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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September 08, 2014

Trans* Lives

Transgender Lives: Complex Stories, Complex Voices, by Kristin Cronn-Mills, (Twenty-First Century Books, Lerner Publishing Group), 88 pages

Transgender Lives is a small, but ground-breaking book. Written with junior high and high school readers in mind, it alternates stories from trans* individuals’ live with chapters on topics like transgender health and transgender life challenges. [Note that this book primarily uses the term trans*, rather than transgendered because the identity is much more complex than the term "gender," which still implies the binary male/female dichotomy, allows.] Opening materials explain that “Transgender Lives helps you understand what it means to be trans* in America while learning more about transgender history, the broad spectrum of transgender identities, and the transition process.”

The book is written to inform and to generate respect. The language is at a seventh grade level, which makes it accessible to a great many readers. The author uses analogies and hypothetical situations to put readers into the kinds of situations trans* individuals face daily:

Awsome! It’s the day you get to apply for a driver’s license. As you fill out the form, you realize you have to choose between the boxes labeled “male” and “female.” But what do you do if you feel neither box fits you? Today you’re dressed like a guy. Tomorrow you might wear a skirt…. Sometimes you identify with both boxes, some days with neither, and someday you might transition from one gender to another. But what do you do now? Do you make a new box? Do you lie?

The brevity of this Transgender Lives means that it won’t provide a definitive understanding of trans* life, history, and culture. It will, however, provide a vocabulary and structure for considering trans* identity—an issue of particular importance to its readers, who may be becoming aware of their own trans* selves or who may be encountering trans* peers for the first time.

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September 04, 2014

Fictions of Witness

The Lotus and the Storm: A Novel, by Lan Cao, (Viking Adult), 400 pages

Island of a Thousand Mirrors: A Novel, by Nayomi Munaweera, (St. Martin’s Press), 256 pages

Witness, in the sense of testifying to one’s own or another’s experiences, offers one of the most powerful reasons for writing: to document events that get swept under the societal rug or that are being lost due to deliberate societal forgetting. I believe that the primary motivation behind this tendency to sweeping under is fear. We fear the cruelties we can inflict on one another. We fear the ways our worlds may be changed when we acknowledge the existence—I would say prevalence, even—of these cruelties. We fear that if we believe the stories of those who’ve survived rape, torture, genocide, then we may become victims of these forces ourselves. Because I understand witness in this way, I am convinced that it is an essential part of ethical living, both individually and communally.

That is why I value the literature of witness, why I’m drawn to poems and books that make for uncomfortable reading. I don’t want to be a part of any forgetting. Several months ago I wrote a review of The Poetry of Witness, an impressive (and hefty) anthology from W.W. Norton edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu. More recently I’ve found myself reading another interesting genre of witness: the fictions of witness.

Witness and fiction may seem antithetical. Witness is the business of truth-telling; fiction is the art of imagining. But as any devoted reader knows, fiction can bear truths every bit as well as non-fiction does. I don’t know how or why writer-survivors make the choice between memoir and novel, but some do and the results can be deeply moving.

Two such novels are Lan Cao’s The Lotus and the Storm and Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors. The first of these looks at life both during the war in Vietnam and for refugees from that war attempting to rebuild their lives in the U.S. Island of a Thousand Mirrors also originates in civil war, in this case in Sri Lanka. These books—both of them recent releases—are very much worth a read, even though the experience of reading them is painful.

The Lotus and the Storm moves back and forth temporally and geographically and employs two voices. The first is a young (at least in the earliest moments) young girl being raised in a life of relative privilege as the U.S. enters the conflict. The second is her father, who was part of the South Vietnamese Army. Both narrators describe their lives in Vietnam and in the United States. Both are articulate and precise in sharing memories and describing the present.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors tells the stories of women from two families: one family is Sinhala, the community (at least before the war) controlling wealth and power, the other is Tamil, working class and without political power. Over the course of the novel, the lives of these two families intersect in unexpected ways.

Both authors experienced the eras and locales that they write about. I cannot tell which parts of their novels are essentially memoir, which parts draw on and reshape memory, and which are “inventions.”  To have a broad understanding of both wars, one would need to read a great deal of non-fiction. But one also will need novels like these that allow a reader to experience these conflicts from multiple perspectives, that witness (and therefore force readers to see) the brutalities of these times and places.

Pick up these  novels. Read them carefully at a time when you are able (to the best of your ability) to place yourself inside them. Open yourself to the witness being offered.

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September 02, 2014

A Novel of Alternative Viewpoints from Contemporary China

I Am China: A Novel, by Xiaolu Guo, (Nan A. Talese: Random House), 384 pages

I Am China is an interesting puzzle of a book. The author, Xiaolu Guo, is a writer and film maker (she graduated from the Beijing Film Academy), which shows in the structuring of this novel that jumps back and forth in time, moving from perspective to perspective in a way that is genuinely cinematic. Born in China, Guo now lives and writes in Britain, and I Am China presents perspectives based in both the country of her birth and her adopted country.

The Chinese perspectives are embodied in the characters Jian and Mu. Jian is a Chinese punk rocker who was imprisoned after releasing a “manifesto” at one of his concerts, and who is now seeking asylum in Europe. Mu is Jian’s off and on (but mostly on) partner of the last twenty years. Both characters have strong political motivations, but Jian’s politics are confrontational, while Mu’s are more subtle and interestingly romantic. Jian finds politics essential to art; Mu doesn’t.

The British perspective comes from Iona, a professional translator living in London, who has been asked to work with a loosely organized group of letters and journal entries written by both Jian and Mu. Readers encounter this material as she does: in random order and without any suggestion of what its overall trajectory might be.

I found this novel absolutely fascinating for the view it offers into alternative communities within contemporary China. I hadn’t realized China has a punk scene; I certainly didn’t know about the different strands of dissident thought represented by the book’s Chinese characters.

I said at the opening that I Am China is a puzzle of a book. It is a narrative that readers must assemble for themselves, looking for related pieces, rearranging information to create a chronology. This structureless structure is actually one of the book’s strengths preventing it from becoming narrower or more dogmatic.

I Am China is most definitely worth a read, both for the characters it introduces and for the glimpses it gives into the lives of a huge segment of the world’s population about whom we generally hear very little.

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