Review: The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

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Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

I was sufficiently intrigued by the unusual title and lovely cover of this book to pick it up; it was only after I was half-way through that I noticed the superlative blurb on the cover: “Funny, sad, scary, and beautiful. I love it.” –URSULA K. LE GUIN

Okay, if I’d needed any additional incentive to start reading, such stellar praise from one of my favorite authors would have done the trick.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat deserves the praise.The story opens with Josephine, a young woman in desperate need of a job, interviewing with an unnervingly faceless bureaucrat. Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have been hard hit by an ongoing economic crisis, and jobs are scarce, so she is happy to take any job, even one as monotonous as this position appears to be.

Her sole duty is to enter apparently meaningless strings of letters and numbers from a paper file into a corresponding record in a computer database. It is mind-numbing work, and as someone who once did data entry as a temp back in the day, I can confirm that Phillips perfectly captures the emotional ups and downs of performing a stupefying function, the little treats and breaks that become essential to staying sane.

In Josephine’s case, sanity is under considerably more threat than usual. The walls bear the smudges of past employees’ fingerprints, and it would seem, the scratch marks from their nails. Josephine’s quest to get answers to the simplest of questions–where is a vending machine?–proves truly Kafkaesque as she encounters misinformed doppelgangers and endless identical floors. Worse still, she’s not allowed to speak to anyone about her job as a condition of employment, even as her misgivings grow.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Joseph becomes strained, smothered under the weight of unspoken secrets. They moved to the city together from their childhood home in the “hinterland,” optimistic that their love would see them through despite the skepticism of their families. They have been trying to have a baby, without success. As they move from one sad sublet to the next, Joseph begins to disappear without explanation. Josephine fears that someone is following her and somehow, missed delivery notices appear on the doorstep of each place they live, even though she’s given no one the address.

The tension and suspense continue to build throughout this strangely lovely story, and the author brilliantly balances the realities of young love, tedious work, and financial insecurity with the surreal existential logic of a recurring dream.

Genre: Surreal literary fiction.

Read it if: You enjoy Kafka, pomegranates, and novels set in the workplace; you know what it’s like to be young, broke, and in love; or you are willing to take Ursula K. Le Guin’s word for it that this is a really great book.

Skip it if: You have a deep-seated fear of bad breath; you prefer strict adherence to logic over surreal office work; you are pretty sure “beautiful bureaucrat’ is an oxymoron.

Movie-worthy: Totally. I was picturing Tilda Swinton as Josephine’s faceless boss the entire time.


Review: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Imagine the chance to find a group of like-minded people who welcome you with open arms, people who just get you, who understand what you mean before you even say it. In The Affinities, author Robert Charles Wilson conjures a future in which taking a series of tests offered by the company Inter Alia can open up a whole new world of social harmony. Adam Fisk, unhappy with his unsatisfactory friendships and dysfunctional family, makes the decision to give the testing service a try, with remarkable results.

Adam discovers a social network that offers support and comfort unlike anything he’s experienced before. Others in his affinity group, the Taus, offer him a place to live after his family cuts him off financially, and hire him when he needs a job. He develops a fierce and lasting loyalty to the Taus and works to defend his group against the machinations of their increasingly powerful nemesis, the Hets.

Not everyone who takes the Inter Alia tests is so lucky. Only about 65% of those who try the service are actually assigned to one of the 22 affinity groups named (somewhat randomly) after the letters of the Phoenician alphabet. As the affinities take on greater importance in society, opposition to them also grows. Meanwhile, those who belong to an affinity group increasingly cut themselves off from outsiders, even finding it difficult to communicate with them on the most basic level. Adam loves his fellow Taus, but he never loses his empathy for those outside his group, and this eventually leads to conflict.

I love science fiction that focuses on society and The Affinities is an excellent example of the genre, taking a current societal trend to its potential extreme. People increasingly tend to seek out the company and opinions of others who share their views and outlook on life, but what are the potential consequences of this preference for similarity? What happens when you exclude from your social circle anyone whose perspective differs from your own?

The author resists the temptation to spell out all the specific characteristics that make you a Tau, a Het, or one of the other affinity groups, and in fact doesn’t even describe most of them. That means no chance to guess which affinity you belong to, no sorting yourself into Candor or Abnegation. While the technology to assign people to affinity groups doesn’t yet exist, we’re already sorting ourselves on Facebook, Fox News and Farmers Would we jump at the chance to make it scientific? I’m guessing we probably would.

Genre: Social science fiction.

Read it if: You are intrigued by fiction that explores ongoing social trends; you dream of finding people who truly understand you, preferably with the help of an algorithm; you enjoy books like The Circle by Dave Eggers and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

Skip it if: You are looking for the next Divergent; you prefer your science fiction more hard than not; you categorically refuse to read books set largely in Canada.

Movie-worthy: Sure, why not.

Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

I know Felicia Day primarily from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Joss Whedon mini-masterpiece Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, her web show The Guild and guest turns doing things like bowling with Chris Hardwick. She always seemed like an incredibly well-adjusted super nerd, living the super nerd dream. In reality, she has suffered her share of ups and downs, and worked incredibly hard to forge her own unique path to stardom.

In this engaging and sometimes hilarious memoir, Day describes her highly unusual childhood. Haphazardly homeschooled from an early age, she had the freedom to pursue her interests and the help of a series of tutors to cultivate her talents as a singer and violinist. She also had virtually no social interaction with kids her own age. In a way, this was freeing; basically, she could be as weird as she wanted with little feedback from her peers to shut her down. On the other hand, it was lonely and isolating, until she found internet friends through one of the first online fantasy games, Ultima.

Day entered college at 16 on a violin scholarship and double-majored in violin and math. She still lived a largely sheltered life throughout her college years, because she was younger than everyone else, lived at home, and spent all her daylight hours either practicing violin or studying. When she graduated, she went to California to pursue a career as an actor, and for the first time her work ethic and superstar grades were no help. She was making a living, but not achieving her dream of success.

That’s when her brother introduced her to World of Warcraft. She quickly went from playing the game as a fun stress reliever to obsessively devoting all her waking hours to it. Her addiction cost her a significant amount of time and emotional energy but in the end she was able to break free, and she used her experience to write a pilot for The Guild, about a group of hardcore WoW gamers. When TV execs passed on the script for the pilot, Day recruited friends and volunteers to make the show happen.

Although the show enjoyed several years of success, when it finally came to an end, Day had difficulty accepting the inevitable. She recounts her struggle with burn-out stress, depression and suicidal ideation. When she finally sought help, it turned out that her problems had at least some physical basis: an undiagnosed thyroid condition, fibroids, and an unpleasant esophogeal problem. She notes how messed up it is that she was willing to see a doctor for physical problems when she’d ignored her emotional and mental health for so long. The good news: she is feeling much better these days and is back to her old creative self (hence this book.)

As an epilogue, Day addresses some of the horrific bullying and harassment that have taken place as part of the whole GamerGate nightmare. I am no gamer myself, but it is bizarre to me that anyone would seek to exclude people from an activity they enjoy or try to create an atmosphere of fear in what should be an inclusive community.

Day is a deft and engaging writer, willing to relate even the most awkward and embarrassing anecdotes. And Joss Whedon wrote the foreword! Reason enough to read it right there.

Genre: Geek celebrity memoir.

Read it if: You’ve ever faced major obstacles to achieving your creative dreams; you’ve ever felt like the biggest geek in the room; you’ve ever become a little bit too dependent on the internet (I still miss you, Farmville!)

Skip it if: You have never heard of Joss Whedon, World of Warcraft, Nichelle Nichols, Supernatural, or ComicCon; you dislike curse words and/or fun with Photoshop.

Movie-worthy: Mmm, no. But maybe someone should start a “Behind the Geek” bio series, like “Behind the Music” but with more cosplay. I would totally watch that!




Review: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

In J.G. Ballard’s hypnotic, nightmarish 1962 novel The Drowned World, the planet is heating up, the seas have risen to cover the world’s cities, and the last remnant of humanity clings to survival in Greenland. If this sounds like a prescient take on climate change, that’s not quite the point; the throbbing sun in Ballard’s surreal vision heralds the world’s devolution into a reptilian-dominated lagoon and man’s return to a more primitive state.

Kerans, a scientist born after the cataclysmic floods, is attached to a military squad tasked with visiting the once great cities of Europe and testing the environment. He holds himself apart from the other men, choosing to reside in an air-conditioned suite in the ruins of the Ritz, traveling by boat to the testing station and to visit the city’s lone resident, a mysterious woman named Beatrice Dahl.

Beatrice lives in a state of dazed inertia in a high-rise hotel suite, surrounded by the last trappings of her family’s formerly opulent lifestyle. When the military unit, headed by Colonel Riggs, announce their imminent departure, it is expected that Beatrice will leave with them. The temperature is going up, massive rainstorms are headed straight for them, and soon the area will be completely uninhabitable. Yet Beatrice is resolved to stay behind, and Kerans is inclined to stay with her.

Haunting dreams of a pulsing, ancient sun call to Beatrice, Kerans, and his colleague, the much older scientist Bodkin. Bodkin remembers the city from his childhood, before the floods forced his family to flee. Ultimately all three refuse to leave, eluding the efforts of Colonel Riggs to compel their departure. The three spend their days in torpor and isolation, sleeping through the worst of the heat and ceding the lagoons to the giant iguanas, until the arrival of a brutal scavenger named Strangman and his crew.

Strangman believes Bodkin, Kerans, and Beatrice have information about hidden treasures in the swamped city and his initial creepy hospitality quickly turns to menace once he realizes they have no secrets to reveal. Strangman’s African crew are depicted as little better than beasts, and Kerans is eventually offered up as a sacrifice to appease their bloodthirst.

While the plot includes scenes of action and violence, events take place in such a suffocating atmosphere of tropical torpor that even the prospect of death is viewed through a heat-stroked haze of indifference. Ballard describes the lethargy that overcomes Kerans and the others in terms that evoke a return to the womb, and the scientists discuss man’s descent along the “spinal levels” of evolution, a change foretold in their dreams and one they apparently accept as inevitable.

The moody drowned world of this novel possesses the mind like a fever dream. I was happy to finally shake it off, but its unsettling effects linger on.

Genre: Surreal tropical dystopia.

Read it if: You live somewhere really cold and/or dry; you wish Heart of Darkness had included an army of crocodiles; you fantasize about having an air-conditioned suite at the Ritz during the end of the world.

Skip it if: Your malaria meds are already giving you vivid waking nightmares; your air conditioner isn’t working; you prefer dystopias with a young “chosen one” protagonist who will eventually save the world.

Movie-worthy: It would be a super-trippy movie, very artsy, possibly French.





Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Fans of the Patricia Highsmith novel Strangers on a Train or the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name will recognize the initial set-up: a random encounter between two travelers leads to a murder plot. In The Kind Worth Killing, author Peter Swanson uses this familiar starting point to launch into a twisty and unsettling tale worthy of Patricia Highsmith herself.

Ted first meets Lily in an airport bar in London. A few gin martinis and the anonymity of international travel lead to a very frank conversation about Ted’s recent discovery that his wife Miranda is cheating on him with their building contractor. When he admits that he would like to kill his wife, Lily isn’t shocked or horrified. If anything, she’s encouraging. When they both end up seated in first class on the same flight back to the United States, they make an agreement to meet again if Ted decides he’s serious about wanting to go through with the murder.

At this point in the book, I was enjoying the vivid characters but I also felt reasonably sure I knew where things were going. Nope! The story takes one unexpected turn after another and the suspense and tension build throughout.

As a protagonist, Lily Kintner follows in the footsteps of Tom Ripley and other sociopath anti-heroes. She has her own strange moral code, but no trace of a conscience. It’s always unsettling to realize you’re almost rooting for someone so cold-heartedly lethal, and the author plays on that ambivalence as Lily teeters on the edge of discovery. That unnerving tension continues right up until the satisfying conclusion.

Genre: Suspenseful, deliciously twisty psychological thriller.

Read it if: You loved The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, Swanson’s first book; you are a fan of Patrician Highsmith and/or Alfred Hitchcock; you are particularly fond of anti-heroes and unexpected twists.

Skip it if: You like to feel unambiguously supportive of your main character; you only like thrillers when you can successfully guess the ending; or you are cheating on your spouse and nervous about your life expectancy.

Movie-worthy: Yes, please!



Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney

Where did I get this book? I read it on my Kindle.

Where did I get this book? I read it on my Kindle.

First, some trivia: wrestlers mentioned in passing in this novel, which first appeared in 1966, are named Ruby and Python, just like the two coding languages. Coincidence? Maybe, but it would make sense if computer language developers were inspired by this book considering the subject matter: the eponymous Babel-17 is a uniquely efficient language, unlike any other known to the Alliance. Transmissions in the mysterious language have been detected at the sites of several acts of sabotage. Because the Alliance is at war with an enemy coalition known as the Invaders, they need to quickly and quietly resolve the mystery.

They turn to Rydra Wong, a linguist with an uncanny gift for mastering and comprehending languages. She also happens to be a famous poet and a certified ship’s captain. Rydra wastes no time putting together a crew and, with the full support of the Alliance, she sets out to find the next targeted site and prevent the attack.

As she bonds with her crew, the density of Babel-17 as a language continues to amaze her. In just a few words, the language conveys an extraordinary amount of specific information. It changes the way she perceives the world when she thinks in it. This idea, that the nature of a language can shape the nature of perception, is further explored when Rydra meets a man called Butcher, who lacks any understanding of the words “I” and “you.” Drawn to Butcher, Rydra uncovers the secret truth about Babel-17 and its import for the future of the Alliance.

The future envisioned in Babel-17 combines old-school technology like radio and flashing lights with “discorporate” (i.e., dead) crew fulfilling essential functions on the ship and institutionalized polyamory. Some of these details are interesting, but it’s the language aspect that held my attention. Rydra’s efforts to understand Babel-17 and trace it to its source lead her to finally solve the enigma of her own strange gifts. It’s also kind of awesome that she essentially has rock star status as a poet.

Genre: Science fiction with a xenolinguistic spin.

Read it if: You speak Klingon or Dothraki; you would like to see the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis explored in a science fictional setting; you want to read all the books mentioned in Jo Walton’s brilliant novel Among Others.

Skip it if: You only read books from this century, no matter what century they’re set in; you have a worm phobia; you think everyone should just learn English.

Movie-worthy: It’s probably too late for that.


Review: The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Jane, a 34-year-old archivist at the Chester Museum, is haunted. Haunted, not only by a tragic incident that occurred when she was fifteen, but also by an indeterminate number of spirits who follow her life in hopes of learning something crucial about who they once were. Even to each other they are mostly voices: the soft-spoken one, the poet, the theologian, the idiot. Jane has no idea that they exist.

Now the Chester Museum is closing, but Jane is unable to concentrate on finding a new job or even carrying out her final duties. She is distracted by the prospect of seeing someone from her past for the first time in 20 years, a meeting that will send her tidy life off the rails. She takes refuge in the search for answers to a long overlooked mystery: the story of N., a young woman who apparently disappeared from the Whitmore insane asylum in the mid-19th century.

Perhaps it’s Jane’s fixation with the past that draws the others to her. They watch over her shoulder as she examines documents from the old asylum and the Farrington household at Inglewood, places that are familiar to some of them. They cling to flashes of recognition and debate the meaning of their own persistence.

While Jane and her unseen companions are able to put some mysteries to rest, other questions will never be answered. This lyrical and thought-provoking novel suggests that Jane, and the reader, will have to learn to live with that uncertainty.

Genre: A literary blend of contemporary and historical fiction, with a dash of the supernatural for good measure.

Read it if: You like your genres fluid, your protagonists conflicted, and your endings ambiguous.

Skip it if: You are strongly anti-ghost; you dislike reading about 19th-century British people roaming about in nature; you can’t stand it when a novel ends with the main character writing down the first line of the actual novel you just read.

Movie-worthy: Everyone would say the book was better.

Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Where did I get this book? I won it from The Writers' Table!

Where did I get this book? I won it from The Writers’ Table!

First, a confession: I did not love Elizabeth Gilbert’s smash bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. Like many other readers, I envied Gilbert’s amazing opportunity to travel the world and write a book about the experience, but I couldn’t imagine going to Italy and not setting foot in a single museum. As a broke grad student spending a precious two weeks in Rome and Florence, I ate yogurt straight out of the container in grocery store parking lots just so I could afford admission to the Uffizi Gallery; the thought of ignoring frescoes in favor of pesto strikes me as borderline sacrilegious.

So when I won this Advance Reader’s Copy of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear from the delightful Eleanor Brown’s website The Writers’ Table, I was curious but skeptical. Would the advice be to travel to India and meditate? Or would it be something I could use?

I’m happy to say Big Magic far exceeded my expectations. With humor and self-deprecation, Gilbert skillfully explores the contradictions of creative life, especially the need to balance devotion to art with the reality that external validation may never come. She embraces the viewpoint that creative living should be an essentially joyful pursuit, not a tormented path of suffering focused on ultimate material or critical reward.

She also rejects the idea that most creative individuals should expect to make a living from their art, noting that dreams can suffocate under that kind of burden. Instead of self-serious perfectionism, Gilbert advocates for the playful “highly disciplined half-ass” approach to creativity. Just show up every day, keep working at it, trust that what you’re doing makes your life better–regardless of whether the world ever recognizes its value. It may only ever be valuable to you, and that’s enough.

There is something so liberating about her take on this, and it really resonated with me. Granted, I am not entirely sold on the more mystical aspects of her approach–I doubt the Earth loves me and I’m skeptical that Creativity has any feelings about me or anything else for that matter. But hey, I understand what she’s saying: you have to be open to the flow of ideas, wherever it is they come from. You have to trust that good things will happen if you keep working.

Who knows, maybe mysterious forces of the universe are at work–it does feel like this book came at exactly the right time for me. It’s been about a year since I’ve been able to focus on writing, a particularly tumultuous and difficult year. Reading Big Magic reminded me how important that part of my life really is to me, how much I need it. And “highly-disciplined half-ass” is not only an achievable life goal, it could basically be the subtitle to my autobiography. If I’m waiting around for someone to give me permission to write again, it’s going to be a long wait. Instead, I just need to park myself in a chair and make the magic happen.

Genre: Creativity self-help guide.

Read it if: You are considering pursuing a creative dream; you have doubts about your qualifications to live a creative life; or you wonder if you’ll ever make or write something worth sharing.

Skip it if: You have zero interest in exploring your creative side, or you’re already so in tune with the universe that you don’t need any advice.


Review: Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris

Where did I get this book? From the library.

Where did I get this book? From the library.

I checked out a copy of this book at my local library after an exciting plot twist in my own life: I had passed the online Jeopardy test and been invited to audition for Jeopardy. So I didn’t read this with the distant objectivity of a reader, but with the fervent attention of a student seeking knowledge from the master.

Bob Harris mostly delivers. He describes his rise to champion status after a five-time win in humorous and self-deprecating terms, and he doesn’t hold back on the initial shame he felt after a major crash and burn at his first Tournament of Champions. Interwoven with details of his Jeopardy experience are elements of his personal life: the memory of his late father, the health struggles his sister faces, the ups and downs of his career as a stand-up comic, the fate of his relationship at the time of his most intense Jeopardy study sessions.

More than anything, I was amazed at the intense and methodical nature of Harris’ efforts to mentally prepare himself for Jeopardy. He spent long hours and weeks cramming knowledge into his brain, using quirky mnemonics that often involved vivid off-color imagery to keep it locked in.

At first this strategy struck me as absurdly elaborate. After trying my own scaled-down version of it, though, I have to say it really works. (Go ahead, ask me an African capital! I’ve finally got them down!) The key for me seems to be a simple visual cue that I can associate with the correct answer (e.g., a bright red Santa hat in the center of New Mexico, to remind me the capital is Santa Fe.) They are also very idiosyncratic; a picture of Bam-Bam from the Flintstones and a baby girl to remind me that Bamako is the capital of Mali (my baby niece is named Molly.)

While Harris has a slightly cornball sense of humor, his deeply personal account of his Jeopardy experience makes for an interesting and enlightening read.

Now on to the audition! It’s happening this Tuesday–I’ll let you know how it goes.

Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Where did I get this book? I requested an ARC from the publisher, and they sent me one!

Where did I get this book? I requested an ARC from the publisher, and they sent me one!

Ten people are on board a small private plane when it leaves Martha’s Vineyard for New York. Eighteen minutes after take-off, the plane plummets into the ocean, the reason for the crash a mystery.

One man, a middle-aged painter named Scott Burroughs, survives and manages to save a four-year-old child. Scott quickly becomes the object of media obsession and government scrutiny. Why was he on the plane? How did he live through the crash? Was it part of a conspiracy or a terrorist plot? Or is he just lucky?

Scott has spent the last year on Martha’s Vineyard trying to start over. His youthful promise as an artist never bloomed into true success and he spent far too much time drinking himself into oblivion. With a year of sobriety behind him and a new series of paintings to show, Scott has finally found a cautious hope for the future when he accepts a ride on the doomed plane. The circumstances that led him to be on the flight, the chance moments that allowed him to survive: do they mean something, or are they simply random coincidences in a world determined by chance?

Thematically, Before the Fall reminded me a bit of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; the author looks at each passenger on the flight in turn, examining each life and the path that led to that plane at that moment. Ben Kipling, a rich banker involved in some shady dealings, and his wife Sarah. Maggie Bateman, the woman who invites Scott to join them on the flight to New York; her husband David, the plane’s owner and the head of a polarizing 24-hour news channel; their nine-year-old daughter, Rachel, who had survived a kidnapping as a toddler. The family bodyguard, Gil Baruch. Pilot James Melody, and his crew Emma Lightner and co-pilot Charlie Busch.

As the search for the plane’s flight recorder and black box drags on, conspiracy theories thrive and speculations about Scott’s private life spread unchecked. Judged on plot alone, this novel is a fantastic read, a suspenseful search for the truth. Yet it is also a thoughtful and moving look at the myriad choices that make a life.

When I requested this ARC, I didn’t know much about it.  Before the Fall wildly exceeded my (admittedly non-existent) expectations. The official publication date is May 31, 2016–I predict a Gone Girl-level runaway bestseller!

Genre: Suspenseful disaster novel that will make you ponder the existential mysteries of life.

Read it if: You love books that hook you immediately and refuse to let go until you’ve reached the end; you enjoy plots that involve art and artists; you like your suspenseful thrillers with a heaping helping of deft characterization and compassionate humanity.

Skip it if: You have a phobia about air travel; you dislike strong language; you have a lot of things to do and can’t afford to stay up all night reading this book.

Movie-worthy: YES. This would make a fantastic movie. I demand to see this movie!