closer together because of, rather than in spite of, their differences from one another.

I suspect this book is intended as a one-off, but I would welcome the opportunity to spend more time with the sisterhood. They made me laugh; they also made me think about the changes in women’s roles and opportunities over the past century (give or take a few decades).

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September 23, 2014

A Novel of the First Printed Book

Gutenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel, by Alix Christie, (Harper), 416 pages

As a novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice is good, but not great; as an historical piece, it’s fascinating. The plot is straightforward. Peter Schoeffer (all these characters are historical figures), an aspiring scribe, is called home by his step-father Johann Furst, who has become business partners with Johann Gensgleisch, who we know as Gutenberg. Peter is to be Gutenberg’s apprentice—and his step-father’s eyes in the workshop. Initially Peter finds the printing process spiritless, far inferior to the production of individual books by hand, but eventually he comes to see printing as a miracle, a gift that honors God. As Peter learns the printing business, relations between Furst and Gutenberg grow increasingly strained. The reader knows all this because the framework for the novel is an elderly Peter’s relating of these events to the Abbott Johannes Trithenius, who becomes a historian of bookmaking and printing (among other things).

While it’s is intended to be Peter’s recounting of his life’s story, the novel is written in third person, which distances readers from the central character. Readers are told of Peter’s doubts about this new form of bookmaking: “This wasn’t even work that in the end brought forth some lovely thing. A brooch, a chalice, or a gleaming monstrance could at least lift a soul above the flames.” Peter’s conflicting feelings as Furst and Gutenberg grow increasingly hostile to one another are described, but one never feels that one is getting to experience these events as Peter did.

As I said, however, this book is fascinating, a must-read for book lovers and historical fiction enthusiasts. Christie herself is a letter press printer, as well as a novelist, and the mechanics of early printing are described in detail bringing the process to life. The fist letter-molds were made of sand hand-impressed with a reverse image of the desired letter, and were good for only a single use, a process that seems to be almost no improvement over hand-lettering. The staff of the workshop shifts as Gutenberg comes to learn the different rates of compositing and printing.

Similarly interesting are the passages examining the different character’s perceptions of the art of printing and its purpose. Peter comes to see printing as sacred work, at first not realizing that the presses can be put to use for inglorious purposes, as well as glorious ones: “He had not thought of it before—the prospect of their art abused, its glory twisted to the traffic of the church.”

One can also see in the Mainz of the novel the church practices that will lead to Luther’s reformation in another hundred years: the varying ways that ecclesiastics wring monies from the poorest under their jurisdiction, the selling of indulgences, with money lining clerical pockets at all levels.

Harper’s initial run of this book is 75,000 copies, a substantial number, particularly for a first novel. Their faith in it is well-placed. The multiple layers of historical detail contained in Gutenberg’s Apprentice make it a book that can be read and pondered repeatedly.

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September 19, 2014

The Latest, though Not the Newest, from Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Marina: A Gothic Tale, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), 336 Pages

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is one of those writers whose names I type into search engines from time to time, just because I have hopes of discovering they’ve published a new novel I had somehow missed hearing about. I discovered Carlos Ruiz Zafón when his international best-seller, The Shadow of the Wind, was released in English. While Shadow was the first of his books released in the U.S., it’s actually his fifth novel. Given the success of Shadow, it’s not surprising that his earlier works have been emerging in English-language versions in recent years.

Zafón began as a writer of young adult novels (his first three novels) then successfully transitioned to adult novels (his fifth through seventh novels). Marina is the novel that bridged that transition, originating as a young adult title, but earning an equally substantial adult readership.

I’ve read Zafón’s other young adult novels because (see the first paragraph) I’m always eager for new work from him, but I’ll admit that I’ve found they pale in comparison to his later, adult works. Given its role as a transitional piece in Zafón’s oeuvre, it’s not surprising that Marina is significantly stronger than those early works, if not quite up to the standard he set in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, of which Shadow is the first volume.

If, like me, you’re aching for the promised fourth volume in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series to be released, Marina will help tide you over. It’s typical Zafón in both the best and the worst sense, but the best most decidedly outweighs the worst.

The worst?

• A female lead who is more emblematic than actual human being, whose motivations remain largely opaque throughout the work.

• A tendency to rely on long passages of summary narration in the voice of one character or another that keep readers at a distance from much of the action.

The best?

• A literary Barcelona redolent with the past, particularly the brutalities of the Franco era. Barcelona, both present and past, lives within the pages of his books, as much a character as any of the human figures.

• His ability to weave baroque plots, deftly drawing individual strands closer and closer together, and ending with deeply satisfying (if not always happy) conclusions.

His works, early and late, have a set of recurring tropes that are no doubt the subject of more than one PhD thesis: artificial and amputated body parts, particularly hands and eyes; hidden rooms smelling of death with odd arrangements of ephemera that really function as artistic installations of the mad; figures both satanic and angelic (and remember that Satan began his career as an angel); underworlds of various kinds (from submerged wrecks to sewage systems running beneath cities to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books—a storehouse of books without readers existing in a sort of suspended animation while waiting for champions to bring them to public attention).

Marina is the only book with Gothic in its title, but they’re all Gothic.

Bottom line? I’m still waiting for volume four in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Marina wasn’t enough to assuage that longing. But Marina is a fine read, substantial, complex—good company while awaiting that next truly new volume.

*****

Note: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions are my own.

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September 17, 2014

Meet Gabi—You’ll Want to Spend Some Time With Her

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, by Isabel Quintero, (Cinco Puntos Press), 208 pages

Cinco Puntos Press has published another delightful read: Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. To paraphrase their mission statement, this most certainly is “a book that will make a difference in the way you see the world.” While this book is listed as a young adult title, it’s wonderful reading for anyone who can appreciate a tale of friendship, self-acceptance, and hope.

Gabi is a high school senior with dreams of attending U.C. Berkeley and juggling her own concerns and those of the people around her. There’s her father, a meth addict; her mother who’s dubious about Gabi’s academic aspirations and all too ready to launch into the “keep your legs together” lecture; her best friend Cindy is pregnant; her other best friend, Sebastian, is gay; her brother has become a tagger; and her Tía Berta has taken on a fundamentalist Christianity that views Catholicism as near paganism.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it never turns into a “problem novel.” Yes. there’s a lot going on in Gabi’s life and the lives of those around her, but it’s Gabi’s emerging sense of self that carries the book. She is smart, a poet who publishes her first ‘zine and participates in her first coffee house open mic nights. She knows she’s interested in sex, despite her mother’s warnings. At times she frets about being overweight, but never lets these worries stand between her and a good carne asada taco.

This book could be a quick read, but I found myself reading it slowly, enjoying Gabi’s company. I want to introduce her to so many of the young women (and many of the older ones) in my life. Because the book is presented as Gabi’s journal, readers have the pleasure of seeing into her heart, watching her wrestle with the challenges of day-to-day life. We share in her frustrations, her successes—and those odd moments that seem a combination of both. While she may feel at times like a girl in pieces, Gabi is a remarkable young woman whose honesty and reflectiveness keep her whole.

Keep an eye out for this book and check out the YA section, even if that isn’t what you usually do. You will want to meet Gabi—I promise—and will want to share her with others.

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September 15, 2014

Bringing Death Home

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty, (W.W. Norton & Company), 272 pages

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a charming piece of nonfiction. Charming might seem like an unlikely descriptor for a book that begins in a crematory and moves on from there to ponder contemporary attitudes toward death and the way these are reinforced by the funeral industry—but in the hands of Caitlin Doughty, charming is exactly what this book is.

Doughty is like that one friend you had in high school (or perhaps college): chipper, clever, kind, morbid and fascinated by all things death-related. She might sneak out to underground clubs in the evening or make dinner table conversations uncomfortable—but her good sense and generous spirit make her someone you can rely on.

As the founder of the Order of the Good Death and the creator of the blog Ask a Mortician, Caitlin Doughty has dedicated herself to making death, well, normal. She would like to see us reclaim death from the funeral industry. This doesn’t mean abandoning the use of funeral directors, but it does—literally—mean taking a hands-on approach to death. She wants to help create a world in which we die at home, in which we have hours or days to sit with our deceased loved ones, in which we clean and prepare the body for burial.

To accomplish this goal, we need to question the value of both the keep-the-patient-alive-as-long-as-possible-without-regard-for-quality-of-life philosophy that dominates our healthcare system and of the “medicalized” funeral industry that removes the deceased (and death itself) as quickly as possible from the eyes of mourners with claims that this is necessary for reasons of sanitation and disease prevention.

Whether or not you wind up sharing Doughty’s goal, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a rewarding, even comforting read. Doughty invites us to look at, rather than to deny, our own mortality. She wants us to be able to continue caring for each other not just until death, but through the processes of death and afterwards. And under her guidance these are hopeful, comforting activities.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes goes on sale today. I urge you to get your hands on a copy as quickly as possible and to spend some time with Doughty. Buy this book for someone you love and use it to open a conversation that may be challenging, but will assuredly be rewarding. Share this title with your book club and take the opportunity to examine the encounters we’ve had with death and the ways we might (or might not) like to see those change.

*****

I received a free electronic advance copy of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes for the purpose of this review. I would like, however, to emphasize that my enthusiasm for this book is a result of Doughty’s skills as an author and thinker.

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September 13, 2014

Horror Reprise

Of Monsters and Madness, by Jessica Verday, (EgmontUSA), 288 pages, release date 9 September, 2014

I knew before I started reading Jessica Verday’s novel Of Monsters and Madness that my response was probably going to be strong—but I wasn’t sure whether that response would be positive or negative. Negative might be too strong a word, but I’m definitely disappointed.

Of Monsters and Madness is a young adult novel; the publisher recommends it for ages twelve and above. I imagine readers at the low end of the suggested age range might enjoy it, but it lacks the richness that the best young adult novels have—the richness that makes them satisfying for adult readers as well.

Of Monsters and Madness is a sort of mash-up of classic horror stories. There’s a generous helping of Poe—Poe’s Annabelle Lee is the main character; Poe himself appears as well. The novel also owes much of its plotting to Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. There’s also a taste of the Sherlock Holmes Story “The Creeping Man.” The problem is that these elements don’t add up to anything new. Instead they feel like a faded reprise of stronger works.

If you’ve got a young reader who’s already worked her way through most of the classics Of Monsters and Madness draws on, then this book might be a good choice. However, Poe, Stevenson, and Conan Doyle are certainly accessible for readers in the middle school years. If she’s not familiar with those classics, they would make for much richer and more satisfying reading.

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September 11, 2014

Twenty-First Century Gem

I Called Him Necktie, by Milena Michiko Flasar, translated by Sheila Dickie, (New Vessel Press), 133 pages

The promotional material I found online for I Called Him Necktie opens by claiming “This is the Japanese Catcher in the Rye for the 21st Century.” Audacious as this claim may seem, I think it’s accurate. I Called Him Necktie is a marvel of a book, brief but rich, written from the standpoint of a deeply alienated young man.

The narrator Taguchi Hiro is a hikikomori—one of the estimated 100,000 to 320,000 (data provided by the author) Japanese young people overwhelmed by this highly competitive society who “refuse to leave their parents’ house, shut themselves in their rooms and reduce their contact with the family to the minimum.” Hiro has begun to leave the family home unobserved, spending long stretches of time sitting on a favorite bench in a local park. It’s at this park that Hiro meets “Necktie,” an unemployed businessman who has not been able to tell his wife about the loss of his job and who leaves home each day as if he were still going to work.

Hiro and Necktie are compelling characters, deeply troubled, but easy to understand and identify with. Hiro has abandoned societal expectations; Necktie is unable to abandon them, despite his own desires and circumstances. As the two trepidatiously build a friendship they strengthen one another. Hiro recounts stories of classmates with burdens similar to his own; Necktie reveals the tragedy lying in his own past.

The book is just 133 pages long, but each of those pages—each paragraph—is a treasure. Like Catcher in the Rye to which it’s compared, it is a book for repeated reading that will offer up new rewards each time.

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September 09, 2014

Portraits from Contemporary Tehran

City of Lies:  Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran, by Ramita Navai, (Perseus Academic), 320 pages

Ramita Navi’s City of Lies is an interesting hybrid of a book—a sort of fictional nonfiction. In her forward, Navai tells readers that “I have changed all names and some details, time frames and locations to protect people, but everything here has happened or it still happening. These are all true stories from the city of lies.”

Navai explains that these lies are not the result of moral failings on the part of inviduals: “in order to live in Tehran you have to lie. Morals don’t come into it: lying in Tehran is about survival. This need to dissimulate is surprisingly egalitarian—there are no class boundaries and there is no religious discrimination when it comes to the world of deceit.” The liars in this collection of related tales range from a homemade porn star to a would-be political assassin to a male-to-female transsexual.

I found the story of Amir particularly riveting. At age six Amir, the son of  parents who will soon be executed because their personal lives challenge the regime, is “well versed in the art of lying. He has a ready stockpile of lies perched on the tip of his still-developing tongue, waiting for the cue for them to fall out of his baby mouth and into the ears of adults.” As an adult, Amir shares the secret of his parents’ fate with his girlfriend Bahar, who “read books; devoured them…. lived for the arts—theatre, film, and music…. loved Metallica, Radiohead, Zero and Zedbazi, an underground Iranian band that sang about drugs and sex (and who had all left the country).” Amir finds himself haunted by the judge who sentenced his parents to death, now seeking forgiveness as he prepares for his own death.

My primary complaint about this book pertains to its hybrid nature. While Navai assures us these stories are true, the lack of documentation makes them feel more like fiction than nonfiction—yet they aren’t effective as fiction, given Navai’s reportorial prose style. Nonetheless, for most U.S. readers, City of Lies will be a revelation, documenting a breadth and complexity that belie our more simplistic understanding of life in and the people of Tehran.

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