27 July 2014

Stephen Colbert told me to read this book

Such a cool cover.
I know most of you in the book reading world are aware of Amazon's crappy treatment of Hachette's imprints recently. They just happen to publish Stephen Colbert's books, so he decided to make Amazon's dickishness the subject of an on-air rant. He picked California, a first novel by Edan Lepucki as an example of who Amazon was really hurting and he encouraged his viewers to go to Powells.com and pre-order Lepucki's books since Amazon wasn't allowing people to preorder it. Within a week about 6,400 people had pre-ordered the book from Powells so Colbert decided he wanted to make it a NYT bestseller and encouraged us to order from an indie bookstore and listed some on the screen including Ann Patchett's Parnassus books in Memphis and my very own neighborhood Politics and Prose. So I dutifully went into PandP the next day and ordered my copy. Last time I looked the book was number three on the NYT list.

I probably never would have even heard of this book, let alone order it, let alone read it. But I am so glad I did. I loved it. Story of Cal and Frida, a husband and wife living on their own in the middle of nowhere after economic conditions and weather calamities have turned most of the country into a kid of Mad Max scenario. Then they become pregnant and the decide to try and live among others. This has shades of MaddAddam to it but it isn't half as futuristic and has nothing, sentient or otherwise, that doesn't already exist today. I could quibble with a few little details or plot points, but overall the writing is good enough and the story is good enough that those things are easily set aside. Although those who read a lot of speculative fiction might disagree with me (as well as any number of professional reviewers).

A real page turner and definitely worth picking up. Not only did Lepucki get lucky that Colbert chose her book to champion but we got lucky that California is such a good read.

22 July 2014

Wreview Wrap-up (Review Rap-up?)

The Levanter by Eric Ambler
My love affair with suspense writer Ambler continues apace. I wasn't sure I would like this one as much because it was written in 1970 and wouldn't have any of that pre-war patina. But I was wrong. Being born in 1969, 1970 feels a bit historic these days so I still enjoyed the period drama aspect of this novel. Syria, Palestine, Israel, bombs, espionage, it all seems a little too current. Loved it.

They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple
I love me some Dorothy Whipple. I particularly like The Priory and her book of short stories. But this one I thought was only so-so. I liked it plenty, but it left me somewhat ambivalent.  One of my issues was that Whipple's early foreshadowing of the crises to come was a little ham-handed and unnecessary. I could see the train wreck coming about 300 pages before it finally showed up. Another issue is that none of the characters was particularly sympathetic. I thought I loved Celia until she acted a bit uncharacteristically shallow when they moved into Field House. Still, worth your time if you like you some Whipple.

Photo Credit
A Man and Two Women by Doris Lessing
I started reading this collection of short stories way back in May. I really liked the first story--although even after going back and reading bits of it, I have no recollection what it was about--and I really liked the last story. But all of the others in between didn't thrill me too much. I may have tried to read them too fast. For well over a month the book sat almost forgotten in my nightstand with all but the final story read. And I wasn't really looking forward to finishing it. But since I only had one story to go, when I did pick it up, my mind was pretty focused and I loved it. And if you think abut it, my mind was pretty focused when I read the first story as well and I liked that one. It may be that I would like more of the middle stories if I read them again without feeling the pressure to read fast. The stories are largely relationship based and definitely fit into what you would expect for late 1950s early 1960s Britain. Think Iris Murdoch.

Fin and Lady by Cathleen Schine
Nancy Pearl told me to read Cathleen Schine. Nancy Pearl has never steered me wrong. (Repeat as necessary.) This is perfect summer reading and there were things about it that I kind of enjoyed, but I got pretty bored pretty early. Young boy goes to live with his largely unknown half sister in Greenwich Village after his mother dies. His sister, Lady, is about 24 and is intent on finding a husband but she also doesn't want to be tied down. Nobody puts Lady in a corner. A big fat so what from me.

Charlotte Fairlie by D.E Stevenson
Another chaste Scottish romance where everything turns out great. Stevenson clearly likes Scotland, well-behaved children, tidy houses, and God. But don't let any of that turn you off. I really enjoyed the first part of this book which takes place at a girls school where our heroine, Charlotte Fairlie, one of the schools "old girls", is the young, new headmistress. Not surprisingly there is an evil, petty, maths instructor who was passed over for the top job. Miss Pinkerton is right out of central casting for the mean school marm. I kept picturing the woman who played the awful Miss Treadwell in a few episodes of the original Upstairs, Downstairs. For me the book faltered when the action moved up to Scotland. Too much focus on the children and all their wide-eyed adventures. I found the main child character, Tessa, to be a precocious brat. See what Cath from Read Warbler has to say about it here.

Days From Seventy-Five to Ninety by Edward R. Hewitt
A slim memoir of a rather industrious, farmer/engineer/chemist, grandson of Peter Cooper who founded Cooper Union in New York, and son of Abram Hewitt "New York's notable reform mayor". Published in 1957 when Hewitt was 90 years old, I loved Part I which focused on his daily life including a list of all the magazines he reads on a regular basis (he never looks at TV). In Part II he opines on everything from hay yield to book mending to Japanese Saki deer. It would be interesting to see how much of his health/wellness related musings in Part III stack up to current scientific knowledge. Part IV is Hewitt's view of modern economics and his philosophy of life. Somewhere in one of these parts he writes about being invited by General Franco to improve something in Spain, but now I don't remember what. Was it hay yield? In any event he seems to think Franco is the bee's knees and just what Spain needs. (Later in the book he denounces Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, apparently Franco is the softer side of fascism.)  Part I is probably the only bit I found truly worth reading, but I think I will keep this book because I like the time capsule quality of it.

21 July 2014

Morbidly fascinating

Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the first landing of humans on the Moon. Of all the various stories and photos I have seen to commemorate this historic event over the past few days, none has fascinated me more than a photo of a document that historian Michael Beschloss Tweeted a few days ago. Beschloss is one of the more fascinating Tweeters I follow. With regularity he posts really amazing photos that usually have to do with some aspect of U.S. history and usually from the depths of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. If you are on Twitter and even remotely interested in U.S. history I strongly encourage you to follow @BeschlossDC.

The picture that has so fascinated me is this image of a document that President Nixon's speechwriter Bill Safire produced in the event of a disaster on that first manned landing on the moon. Although that mission was a success, it is an interesting reminder not only of what could have happened, but also of the sacrifice of space explorers who weren't so lucky.

A few things to think about as you read the document:
  • Bill Safire's writing and imagery are profoundly beautiful. Is it only in times of tragedy that politicians are allowed to sound poetic?
  • If you read the final two instructions, you realize that contingency plans of which this speech is a part, imagine that this particular tragedy is one where the astronauts are unable to leave the moon and return to Earth. Not an explosion, but something that keeps Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to knowingly face their demise.
  • I wonder if "wives of the astronauts" would have been a better term than "widows-to-be"?
  • I find it interesting and fitting that they refer to instructions for burial at sea.
  • To me, the single most chilling thing about this document is the notation "AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN". That there would be some point when NASA would decide to stop communicating with the astronauts and that the astronauts would be left with nothing but each other and silence. Surreal.

19 July 2014

Libraries are popping up everywhere

No doubt many of you have come across wildcat mini-libraries popping up in peoples' yards, in old callboxes, and any number of other places. Until recently, I had only seen these online. But then one day, walking with Lucy about six blocks from our temporary apartment, I ran into one in real life. A few weeks later I saw another one. And then a few days ago I saw a third one. And all within walk distance of our digs.

Of course each time I pass one I have to see what books lurk inside. For the most part I don't see much that interests me. And being here in DC, I also come across more non-fiction than I think is healthy. :) But the other day I saw a book I really wanted and so I took it. And not just "oh, that might be interesting", but rather "oh, I've been looking for this book, hooray". So this morning when I took Lucy out for her walk I filled up my messenger bag with books so I could leave some items in the two mini-libraries we would pass by.

This is the first little library I came across.

This was the situation when I arrived. Now I realize I missed that Vonnegut and it is one that I haven't read. Shoot.

My four additions (starting with Dissident Gardens and ending with A Cup of Tea). Is it wrong I only added books I didn't like? I do know, however, that each of those four have an audience and will be enjoyed by those who enjoy that kind of thing.

I was told by the keeper of the first mini-library, that this one, just a few blocks further down the road is an old medicine cabinet. And the owner apparently loves herbs.

The situation when I arrived. This is the place I found the Ambler pictured below.

The situation when I left. Normally I like Rose Macaulay, but this one not so much, plus I have a HC edition at home. Fin & Lady was just okay, the Messud is a duplicate, and Beautiful Ruins I didn't like.
This was the book I was so giddy to find. I've become a big Ambler fan this year and I haven't read this one yet.

Lucy helped.


07 July 2014


Many of you will know that one of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is inaccuracy in factual details. So far in my experience, the author Julia Glass seems to piss me off the most. Some of you have pointed out that if the writing is good enough one is less likely to notice such things.

And then came Michael Cunningham's latest novel The Snow Queen. I've liked every Cunningham novel I have read (and I have read them all). Granted, it took me a second try to warm up to Specimen Days, but, overall I like his work. After over 100 pages of TSQ, I just don't think I care enough to go on. I think I may be having trouble because it has a kind of searching, what's it all about, kind of vibe and I am just not in the mood for that right now.

But more than anything the thing I can't get over is that much of the imagery of the book is based on snow. Snow that supposedly happened on November 1, 2004 in New York City. Well, guess what?

It didn't freaking snow on November 1, 2004 in New York City.

I'm not a total nut job, I didn't go look that fact up just to look it up. I looked it up because it was the night before the Bush-Kerry election--which is also part of the story--and I remember distinctly what the weather was that day because I was knocking on doors in Cleveland trying to get out the vote for John Kerry. I know Cleveland and NYC can have different weather, but based on how the weather was that day in Ohio, I had a hard time believing there was snow in NYC. Not to mention the fact that snow that early in November is a rarity.

It just feels like Cunningham had a metaphor he was just dying to play out and couldn't be bothered to make it plausible.

Well, I can't be bothered to finish it.