Monthly Archives: May 2014

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellI love nothing more than a story that leaves you feeling like you wandered into a real and complete world, one that existed before you ever turned the first page and will carry on long after you’ve closed the book. In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke has created an absolutely plausible version of 19th century England, where the dusty study of theoretical magic is all that remains of a once great magical tradition.

When Mr. Norrell makes his public debut, he is the only known practical magician in the land. He works hard to keep it that way, squirrelling away all the books of and about magic, hoarding his knowledge like a miser. When Jonathan Strange appears on the scene, Mr. Norrell agrees to take him on as a student and the two men launch an uneven but mutually beneficial partnership–at least at first.

Clarke presents the magical elements of British history in such a matter-of-fact manner (complete with fictional footnotes!) that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that there never was such a thing as the King in the North, the legendary Raven King John Uskglass who ruled over the fairies before returning to England to claim his birthright and usher in a golden age. It’s easy to imagine Casaubon from Middlemarch studying the key to English magic, or John Childermass wandering into a Dickens novel.

While the tension between careless, impulsive, likable Jonathan Strange and his pitiably paranoid mentor drive the story, memorable secondary characters like the wild street magician Vinculus, the unperturbable Duke of Wellington, and the mad cat lady of Padua enliven even the most minor subplots. And in the end, it’s all tied together so brilliantly that I wanted to give the book a big hug. This novel sat on my shelves a long, long time because it was so daggone big–it turned out to be worth its weight in literary gold.

Genre: 19th century-flavored British realistic fantasy.

Read it if: You love classic British novels and would like them even better if they occasionally included sinister fairies; you loved The Once and Future King by T.H. White; you like your characters with human flaws and your endings with just the right dash of sadness.

Skip it if: You like your books short and sweet; you prefer your wizards with wands and your good versus evil; you are allergic to footnotes.

Movie-worthy: Apparently the BBC plans to debut a series based on the book sometime this year. I had mentally cast Tom Hiddleston as Childermass, but you can’t have everything.


The Chunkster Challenge

After three years living in India, we will be moving on this summer. That much I’ve known for a long time, but we recently learned our next destination has changed. Although originally slated to move to Istanbul, we are now headed to Rangoon, Burma (aka Yangon, Myanmar) instead. (Goodbye Orhan Pamuk, hello Pascal Khoo Thwe and George Orwell!)

No matter where we’re going, moving means shedding weight. We’ve already passed on boxes and bags full of outgrown or worn out clothes, little kid toys, and those books that I’ve finally accepted I will never get around to reading. That still leaves a lot of books. So many books.

That’s why I have assigned myself the Chunkster Challenge: to read only the hJonathan Strange and Mr. Norrellefty, huggable hardcovers weighing down my shelves. My first chunkster: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke. I’m on page 400 and around halfway through this marvelous story, set in an alternate version of 19th century England, in which magic and fairies are part of English history and experiencing a revival thanks to two very different magicians. I love it, except when I’m trying to take it with me. My purse is big enough to hold it (that’s a key criteria for any purse of mine) but the book weighs a ton. More incentive to finish it!

Next up on the Chunkster Challenge: Sacred Games by Vikram Seth, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter, and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer which I  inexplicably still have not read despite really, really wanting to.

The hard part will be resisting all those skinny paperbacks which suddenly look so tempting on the shelf, not to mention the books on my Kindle. Truth be told, I am not very good at sticking to resolutions, especially when they are book related. I tend to read whatever I feel like reading, and that’s that. But in this case it’s either read these ginormous books or leave them behind unread. Hopefully that thought will be enough to keep me focused!

Review: How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

How to Tell Toledo from the Night SkyHow do you feel about astrology? Supercolliders? Divine visitations? Lucid dreaming? Scientific method? True love?

In How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, Irene Sparks is a dedicated scientist, focused intently on proving her theory that tiny black holes can be created in a supercollider. She has no time for meaningful relationships; although she has a boyfriend, online game maven Belion, she keeps him around more out of convenience than anything else. In fact, she remains a “virgin from the neck down.”

Meanwhile, George Dermont is a dreamy astronomy professor who’s been plagued by killer migraines–and regularly visited by the gods– since he was a kid. His divine visitors told him one of the big secrets of the universe, and his entire professional career has been devoted to hammering out the details.

Starry-eyed George falls for Irene the moment he sees her, and steely-spined Irene gets an uncharacteristic case of the warm and fuzzies for George as well. What the reader learns long before they do, however, is that their connection is anything but coincidental. Before they were even born, a plan was hatched to create soul-mates born at the same time, on the same day–two children who would grow up to be the perfect couple, literally made for each other.

I had such complicated feelings about this novel until it was almost over. I haven’t read my horoscope since I was a teenager and the idea of astrologically determined soulmates had me grinding my teeth in aggravation. Yet Irene feels the same way, and her insistence on unleavened logic doesn’t seem to be doing her any favors, especially as she grapples with the legacy of her mother’s alcoholism and neglect.  George, on the other hand, may need to find a way to live that isn’t so reliant on prophecies and visions no one else can see.

Netzer skillfully maintains this tension throughout the novel, and as the last page grew closer I became increasingly anxious at how this was going to end. If it had concluded one way, the way I feared it was going to end, I would have been very angry and seriously disliked this book, retroactively hating it all the way back to the beginning. But that didn’t happen; in fact, I thought the ending was perfect and it instantly dissolved most of my misgivings.

Because whatever you think about tea leaves, the stars, or the presence of unseen forces in our lives, Netzer is right about love: it’s completely absurd unless you’re in it, and then suddenly it’s everything.

Genre: Quirktastic novel about love and the stars

Read it if: You think more contemporary novels should feature supercolliders; you read your horoscope every day without fail; you want to ponder deep questions about love, fate and self-determination; you enjoy vividly drawn and entertaining secondary characters; you are a Gemini.

Skip it if: You don’t like ambiguity or magical realism that may not be magical and/or may not be real; you seriously prefer not to read about a (sort of) three-way even if it’s for (sort of) science.

Movie-worthy: I’m not sure who could possibly make this into a movie. They’d have to be really good at dream sequences, that’s for sure.

Review: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

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Valley of the DollsFirst, can I just tell you how happy I am to have escaped from the literary purgatory that is the Valley of the Dolls? I read this 1966 bestseller for book club, and it took sheer force of will to keep reading through the initial chapters. Warning: spoilers ahead!

The story follows three women from their early careers in New York in the mid-1940s to their respective fates twenty years later. It sounded like it would be a fun read–after all the book is known for its racy depictions of sex and drugs. That’s certainly in there, but the whole thing is sordid and sad, mainly because of these women. Their lives and priorities read like some sort of feminist cautionary tale: this is what women used to be like! Shailene Woodley, take heed! There may be scenes in this book that could pass the Bechdel test, but if so, I don’t remember them.

Anne, the central focus of the story, is a gorgeous, poised young college graduate whose only goal in life is to escape Lawrenceville, her suffocatingly small Massachussetts hometown, and especially her emotionally witholding mother. She moves to New York and finds work as a secretary in an agency that provides legal representation for actors and performers. This is how she meets all the important men in her life: Henry, the paternal boss who (mostly) looks out for her; Allen, the guy she pity dates for six weeks thinking he’s an incompetent insurance salesman; Lyon (more on him later); and Kevin, the millionaire widower who ultimately hires her to be the new face of his cosmetics company.

After dating Allen for a while, Anne discovers that he is actually the wealthy son of a millionaire. Allen insists on marrying her, gives her a ginormous ring, and parades her around town. Anne doesn’t love him and repeatedly tells him she doesn’t want to get married. Does she stop returning his calls, refuse his ring, get a restraining order? None of the above. She passively plays along, going out with the guy practically every night, until she gets a shot at Lyon Burke, handsome British would-be writer, who works for Henry and has only recently returned from overseas.

Lyon is a mind-game playing jerk. If Anne disagrees with or resists any decision he puts forward, he smiles wistfully and disappears, apparently forever. When he decides to quit the agency and devote himself to becoming a successful writer, that’s it. He can’t possibly become seriously involved with her when he’s writing. Obviously! He disappears to England and Anne ends up involved with Kevin for something like fourteen YEARS, not because she loves him or he’s especially passionate and amazing, but just because she assumes she can never love anyone like she loves Lyon. In the meantime, she’s made a fortune through her investments, inheritance, and successful career. So there’s that.

The next paragon of womanhood is Jennifer North. She’s got a beautiful face and a rockin’ body–that’s pretty much all she, or we, hear about. Everyone agrees she’s super nice, but she’s also effectively a drug-popping pseudo-prostitute for most of the novel. When she does finally find love–it’s all she ever wanted, a man who loves her and not just her carefully maintained figure!–fate deals her a cruel hand. She commits suicide to avoid a mastectomy that would mar her fiance’s image of the boobs he loves.

And finally, the piece de resistance, Neely. Oh, how I hated Neely. Even as a talented, scrappy kid who just needed a chance, Neely was incredibly grating. Her motto seems to be: why say anything if you can SCREAM it instead? Geez, why not? When she gets a break and heads for the big time in California, she becomes a big movie star–and tosses her poor husband to the curb. She cares about nothing but fame and turns into a selfish monster, boozing it up, living on pills, treating other people like trash. Loyal Anne sticks by her for much longer than she deserves.

All these women care about consistently, all they talk about when they’re alone, is men. How to get one with money, how to get one even though your looks are fading and you’ve put on some weight, how to get the one who treats you like dirt, how to get the one who belongs to someone else. They obsess about age and appearance, use pills (the “dolls” of the title) to depress their appetites, help them sleep, help ease the utter bleakness of their sad little lives.

Even Anne, who’s presented as the rock at the center of this circle of friends, makes such terrible choices that it left me feeling physically ill. Her passivity with Allen was weird, but the way she thinks and talks about her relationship with Kevin was downright disturbing. She didn’t need him emotionally or financially or in any other way, but she was prepared to stay with him until the day he died because…well, I don’t really understand why. She felt sorry for him? She was used to him? Even after Lyon whirls back into town– having had only middling success as an author and now resorting to writing magazine fluff pieces–Anne still would have stayed with Kevin if the older man hadn’t blown it by turning on her in a savage piece of nastiness that ends up driving her into Lyon’s welcoming arms.

Anne goes to great and deceptive lengths to keep Lyon in New York and even succeeds in getting him to marry her. She’s pregnant with their child when he finds out she was secretly backing his business all along. His pride can’t take it–the woman who loves him financed his company! He’s not 100% self-sufficient like he thought he was (although all along he thought Henry was providing the money. Apparently that was okay.) He’s not even mad that she lied, like a normal person might be; he just can’t accept that his wife is supporting him, even temporarily. So what’s a guy to do in that situation? Throw himself completely into his work, have an affair with Neely during her comeback tour and never really love Anne again, OBVIOUSLY!

Ugh, this book. I wanted to reach into the book and shake the characters out of their man-obsessed, drug-addled stupor. Never has anything I’ve read made me so glad to have been born in the 70s.

Genre: Shocking 60s bestseller

Read it if: You want to appreciate your current historical era a little more; you enjoy reading the soap opera-worthy shenanigans of women in cool sixties fashions; you closely follow the antics of Lindsey Lohan and Amanda Bynes.

Skip it if: You are offended by frequent use of slurs against gay people; you can’t stand a passive protagonist who does inexplicable things and suffers a lot; you are not compelled to read it because your book club is not discussing it tonight.

Movie-worthy: Oh, it’s been done already, with Patty Duke as Neely and the doomed Sharon Tate as Jennifer North. I will have to watch it now that I know it exists.

Review: This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

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This Song Will Save Your LifeNormally when I read YA I tend to gravitate toward science fiction and futuristic dystopias, but I made an exception for Leila Sales contemporary YA novel This Song Will Save Your Life. Why? Because I love music and completely agree with that old Nietzsche quote: Without music, life would be a mistake.

I’m sure Elise Dembowski would second that. Elise, a sophomore in high school, has a talent for quickly learning new things, yet the one thing she can’t seem to learn is how to make friends. The kids at her school either don’t know her, don’t want to know her, or don’t want her to make it through a day without knowing how much they despise her.  During the summer before her sophomore year, she devotes herself to studying what it means to be cool: watching movies, reading fashion magazines. Still, when the new school year begins, nothing has changed. In a moment of desperation, Elise cuts herself and makes a phone call that will trigger some major changes in her life, for worse and, eventually, for better.

I doubt that I’m the only one who can relate to Elise when she says that everyone else appears to have read some secret manual on how to be normal. I wish this book had been around when I was in high school to give me some perspective: it could have been worse.

Elise does some crazy things: takes long insomniac walks through her town in the middle of the night, goes home with an older guy whose motives are suspect. Ultimately, she finds her center and is able to filter out the way that others see her, the things they say about her, and keep that separate from what she knows to be true about herself.

While there may be some elements of fantasy wish-fulfillment in the plot, it didn’t take anything away from the power of the story. I do wonder if today’s underground warehouse kids are really listening to the Smiths and putting up Trainspotting posters in their bedrooms–that sentence could have been written when I was still young enough to attend an underground warehouse party. The publisher has helpfully posted a playlist here if you want to check it out.

Although I know this book was written with teens in mind, it mainly made me very glad I’m no longer in high school. Middle age looks pretty good by comparison.

Genre: Contemporary music-loving YA

Read it if: You love music but hate(d) high school; you wonder what the deal is with that weird kid; you are the weird kid.

Skip it if: You are a parent and the thought of your sixteen-year-old daughter sneaking out every night to DJ at a warehouse party full of older kids drinking alcohol triggers an immediate panic attack.

Movie-worthy: The movie of this would certainly have an epic soundtrack.


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Review: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

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The Diamond AgeNeal Stephenson wrote this astonishing feat of world-building in the mid-1990s, and it’s fascinating to see his vision of the future. Nanotechnology has enabled the wealthy to create almost anything imaginable, building whatever’s required from the atoms up. The nation state has ceased to exist, replaced by various tribes known as “phyles” that form along cultural lines and are not limited by geography. An international governing organization known as Protocol makes sure that the rights and privileges of each phyle are respected. For those without a phyle, an underclass known as “thetes,” life is a struggle to rise above the subsistence-level existence guaranteed by free food and clothing.

One of the most respected and powerful phyles, the Atlantans, have adopted the elaborate etiquette and conservative dress of the Victorian era. When a “magic book” originally designed for the granddaughter of an Equity Lord falls into the hands of a four-year-old thete girl named Nell, the course of her life is changed forever.

The book, known as the Primer, is completely interactive. It teaches Nell to read, to think, to defend herself. And Nell needs all the help she can get. Her mother’s boyfriends range from indifferent to dangerously abusive, and Nell’s older brother Harv can only do so much to protect her.

Reading this book in 2014, it’s impossible not to compare the amazing Primer to a souped up iPad. Because Nell is completely unsupervised, she spends countless hours with the book, immersed in everything it has to teach her. Of course it’s not currently possible to create such a comprehensive learning experience individualized to the needs of a single child, but it doesn’t seem completely far-fetched either. It was actually harder to believe that another human would be required to play a part in Nell’s teaching–Miranda, a “ractor” (actor in interactive scenarios), hired at random through the internet to play the role of the Primer whenever Nell played with it.

This book is so full of thought-provoking ideas about what makes us who we are, what tools a person needs to succeed in the world, and how the traditions and belief systems of one generation are transmitted to the next. It’s also a fascinating look at the way nanotechnology could transform global society and minds could be linked on a subconscious level.

I was surprised to realize there is no sequel to this book–I thought it was the first of a series, like the Baroque Cycle. Apparently not. It’s too bad. I would really like to know what ultimately happened to Nell and what she did with everything she had experienced and learned.

Genre: Neo-Victorian post-cyberpunk nanotech SF

Read it if: You are fascinated by questions of identity, affiliation, moral relativism, education and the individual in society; you are intrigued by the idea of a book that could teach even the most underprivileged child how to succeed and stand apart in a world that couldn’t care less about her education or survival.

Skip it if: You have a low tolerance for imaginative vocabulary, writing that demands your full attention at all times, stories within stories, or heartbreaking accounts of abused and neglected children.

Movie-worthy: According to Wikipedia, they tried to adapt this book for a TV miniseries and it was never released. In my opinion, it would take an actual genius to translate this into a movie or miniseries that wasn’t absolutely abysmal.