Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

by Brian Selznick
Selznick's book is like a treasure box full of early twentieth-century delights: magic lanterns and mechanical men, clockworks and secret histories. It's also somewhere between a graphic novel and young-adult literature: the two forms are beautifully integrated and both essential to the storytelling. Hugo Cabret is an orphaned boy carving out an existence in the walls of a Paris train station, continuing his dead uncle's job of setting all the clocks twice a day. If he fails to keep them running, the station master will discover that his uncle had died, and Hugo will evicted from the timekeeper's apartment. With his resources nearly exhausted, Hugo's fate becomes intertwined with those of a mysterious shopkeeper and his granddaughter. The plot is full of exciting twists and turns, some of them revealed only through the moody, atmospheric drawings. Despite its 500 pages, it's just long enough for one breathless night. In the morning, you'll think you dreamed the whole thing.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


by Amy Bloom
Lillian Leyb has come a long way. Something nightmarish has happened to her, far away in the Russian village where she grew up, and we learn of it just that way, in her nightmares; she's reluctant to talk about it with anyone. She's got a new life now, in New York City, and things seem to be going well. With only a very bare-bones English vocabulary, she charms her way into employment, and then into a plush life as mistress to both a handsome star of Jewish theatre and his father. But when a voice from the past gives her a bit of heart-wrenching news, she knows her journey has only just begun.

But of course, Away is not the sort of book you read to find out what happens next. For the reader, as for Lillian, it's all in the journey. Bloom finds the magic and the heartbreak (and, often, the humor) in every situation, and Lillian's hope and despair bleed into us. Away feels somewhere between a novel and a sequence of linked short stories, but she uses her skills to flesh out whole lifetimes in brief, brilliant, flash-forwards. No one Lillian Leyb touches remains unaffected.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman
Weisman has done a crafty thing here; he's written a book capable of inspiring environmental action in its readers, without invoking the usual fears about human survival and quality of life. Starting with the premise that humans have already died off, he imagines life on Earth continuing without us. This can have a strange effect on the reader. First, one is a little embarrassed at how shoddily humankind's seemingly permanent structures and systems were constructed; very little, besides plastics, nuclear waste, and a few bronze sculptures, can last through the ages without constant human maintenance. What does this say about us? It's both disconcerting and reassuring to know that, even if we succeed in making the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and hundreds of other species, we still may not be leaving much of a mark. Weisman takes the reader on a tour around those rare spots on Earth that have been abandoned, including a disputed resort town in Cyprus, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and the area Chernobyl, and we marvel at the speed and strength of nature reclaiming the land. As calm and attractive as an Earth without humans seems, one is mainly left with the sense that there has to be a happy medium; if humankind could reduce its relentless consumption of our planet's resources (especially by slowing or stopping our population growth), we would very swiftly be rewarded with a resurgence of all the beauty our planet has to offer. We haven't rendered the planet terminally ill, we've only endangered ourselves. Let the healing begin.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Voice of Crow

by Jeri Smith-Ready
My wife and I couldn't wait to read Voice of Crow. The book takes up where Eyes of Crow left off, evolving from a coming-of-age story into a more expansive tale that follows many characters and many twists. The fragile happy ending that Rhia, Marek and others earn in the first book comes under threat as they face inevitable internal and external conflicts following their battle with the Descendants.

Smith-Ready introduces new levels of complexities, including prisoners of war on both sides and a journey into the very heart of enemy territory. As the Asermons and Kalindons learn first-hand about the strange land to the south, there's a growing sense that the Ilion attack may have only been the beginning.

Voice of Crow introduces some wonderful new characters and relationships while continuing to follow those we grew to love in the first book. Smith-Ready does a marvelous job of keeping the characters real, while adding depth and scope to the story. Part of that depth comes from including some characters who don't fit perfectly into their given societies, and we were impressed with the book's skillful and sympathetic exploration of issues like homosexuality, disability and post-traumatic stress disorder. We can't say more, for fear of giving away surprises. Great stuff!

Monday, October 29, 2007


by Richard K. Morgan
A few years ago, I attended a talk by Richard Wrangham about the origins of human violence. He proposed the idea that we humans had been domesticating ourselves, over tens of thousands of years, much the way a group of wolves domesticated themselves into dogs. Richard K. Morgan seems to have latched onto this idea, and it led to his latest novel, Thirteen, taking place in a world dealing with the fallout of rampant genetic modification. Turns out that mucking about with human DNA maybe wasn't such a great idea, and most of the products of those experiments have either been killed off or relegated to the margins of society. Carl Marsalis, whose genetic modifications were sponsored by the military, is a "thirteen," created to be a throwback, undoing thousands of years of human domestication. This doesn't make him an evil person, but he has no compulsion to fit into society, and no hesitation about using violence to solve problems. This doesn't endear him to many human beings, most of whom either want to see him dead or to use him for their own purposes. Towards the beginning of the book, he's sprung out of a Florida jail to help hunt down a serial killer -- another thirteen. I don't read a lot of books that are this action-packed and suspenseful. A great ride, with a thoughtful premise.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Arrival

by Shaun Tan
For many of us who grew up in the USA, it's not easy to imagine the immigrant experience. When we travel the world, we often see signs in English, posters for American movies, American restaurants or at least American foods. Shaun Tan, whose parents immigrated from Malaysia to Australia, has created a beautiful analogy in his new graphic novel, The Arrival. Using no words, but 120 pages of breathtaking pencil drawings, Tan creates a world completely foreign to the reader, and brings his hopeful immigrant into it. The writing is unfamiliar, but that's just the beginning. The city, the birds and animals, the food, the local customs, everything the immigrant encounters is strange, daunting, but also wondrous. We watch as he slowly makes his way, registering with the state, finding shelter, finding work, making friends, saving money to send home to his own family, in hopes that they will soon join him. It's an old and universal story, but Tan has brought it home beautifully.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz
What first grabbed me about Diaz' novel was the voice. This is the voice of a friend of yours, telling you about a friend of his. It's immediate, slangy, spanglish, and full of sci-fi references. Besides the voice, you learn little about the narrator until later in the story; all you know is that he can spin a great story, and that he loved Oscar Wao. Oscar is a 400-pound sci-fi fan from the Dominician Republic, living in New Jersey with his mom and sister. Though Dominican men have a reputation as being especially good with "the ladies," Oscar is a hopeless case, as his friends and family often remind him, unless he changes his ways. Years go by, and he still hasn't had his first kiss. As the novel delves into the family history, you start to understand that maybe there's something more sinister at work. Could Oscar just be the latest victim of the family curse? How could Dominicans, who live on the first place Christopher Columbus set foot on in the Americas, NOT believe in curses? How could Oscar's family, who barely survived one of the bloodiest dictatorships in history, start a new life, scot-free? The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, with its mix of hipster style and melancholic magic realism, knocked me out.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

by Brock Clarke
"I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter." So begins one of the most laugh-out-loud tragedies I've read in a while.

Sam is a self-described bumbler, who would probably be a bit behind everyone else even if his adulthood hadn't been artificially delayed by his years in prison. At the age of 18, his life, and possibly his parents' lives, have been ruined by his mistake. After his prison stay, he sets out to begin a normal life, whatever that may mean. His parents seem adrift and resentful (mom's an English teacher and dad's in publishing), even as they go through the motions of being supportive parents. Dad has a cache of letters written to Sam during his prison years, many of them threatening, but, disturbingly, a few from people who'd like to see other author's homes burned down. Then the son of the couple killed in Sam's fire shows up at his door. And soon other writers homes, all of them nearby, start to go up in flames.

This was that odd combination of page-turner and literary finesse; it seemed to be about much more than Sam's story: the weight of history, the fragility of intention, and the secrets that burn us up.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Eyes of Crow

by Jeri Smith-Ready
Rhia is a young woman growing up in a tribal society a thousand years after our own. In her village, everyone grows up with a strong connection to a spirit animal. Her mother is an Otter, which gives her the power to be a masterful healer. Her brothers are Wolverines, which makes them excellent fighters. Rhia, who spent most of her childhood sick and close to death, finds herself coming to grips with her own powers: she is destined to become a Crow, which means she will help people cross over to the Other Side when they die. This is, of course, a very important position to hold in her community, but also a heavy burden to carry.

Smith-Ready has created a believable world, not too far from our own, in which the magic is subtle, spiritual and natural. Her characters are rich and multilayered, completely relatable. I can't wait to read the next book in the trilogy, Voice of Crow, which comes out in October.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Pesthouse

by Jim Crace
Once while I was reading Jared Diamond's Collapse and staying in a resort hotel, my subconscious was apparently seized with the imbalance of the modern world and I had an early morning post-collapse vision; the hotel was in ruins, picked clean, abandoned and overgrown with weeds. Jim Crace's novel takes place in that world, a thousand years after life as we know it has collapsed. Franklin is a tall young man, traveling with his brother to the east, where they hope to sail across the Atlantic to a better life. Along the way, Franklin meets Margaret, who has been left to die (or to heal) after showing signs of the flux, a plague-like disease. Franklin and Margaret end up sharing their journey, through strange hamlets and the rubble of cities, meeting other travelers as well as those who profit by leading travelers astray. Unlike McCarthy's The Road, The Pesthouse is somehow hopeful, believing in the beauty of the American spirit, even after all our works have been reduced to weeds and ruin.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Un Lun Dun

by China Mieville
Not being a huge fan of conventional fantasy, I was curious to hear of China Mieville's effort to turn its conventions inside out with his first young-adult novel, Un Lun Dun. His protagonist, Zanna, travels, along with her wisecracking friend, Deeba, into a strange, topsy-turvy London, where she finds out her destiny: she's the only one who can save this world. So far, nothing new. But, as so often happens in Un Lun Dun, things quickly turn upside-down and backwards and inside-out, leaving the prophecies in tatters and the Chosen One un-chosen. Can the quirky sidekick become the heroine she was never supposed to be? Mieville populates his bizarro London with dozens of bizarre personalities, some adorable, some ridiculous, some truly frightening. A fun and imaginative ride, with some very memorable moments.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood
Offred is a "handmaid" in a society very different from ours, but potentially only a few years away. Her only purpose in life is to bear a child for the Commander and his wife, who, like so many, can't conceive a child. Once a month, she's the center of the Ceremony, when the Commander's wife holds her and the Commander does his best to impregnate her. Offred remembers a different life, though, when she had her own name (not "of-Fred"), a loving husband and daughter, a job at the library, where she was allowed to read, to vote, to make her own decisions, travel wherever she wanted, use birth control, wear makeup, use her voice.

With The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood accomplished not only a staggering work of speculative fiction, but also a great literary thriller. It chills me to the bone, and reminds me to keep an eye on fundamentalists, no matter what their religion. Long live our hard-won bill of rights.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Yiddish Policemens Union

by Michael Chabon
In the late 1930s, FDR's Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, came up with a solution for the millions of Jews leaving Europe: give them a temporary home in Alaska. No one, (save, well, the natives) was using that land, and here are all these people with no place to go. Give them 50 years up there, and when the middle east cools down, they can move to their promised land. Ickes' idea died when it got to Congress. But in Michael Chabon's latest novel, the idea became a reality, and now, in 2007, for the 3 million Jews' living in the frozen metropolis of Sitka, Alaska, time is running out. Meyer Landsman, a down-on-his-luck detective, couldn't care less; he's more interested in solving the murder of a man living downstairs from him in the same shabby apartment building. Landsman's investigations take him into every nook and cranny of this strange but familiar city, which seems the perfect noir setting. In fact, Sitka exaggerates all the noir conventions beautifully. Not only does our hero struggle with his melancholic streak, his entire culture does. Not only is he living on borrowed time, the whole city is. Evocatively written, imaginative, poignant and darkly funny.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


by Jon Clinch
Why take a side character from one of America's most beloved novels and spin him off into his own book? Was it really necessary? Maybe not. But Twain does seem to invite it, leaving what amounts to an unsolved mystery in the middle of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Huck and Jim find, floating on the river, an old house occupied by a dead man shot in the back and a host of strange objects. The walls are covered in ghastly pictures and symbols. We later realize the corpse belonged to Huck's ne'er-do-well father. Who shot him? How did the house end up in the river? What is the meaning of the collected items and the decorated walls?

Jon Clinch goes beyond the meticulous solution of this mystery to create an unforgettable character of his own. Finn is an awful man; a drunkard, racist, thief, murderer, rapist, and, arguably, a slave-owner. His life follows a logic of its own, more a matter of physics -- like the steamboat Finn witnesses one night exploding into flames -- than any real intention. Finn doesn't seem like someone you'd want to spend time with, but at the same time he's fascinating, and, sad to say, not the worst man on the river. There's a self-destruction waiting in many of us, and Finn rides it all the way to the end, even as some abused and forgotten part of his soul struggles to make things right.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Everything Bad is Good for You

by Steven Johnson
In The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher took a staple subject of opinion columns everywhere -- the idea that the English language (or whatever language one happens to speak) is going downhill -- and refuted it by way of a grand tour of the evolution of language. Steven Johnson does the same thing, though somewhat less grandly, with a similar idea: pop culture is in steep decline. He argues that, while there will always be plenty of dreck, the complexity of mainstream popular culture is generally increasing, and that requires more active intellectual engagement than ever before. While one could easily sit back and let Dragnet or Starsky and Hutch wash over you, one actually has to stay sharp to keep up with the multiple plotlines in Veronica Mars or 24. Video games such as The Sims require the player to juggle dozens of variables, as opposed to Pac Man's "eat or be eaten" scenario or Frogger's "be careful crossing the street."

Johnson is careful not to say that any of this new media could or should replace more traditional media; as cognitively beneficial as today's fast-paced, multi-level media may be, nothing can replace the benefits of a good book. But he does strongly feel that brains will always be attracted to challenges, not stupefaction, and our culture reflects that as strongly today as it ever has.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Life As We Knew It

by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Miranda, a 16-year-old girl in Pennsylvania, writes in her diary about her frustrations with her mom, her fixation on a handsome Olympic figure skater, her friends at school, and the upcoming astronomical event her teachers are encouraging the kids to watch: an asteroid will hit the moon, and should be visible from Earth. Miranda and her family watch that night, with others on their street, as the moon is not only hit but pushed into a new orbit. Cheers turn to screams as the moon grows disarmingly large in the sky. Before anyone has time to think about the implications, power starts to go out. Familiar sources of information are no longer available, as the major television stations go off the air. News trickles into town that massive tsunamis have killed millions living in coastal areas around the world. And that's just the beginning. Pfeffer keeps the story focused on Miranda's world, as it grows smaller and less certain. It's a terrifying and hopeful tale, wonderfully detailed and human, one of the most riveting books I've read in a while.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Who Needs Donuts?

by Mark Alan Stamaty
As a third grader who, for the first time in my life, could see all the details of the world, thanks to my brand-new eyeglasses, I became addicted to visual detail. Others seemed to take for granted all the tiny holes in the ceiling tiles, the slow swirls of wood grain in the back of a chair. I was entranced. Stamaty's 1973 children's book, Who Needs Donuts, seems to be the product of someone who not only saw the detail but celebrated it in glorious pen and ink on every inch of the page. The story is fairly simple: a boy goes on a quest for donuts, into the bustling city. This is probably the way cities bustled for me as a child: every building is covered with signs and obscure advertisements and windows full of people going about their lives. Everyone on the street seems to be on their own bizarre quest, and the streets are full of fast-moving vehicles of every shape and purpose. Stamaty hides visual and verbal puns everywhere among the busy-ness. Lots of fun.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party

by M. T. Anderson
Almost a year too late, I finally got to read the book I was hungering for after I finished David Mitchell's incredible Cloud Atlas. Octavian Nothing shares many of the same themes, and Anderson is similarly adept at creating memorable voices. Octavian is a boy growing up with his mother in pre-revolutionary Boston in a house full of scientists. Like many kids, it takes him a while to realize that his upbringing is somewhat out-of-the-ordinary. For one thing, he and his mother are the only ones in the house who have names; everyone else is numbered. Everything that goes into, or comes out of, Octavian's body is weighed and made note of. He is taught Latin and Greek and to play the violin. He knows nothing of his father, only that his mother is an African princess, and perhaps this is the reason for the special treatment. Perhaps not. The larger world slowly creeps in to Octavian's consciousness: rumors of a coming Revolution, the realities of slavery, the pending financial ruin of the scientific commune upon which Octavian and his mother depend. This is a dark novel, with the feel of a fantasy, though all of it could have happened in that place and time. Anderson has done his research, and brings to life the horrors of slavery and the precariousness of life during wartime. Octavian himself is unforgettable.