Review: The Changeling, by Victor LaValle

I love LaValle’s writing so I jumped at this book on release day and swallowed it whole. And yes, I liked it very much. Not as much as Big Machine or The Ballad of Black Tom, but very, very much. What I love about LaValle is that he has a take-no-prisoners approach to his characters. Nobody gets off without a few bruises at the very least, and you come away from every story knowing that, for better or worse, these characters will never be the same.

I got to the end of this book and I was still waiting for another shoe to drop. I still am nearly 12 hours later. The characters are so well developed you can’t help but wonder how they’ll cope with a less fraught life, much as they may desire nothing more. And will they actually get their wish? Hard to say. This is LaValleworld after all. Nothing is entirely a sure thing.

But the prose is sleek and convincing, the horror isn’t so much in the grisly bits, but in the steady build-up of the oh-god-oh-god-what-is-going-on? tension which is really the best kind. The characters are sympathetic, though not perfect, and there are stories within stories. It’s a book to savor, and one that made me smile often from the sheer pleasure of reading LaValle’s words.

If you’re not familiar with his work, you should be. He’s a wonderful, original author with a good deal to say, not just about fantasy and horror, but about being human, and about minorities and sub-cultures in our society.

Book Haul Day

51N6WOvZPQL[1]Ah, Tuesdays.  New release day.  I’d pre-ordered Eddie Izzard’s memoir, Believe Me, months ago, so when I got the email saying that it had arrived, I checked my Audible library and couldn’t immediately find it.  Panic!  Oh noes!  Then I remembered that the library is arranged chronologically and scrolled down.  Yes, there it was.  Ah, bliss.  Fourteen hours of listening to Eddie talk about “love, death, and jazz chickens.”  What could be better?

Actually if I wasn’t in the middle of the audiobook of The Left Hand of Darkness, that would be perfect, but I want to finish that one.  I abandoned another book to listen to the Le Guin; I don’t want to establish a pattern here.

But wait, the new Victor LaValle was also released today!  In fact, I checked last night about 11 p.m. and on impulse I clicked the pre-order button even though I shouldn’t have spent the money.  But The Housemate and I share libraries, so she’ll pick up the final volume of The Great Library when it comes out so we both benefit.

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By the time I got to my Kindle about 11:30, The Changeling was in my library, so I sat up and read a quarter of the book last night.  Chapter 24 ended with me shuddering and thinking “ohgodohgod, this is bad.”  I love it when a book can do that to me, don’t you?  One reason why I acted on impulse was that I’d been seeing a lot of good chatter about the book from ARC readers, one of whom said that he’d read most of it with his shoulders hunched up to his ears.  If that isn’t a great recommendation, I don’t know what is.

And finally, a Vine request arrived today, an ARC of The Many Worlds of Albie Bright.  After an orgy of requesting books from Vine and NetGalley when I realized my reading mojo was back, I’ve tried to rein myself in.  Between the freebies, and the stuff I’ve been buying from Amazon and Thrift Books (If you’re not familiar with the latter, you should be!) I could read 24/7 for the next six months and still not get through TheManyWorldsofAlbieBright-70495-3-456x703[1]everything I have sitting here unread.  However the blurb for Albie Bright was irresistible.  Albie’s parents are astrophysicists (He’s named for Albert Einstein.) and when Albie’s mother dies, Albie’s father seeks to comfort his grieving son by telling him that she may be alive in a parallel universe.  So Albie sets out to universe hop in hope of finding her.

There was something about that which tickled a memory, and finally I realized that it reminded me a bit of A Wrinkle in Time which I first read when I was eight or nine, and which has remained a favorite for my whole life.  If Albie’s story is even half as intriguing as Meg Murray’s, this is going to be wonderful.

So that’s my Tuesday.  I also have a shipment coming from Thrift Books, but in my defense I have to say that my intention was to order a clematis handbook for the garden library The Housemate and I keep, and of course since it was under $5, I had to bring the total up to $10 to get free shipping.  I mean it would be foolish not to, right?  And I had a $5 discount coupon that I could use on orders of $15 or more, so I had to get a couple more books. But the discount couldn’t be used with their Deal books, so I had to buy enough non-Deal books to use the discount.  Right?  Of course right.  You understand how it is.

But really, getting these books for under $15 delivered is quite a deal.

  • The Secret of Lost Things
  • People of the Book
  • The Book of Lost Things
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
  • Timber Press Pocket Guide to Clematis

Yeah, you really should check out ThriftBooks.com.

Review: Marlene: A Novel, by C. W. Gornter

28246442[1]There’s something about the whole concept of fictional biography that makes me feel a little crawly. It’s one thing to use a real person within a story of your own invention as Doctorow does in Ragtime, but quite another to attempt to write a biographical novel in which you mix established facts with fictionalized episodes. What does that even create? It’s not reality, but not wholly fiction.

Gortner relies heavily on relationships in his recounting of the life of Marlene Dietrich. Familial and sexual relationships dominate the story, and the latter often feels so prurient that it made me uncomfortable. Again, it’s one thing to know a fact about someone’s life, in this case that Dietrich led a very separate life from her husband Rudi Siebert, yet remained married to him until his death. It’s quite another to be treated to sex scenes and pillow talk between celebrities.

In spite of the accounting of Dietrich’s relationships, I never got a feel for who she was. One would think… would hope anyway, that if you’re going to fictionalize the life of a star, the account would bring that person vividly to life. But Gortner never manages to get very far into who Marlene Dietrich really is, even inside Gortner’s own head. I know no more about his Dietrich than I know about how my neighbors feel about Mariah Carey, and frankly, by about page 300 I’d ceased to care.

Marlene: A Novel is for people who want some kind of fantasy about Dietrich. That’s fine, but it’s not for me. Gortner gets two stars for creating a highly readable book if nothing else. And when you think about it, that’s something of a triumph for someone writing in a genre this awkward.

Review: The World Broke in Two, by Bill Goldstein

30199420[1]I’m a long-time reader of works by and about the Bloomsbury group and other writers and artists who were peripherally connected to it, so much of what’s in this book was familiar to me. And yet there was much I learned, particularly about E. M. Forster. Either he has not been the subject of a good deal of bio-critical work, or I simply haven’t noted and/or read the material, which is odd because he’s been my consistent favorite author of the four dealt with here.

I freely confess that most of the people who appear in this account are people I would not want to know, no matter how much I enjoy their work. Goldstein doesn’t linger on their personality flaws quite as much as do other biographers, and yet the, ah, difficult quality of their personalities does show through. In fairness, Woolf had more than her share of mental and emotional issues to contend with, and Goldstein touches on those issues rather deftly, not lingering on them, but not dismissing them as either unimportant to Woolf’s work, or some kind of hysteria. He is perhaps a bit less kind to Eliot who suffered from vague neurosis for many years, though it seemed as if it was largely due to having to work for a living, and having married a woman as neurotic as he was. Forster seems repressed and unhappy, a quiet, workmanlike writer. And Lawrence, as usual, comes across as unbearable. All that aside, Goldstein does an amazing job of providing the reader with a clear idea of what it’s like to be a writer, the roadblocks and uncertainties, the painful self-doubt that often pairs with a sense that our work is possibly the most significant the world will ever know. In that respect alone this book is eye-opening.

In a larger sense it gives the reader a view into the birth of modernism in literature. Though James Joyce and his master work, “Ulysses” is not directly examined here, it permeates the whole of the book. “Ulysses” was serialized from 1918 to 1920, and published in toto in 1922, the year referred to in the book’s title. It was a book that changed the way writers viewed literature, and in fact the title of the book comes from a quote by Willa Cather who said that the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts, referring to a sea change not only in literary style but substance as well. The subjects of this volume are aware of “Ulysses,” they attempt to read it and are alternately impressed and infuriated by it, but do not remain unchanged by its existence. It becomes a kind of touchstone for contemporary writing, a path out of the old forms and into new ones. Each of the four writers Goldstein follows struggles with these changes, with their sense that there is something more they can do with their work, something greater, more modern, more meaningful. And by the end of 1922, they are all breaking through their blocks to create the works which moved them all into the modern era.

Goldstein does a masterly job of blending both biographical and critical commentary, holding his focus on four writers and the space of one year, yet framing them with what was happening in the world as a whole, and the literary world, showing them in contact with and in relation to other writers such as Joyce, Proust, Pound, and others. It’s not exactly what I’d call a good starting point for anyone who is not familiar with the work of these four writers, but if you are, it will expand your understanding of them and their work.

Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

I seem to be on a tear this year of reading books about books. Most I’ve enjoyed, but few have presented the whole process of reading and learning in quite such a wonderful way as Dai Sijie does in this book. He ably illustrates the pleasures of reading, the way it takes us out of ourselves and improves our lives, by showing us how reading makes the whole process of “reeducation” in Mao’s China more tolerable.

He shows us how we can become obsessed with books and reading, whether because we are in intolerable situations, or simply because they give us a look into other worlds. The young men in this story risk a great deal for their books without questioning whether its worth it or not. And with the same story he shows us how reading brings people together, and ultimately how it can tear them apart when readers grow in different directions, when they take different lessons and ideas from the same books.

It’s a deft and surprisingly amusing story about reading, books, young love, ambition, hope, despair, and the power of stories. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Review: Stockholm Delete, by Jens Lapidus

31379413[1]So far this year I’ve read 71 books. I don’t say that to boast, but rather to show that I’m a voracious reader, who doesn’t give up easily. I’ve been reading this book for two months, I’m barely halfway through it, and last night I gave up. Why? I really don’t know. All I can say is that for someone who should have knocked this book off in three nights, maybe four if I was dawdling, it’s taken me an unbelievable amount of time to make it halfway through the book.

It’s not badly written, but it’s complex, which usually isn’t a problem. However, the characters seem fairly dull to me, and I wasn’t able to remember clearly who they were or what they’d done from reading to reading. I get that certain genres emphasize plot over characterization, I’m a ghostwriter, I understand the restrictions. But it felt as if everyone had been sacrificed to the gods of plot, so that it felt as if everyone was the same, just moving through a complex puzzle, not really leaving much of an impression.

Maybe one day I’ll pick it up again and think, “Oooh, this is way better than I thought!” Or maybe I won’t. But right now, this is what I have to say about it.

Book hauls are back

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Today’s post brought me these.

I’m sure you’ve guessed that I’m a passionate reader, and have been for most of my life.  Before I was born, my father was buying books for me.  I once told my mother that books were my best friends, and I still count them as among the friends I cherish most.  No matter what our financial situation, they never refused me a book, and I was surrounded by them at home, even though neither of my parents were as voracious as I.  I was the kid who, at the end of the school year had the pile of fifteen or twenty books from the Junior Scholastic catalog piled on my desk, and a subscription to the summer newsletter. I spent hours in the little magazine store across the street from our house, looking for new titles, and spent all my pocket money there.  My parents wanted me to read, they loved it that I did.  They never once said, “Wouldn’t you rather be outside playing?”

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A couple of TBR piles on my nightstand.

With that kind of a start it’d be unbelievable if I hadn’t ended up with stacks of TBRs, but I made my way through the bulk of them until my life took a devastating turn.  Both my parents developed dementia as they aged. The stress of those years as a caregiver didn’t stop me buying books, and in fact I think I bought more than ever.  But I rarely sat down to read any of them, or if I did, I rarely finished them.  Of the ones I did finish, I remember very little.  Watching the people you love most in the world come apart puts a cramp into everything, even your coping mechanisms.  I also became diabetic and my eyes went to hell, and my carpal tunnel got so bad that it was hard to hold a book.

And after they passed, I had to deal with grief and guilt, and all the inevitable changes.  I sold their home, bought one of my own, sold hundreds of my books before I moved, and though I still had plenty, I had no desire to read them.  I got a Kindle from Amazon as a thank you for helping to judge their first short story contest and immediately started loading it with free ebooks, then very cheap ones, and occasionally full price ones because while ereaders weren’t what I was used to, I did find that they were easier both to hold and to read from.

Time passed, my eyes improved, but I was still pretty much hooked on ereaders.  I’d use physical books for research, but for reading for fun, I used my kindle.  As a result I now realize that I’ve neglected to provide myself with good reading light except at the kitchen table, and then only when it’s light out.

One of my favorite audiobooks of this year.

But I still wasn’t reading much.  Most years I’d read maybe half a dozen books.  That may seem like a lot to many people, but for me, it was dismal.  And then last year, in the middle of a health scare (which turned out to be nothing dire) I began to read with a will again.  I don’t know why, something just clicked for me.  I discovered the joy of audiobooks,  something that had escaped me for years (as had the concept of texting, which I now love and do all the time.)  I felt like I was coming back from some desert island.

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My book seat

I discovered ThriftBooks, and began to buy up used books in spite of the fact that I still don’t have good light in the bedroom where I do the bulk of my reading, and I  still find it hard to hold books for very long without pain or numbness.  I joined the Book of the Month Club and got some really good stuff, and at least one stinker.  I joined Goodreads and Litsy, and have been having a great time online.  And then finally someone clued me in to the BookSeat which holds my books for me, so all I have to do is turn pages.  Yes, my hands and wrists can handle that.

I’ve read 72 books so far this year.  Let that sink in.  From six a year to seventy-two so far in 2017.  I’m building myself a reading nook, a process that’s a bit stalled, but still.  I’ve signed on to NetGalley and have started requesting books from Amazon Vine again, so I’m getting ARCs in exchange for reviews.  And I’ve won two early readers’ books from Goodreads.

I don’t know if I could ever express the happiness I feel each time a book arrives in the mail, each time I lie down and open a book, knowing that for a couple of hours, I’ll be doing one of the the things I love best.  I just know I’m very fortunate.

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These days, this is what breakfast looks like.