Monday, June 29, 2009

Book Review: Storm Glass [2009]

Storm Glass is the first book in Maria V. Snyder's new trilogy, loosely connected to the earlier Study series (Poison Study, Magic Study, and Fire Study), but with a new, young protagonist, Opal Cowan. [Snotty aside: The back cover of the copy I got from Agawam has her last name spelled "Cowen"--whoops. Way to edit, guys.] I really enjoyed Poison Study and thought it was fresh and original, but felt that the other books in the series lost something in terms of plotting, pacing, and overall coherence, although the sequels were still enjoyable. Unfortunately, Storm Glass continues this trend, following in the footsteps of Bloodhound in that it could have spared a good hundred pages without losing much of substance. Opal is a hesitant, damaged narrator (which is interesting, and Snyder isn't afraid to expose her to additional torment), who has perhaps too many love interests (who knew that was even possible?). The plot is convoluted so I'm not going to attempt to explain it here, and there is too much traveling about the countryside from plot point to plot point for my comfort. The conclusion of the book leaves many threads unresolved for the sequels, so much so that I have a lingering sense of dissatisfaction. Cameos from characters in her other novels are welcome, but there wasn't a good way for her to work in the two characters I really wanted to see again: Valek and the Commander. Here's hoping Snyder will be able to remedy that in Sea Glass, in which I hope fervently that she will return to the form of Poison Study.

Grade: C+

Random thoughts: The book read a lot like a Young Adult novel and could be recommended as such, although it does have some disturbing scenes of torture.

The author's website.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book Review: Speak [1999]

What self-respecting aficionado of young adult literature hasn't read Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson? I am embarrassed to admit that person was me, until yesterday. Thanks to the suggestion of my co-worker, I will no longer be ducking my head when (if?) people ask me my opinion of the multiple-award winning, high school curriculum mainstay that has more than 1,000 user reviews on Amazon. Fourteen year-old Melinda begins ninth grade labeled as the social outcast who called the cops on the party of the summer and got a bunch of kids in trouble. She called 911 because she was raped by a popular senior guy, but no one else knows that, and she finds herself unable to verbalize the truth. As one might divine from the title, voicelessness and lack of agency are key themes of Speak, which follows Melinda through the course of her school year as she spirals into depression, loses interest in school, and finally turns it around and begins living again.

As Anderson mentions in the supplementary materials available in the Platinum Edition, the book is as much about depression as it is about rape; Melinda's battles--carried out in her mind and on her body--are bitter and intense, conveyed through an intimate first-person narrative. This could be the story of any ostracized teenager, and it probably plays out more often in real life than any adult would care to admit. I'm still not sure what I think of the novel's climactic scene (spoiler alert) between Melinda and her rapist. On the one hand, it allows the reader to experience first-hand the trauma of assault that has, until this point, been largely suppressed by Melinda. It gives her the chance to seize agency and, in this second encounter, emerge relatively unscathed. However, I'm not sure the scene itself was necessary--Melinda had already acted to protect her former best friend, and it was clear that she had been finding her voice through the tree-creation metaphor. Having Melinda fight Andy off allows her to receive some vindication in the eyes of her fellow students, however, and maybe that's more important to the reader than a (perhaps more realistic) ending in which he goes off to college scot free. Either way, if books like Speak can help young adults engage in a dialogue about difficult subjects like rape, depression, and social ostracism, we'll probably all end up better off.

Grade: A-

Links: Laurie Halse Anderson's website. An Interview with Anderson by School Library Journal.

Meditation on The Answering Machine

When my father was here this weekend, he left behind a ticking time bomb: my mother's answering machine. It has been two years and 275 days since she died, which means that it's been two years and 276 days since I heard her actual voice. I don't have a lot of other recordings with her speaking voice in them--maybe a few crappy digital videos, and some cancer-related television appearances preserved on ancient VHS tapes. Did she make a cameo in our wedding video? I can't remember. I asked for the answering machine.

I can plug in the answering machine and hit Greeting. Her voice says "Hi, you've reached the _____s," our old phone number follows, then "please leave a message." It's short and sweet. I wish it were longer. Or that you could tell from what she is saying the way she used to sound when she laughed. After she died, but before we sold the house, I used to call this machine occasionally from 2,000 miles away to hear this very message. It was reassuring evidence that my mother had existed. After listening to it again, I'm not sure that is still the case. It's definitely her, but she's not telling me the things I need to hear. She can't say "everything will be all right" and confirm that she loved me. I have to take that on faith. Unfortunately, faith is not something I am blessed with.

When my mother was dying in the room downstairs, I used to dream that I was walking along the sharp edge of a knife with bare feet, suspended over a black hole of nothingness. I knew my options were either to slip off the edge of the knife, or make it to the end and leap willingly into oblivion, streams of blood trailing behind. In retrospect, I think I slipped before getting to the end. I participated in mom's fiction that she wasn't going to die; I feigned ignorance and spent time just waiting for the inevitable that I could have spent finding out what kind of person she really was. And now, when I try to explain to my child that he has another grandparent, I'll have to rely on photographs, answering machines, and my own dim recollections to reconstruct her for him--and for me. She was the family memory keeper, and she is gone. No matter how many times I press Greeting, the message will always be the same.

I am writing this to remember during the times when I don't have such sharp slivers of memory. I hope it will help remind me that waiting for the inevitable need not be the only course of action.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book Review: Home Game [2009]

In the past few months, I have been trying to read as many new books as possible in an attempt to "stock up" mentally for the anticipated time, which will probably stretch years, when reading for pleasure is a luxury rarely enjoyed. Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, by Moneyball author Michael Lewis, is the first book I've read that might actually be somewhat pertinent to the coming Time of Reading Restriction. The book is a series of journal entries, most adapted from articles published in Slate, which chronicle Lewis's thoughts and experiences after the birth of each of his three children. These short entries are often humorous, and Lewis blithely assumes that we will find his lack of parental acumen amusing. Though there are occasional glimpses of a caring father beneath the veneer of self-pity, what he wants to get across is the (he believes) difficulty fathers have connecting with newborns: "After every new child, I learn the same lesson, grudgingly: If you want to feel the way you're meant to feel about the new baby, you need to do the grunt work. It's only in caring for a thing that you become attached to it." Home Game is a slight but entertaining afternoon amusement.

Grade: B-

Friday, June 19, 2009

Book Review: Warbreaker [2009]

Warbreaker is the latest effort by Brandon Sanderson, otherwise known as the Man Who is Taking Over for Robert Jordan and finishing the Wheel of Time series. Sanderson, however, is by now a pretty well-established fantasy author in his own right, beginning his career with the one-shot Elantris and winning my attention with the intriguing Mistborn trilogy. Sanderson's greatest strength is undoubtedly his ability to build fascinating and remarkably complete worlds and magic systems, and his latest is no different. Warbreaker is a hefty volume in which magic wielders use color-based BioChromatic Breath to animate objects, and one of the countries is ruled by "Returned" (those who come back to life with godlike levels of Breath, the most powerful of whom is the God King). While this may sound a little confusing based on my lame explanation, it's introduced and used in such a way that the magic system becomes completely believable, though it is never fully explained.

The book's setting is the capital city of Hallandren, a country that is, by all indications, preparing to wage war on neighboring Idris. It focuses on five characters: two royal Idrian sisters, one of whom is promised in marriage to the mysterious and threatening God King; her rebellious younger sister; the unwilling god Lightsong, who feels that indolence is his highest calling; the aforementioned God King; and the mysterious Vasher, who could be on either side of the looming conflict. Sanderson balances the viewpoints carefully, weaving a sophisticated plot between these genuinely enjoyable protagonists as he also allows their characters to mature. Warbreaker is deeply concerned with questions of faith and ethics: What does it mean to believe in a religion where you can see the gods, versus one where you can't? What if someone viewed as a god had a difficult time believing his own divinity? How far would you compromise your beliefs to save something important to you? As usual with a Sanderson book, there were things that I didn't see coming (masterful plotting is another of his strengths), and I have to give this book the highest form of praise I can: I finished it yesterday, but was still thinking about it today. I am a little reluctant to take it back to the library . . . but, on the negative side, there were a few editorial choices that bothered me, including the decision to have the chaste, pure Idrian princesses speak so openly and casually about sex. It just didn't seem to fit with their characters as introduced to the reader. Still: highly recommended. I'm sure it's going to take several years for a sequel, but I'll read it on the day it comes out.

Grade: A

Warbreaker is available for free online, in its entirety, thanks to the generosity of the author. The most recent version is the same as the edition recently published in hardcover--really. It's just a PDF of the proof.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle [2007]

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, is a memoir by Barbara Kingsolver, with help from her husband and teenage daughter, in which she chronicles the family's commitment to spending a year growing their own food and buying other necessities as close to home as possible. We had been meaning to check it out for some time--it was very popular last year at about this time--and finally listened to the audio book while traveling to, from, and within Canada. Kingsolver is a breathy, but earnest narrator, and Stephen and Camille also perform their parts adequately. I was under the misapprehension when we started that Kingsolver would be departing somewhat from her everyday life in order to take on this project; perhaps going from a bustling city life to a quiet one in the country. In reality, she and her husband are quite familiar with the farming life, and she describes seed catalogs, weeding, egg production, and other agrarian topics with the ease of long familiarity. The book is a strident case for the local food movement. Eating and buying locally, according to the authors, is not only more environmentally friendly (broccoli from California or bananas from South America cost millions of dollars in fuel to ship to our neighborhood grocery store each year) but also supports the local community of farmers (a disappearing breed?), and just plain tastes better. In other words, it is just not worth it to eat that pale, waxy tomato in January when you'll be inundated with tasty organic varieties in August. However, it is difficult to imagine never eating fruits or vegetables (such as bananas) that simply aren't grown here.

Kingsolver does a good job of building narrative suspense (through the interesting vehicle of turkey reproduction), but the book is frequently repetitive, hammering home again and again the importance of local foods until you want to yell "OK, I get it!" and move on. Those of us who already spend a part of the summer canning, and can relate to the yearly tide of zucchini that cannot be given away fast enough, are not really among those that need to be converted. Aside from the redundancy, the glimpses of Kingsolver's family life (which would no doubt be more interesting to me if I had read any of her other books) are charming, and the family pictured on the back of the audio book looks exactly as I imagined it. Listening to the book while driving through the picturesque potato fields of Prince Edward Island proved to be the perfect match of subject matter and backdrop; I can only hope that the next time I am moved to pick up a banana, I will have the fortitude to put it down and wait until I can get one in season, perhaps in Brazil.

Grade: B+

ETA: They are enriching lives online here. It looks like a good starting point for exploration of local food resources.

Book Review: The Gate of Ivory [1989]

The Gate of Ivory, by Doris Egan, is a charming sci-fi novel (first in a series) that was recently recommended as a book with a strong female protagonist. Published in 1989, The Gate of Ivory is the first-person narrative of practical scholar Theodora of Pyrene, stranded on the universe's only magical planet after a sight-seeing trip goes awry. Theo spends the majority of the book trying to get off the world of Ivory, but events, in the form of sorcerer Ran Cormallon, keep interfering. The book isn't quite a romance, or an adventure, or even a straightforward world discovery story. Instead, it's a layered exploration of several characters, especially Theo, who comes to realize that she can make herself a place in the world rather than letting events dictate her situation.

Grade: A

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Meditation on Traveling while Being Vegetarian

As the one or two readers of this blog probably already know, I am currently in Canada on vacation. Not only am I on vacation, but I am still a vegetarian. While being vegetarian can make eating out a fun adventure in one's home territory, where the restaurants are familiar and (if you live in the Pioneer Valley) relatively "friendly," the same cannot be definitively said about traveling to foreign soil, especially when you are on an island that specializes in seafood dishes. I am not the kind of vegetarian that eats seafood. Actually, I was never the kind of person that ate seafood even when I wasn't a vegetarian--but that's the subject of another Meditation altogether. We are listening to Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in the car, and I recently finished Jennifer 8. Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, both of which expound at length on the subject of food, and its relationship to culture. All of which leads to the question: what have we been missing on our vacation by eating our own imported food almost exclusively, other than the cost of eating out? From past experience with family vacations, eating in a foreign country is one of the easiest ways to experience the "atmosphere" and "local flavor" of the place that you presumably want to know better. I watched my parents eat pâté in France (and my mother tuck the leftovers into her purse, gross) and presumed that they were doing it because it was an Ultimate Dining Experience, to eat pâté in France. While I certainly agree that eating a freshly baked french baguette in the back seat of the car in France is an excellent experience that should be embraced by all, the vegetarian part of the equation throws all of this into confusion. Unfortunately, a lot of "ethnic" cuisine involves the heavy use of meat products. See, it's difficult to go repeatedly into restaurants, look at the menu, realize that there isn't much you can eat, then leave and go to the next restaurant. That could be considered a way of experiencing a lot of different cultures--or at least a lot of weird looks from maîtres'd and hostesses. This time we tried to go online ahead of time (not an option during those earlier family vacations) and identify restaurants we could patronize for one special meal on the island. Apparently this is not a possibility. We are reduced to emailing the nice restaurant with a special menu request for our extremely weird dietary needs. So, I am forced to conclude that, until I visit a place where vegetarian options are part of the local food culture (India, maybe?), or until such time as standard restaurants realize that there are starving vegetarians out there who would love to patronize their well-reviewed businesses, we will be eating back at the hotel room. This may mean that we have an oddly minimal contact with the local food (although I have been to the grocery store twice, for staples like milk), but at least we are eating things that we know won't have secret meat ingredients, whenever we're hungry. I think that's a fair trade.

Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles [2008]

Taking a break from my usual fictional fare, I picked up Jennifer 8. Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Lee frames the story around the curious 2005 Powerball event in which over 100 people won Powerball prizes based on their use of numbers from a Chinese restaurant's fortune cookie. I didn't say Chinese fortune cookie here because one of the things Lee discovers on her global trek to discover the secrets of Chinese food is that fortune cookies were invented by the Japanese. The book is full of similar (potentially useful) trivia, such as the fact that Chinese food is served on all seven continents, including Antarctica, or that American produced soy sauce doesn't actually contain soy. Although the book sometimes feels more like a series of loosely connected essays or articles, peppered with anecdotes (Lee is a New York Times reporter) on the same subject, she does make a convincing case for American Chinese food as a distinctive cuisine as uniform and, well, American as McDonald's (which Chinese restaurant franchises outnumber two to one). The sheer amount of Lee's research and care becomes apparent upon viewing her extensive notes and bibliography. It is clear that the project was something more than a standard food "gimmick" book for her, instead it is a meditation on what it means to be Chinese and American, and to sit at the crossroads of these cultures:
I'd never really grasped the widespread fascination with genealogy in America, since I knew exactly when my family showed up in the States. But this journey had become my own genealogical search: an investigation into how Chinese immigrants, like Chinese food, have embedded themselves in places around the world. They have adopted Italian first names, Thai last names, and, in Jamaica, Roman Catholicism (the church usually ran the best schools) . . . As I moved from culture to culture, I met Chinese people who listened to reggaeton and danced salsa in Peru, played guitar in reggae bands in Jamaica, and spoke Hindi in India. Yet in some sense, despite generations in other countries, we acknowledged each other as Chinese--even when we spoke no common languages.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a frequently amusing, always informative, thoughtful meditation on our food culture.

Grade: A-

ETA: Jennifer 8. Lee is blogging here.

Book Review: Bloodhound [2009]

Bloodhound is the second book in Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper trilogy, which is set in her fictional world of Tortall a significant amount of time before the books that made her famous in such circles as mine. Despite a great desire on my part to like the book, and the series, Bloodhound didn't remedy the mistakes of the first book, Terrier, or make me very eager to read the concluding volume if and when it ever comes out. You see, when the author herself mentions several times how difficult it was to finish the book ("I want to dedicate this long-delayed second volume" . . . "Many of you will have noticed I have taken an uncommonly long time between the first and second book of this series" . . . "kept me slap up to the mark so I would finally finish the durn thing."), it doesn't exactly inspire confidence. There are two problems with the Beka Cooper series: the journal-based narrative (or at least, how it is handled), and the archaic language. The former is a bigger problem than the latter, in my opinion, as the journal framework consistently yanks the reader out of the narrative and into the exciting world of . . . report writing. And, if that weren't exciting enough, Beka constantly writes about how she is writing in her journal. There are a lot of things that could have been done to improve the pacing of the narrative, which deals primarily with tracking down counterfeiters threatening the stability of the nation (not the most quick moving bad guys ever known), foremost of which would have been chopping out a good 100 pages or so of description. As for the archaic language, I understand what Tamora Pierce is trying to do, using vocabulary to make us feel the "olden times" atmosphere in which Beka lives. However, any time you need to reference a book's glossary is time that you are not in the narrative, enjoying the plot and characters--and for a book that already suffers from its own verbosity, this could be the killing stroke. I am ashamed to admit that I almost didn't finish. The good news is, Pierce will be on to another project by this point, and the book isn't that bad, despite what I may have conveyed here. It's just not up to the standard that I expect.

Grade: B-

Book Review: Wishful Drinking [2008]

I guess I would call myself a Carrie Fisher fan, or at least a Star Wars fan, but I couldn't be more relieved that I got Wishful Drinking from the library rather than purchasing a copy for myself. As vacation reading goes, this memoir certainly fulfilled its purpose--though only for an hour and a half or so--it was fluffy and I've already pretty much forgotten everything I just read. The main problem is that it reads like it was directly transcribed from the one-woman stage show from which it is adapted, like a rambling monologue, with pieces that just don't work very well in text form. The various pictures inserted to illustrate various points ultimately make you realize that the book is really as insubstantial as a piece of dandelion fluff. Even the Star Wars and Paul Simon anecdotes end up being a little humdrum, and as for her new reliance on electro-shock therapy . . . the less said about that, the better.

Grade: D+

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Museum Review: Green Gables & LMM Cavendish National Historic Site

Cavendish, PEI, trades in shamelessly on its presumed relationship with Lucy Maud Montgomery's fictional town of Avonlea, most famously inhabited by Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables fame. But between the Shining Waters Family Fun Park, Kindred Spirits Country Inn, Anne's Windy Poplars Cottages, Bosom Buddies Cottages and Suites, and Avonlea Village, where you can "Live the story as you travel in time 100 years and interact with the characters as the story unfolds around you," there is an actual historic site to visit. The price of admission includes the Green Gables farmhouse, some re-created barnyard buildings, and the opportunity to walk through Lover's Lane and the Haunted Wood. The house, on which L.M. Montgomery loosely based the fictional Green Gables, was actually owned her cousins, doesn't have much in the way of gables, and was updated somewhat since the turn of the century. The site managers (marketers?) were in the unenviable position of having hordes of tourists coming through and wanting to see the "real" Green Gables, so they took the house and, with generous donations from Cavendish residents, attempted to recreate the book as faithfully as possible. The house floor plan therefore includes "Matthew's Room" and "Anne's Room," and (judging by our observations) the tourists are happy. Once you get past the genuine attempt to historically re-create a fictional character's homestead, the house itself is quite charming, although not rigorously authentic, with a simple layout and a few nice historical pieces.
The gardens immediately around the house are delightful, and Lover's Lane was scattered with profusions of Forget-Me-Nots and quivering aspens. Spring is farther behind where it was in Massachusetts, so we were treated to lilacs, bleeding hearts, and tulips, all of which have long since shriveled at home. In addition to the Green Gables site, a few extra dollars Canadian will buy admission to the Site of L.M. Montgomery's Cavendish Home, which is just that, a stone foundation where Montgomery's grandparents' house once stood, and where she lived until departing for Ontario in 1911. This site, while much quieter than Green Gables, is still run by the Macneill family, and had a very pleasant bookstore in which one could (and one did) buy postcards with scans of original Anne book covers. Returning to Green Gables by way of the Haunted Wood path (not that daunting during broad daylight, with other tourists brushing past), we were somewhat shocked to have the pleasant quiet of our day punctuated by the brash vulgarity of the gift shop, which was full of embroidered PEI items and blaring music from Anne of Green Gables: The Musical!. All I can say is: If I had to work in that shop every day, with that soundtrack as my background music, I would be a very difficult person to live with.

Overall Grade: B

Random Notes:

For such a small town, Cavendish also has a large assortment of kooky "museums" and amusements, presumably for parents to take their children to on rainy days when the beach is not an option and they are already bored with the limited charm of Green Gables. Some examples: Jurassic Bart’s Dinosaur Museum & Petting Farm, Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, The Fantazmagoric Museum of the Strange and Unusual, and Wax World of the Stars (including Willie Nelson!).

The good thing about seeing touristy things in Canada: You only have to read half as much stuff as you think you're going to have to when you first see the explanatory sign, because it's all translated into French. This part is also useful when the English part of the sign has been rubbed away, but only when your French skills aren't as rusty as mine are.

Several people from Salt Lake City and Orem, Utah visited this site yesterday. I am sure this doesn't have anything to do with me but, cosmically, it feels like it should.