Google Meets Manutius

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel, by Robin Sloan

I read this book on an e-reader. Specifically, the library app on my iPad. I feel like there should be some sort of subsection of academia out there that focuses on interactions such as this, meldings of the old world with the new, if there isn’t already (I’m almost positive there is, but I don’t know what one would call that; media studies? But it feels like it should be so much more…). That thought kept striking me as I read this book, which tries, I think, to be a part of that discussion: how does old media (i.e., books) hold up to new (let’s say, Google)? Does new media have any place in untangling the mysteries offered in old media? Is there any mystery there?

It’s something to think about. It’s also a red herring.

I say the book tries to be part of that conversation. I think it’s a very cool concept, and certainly the book is worth a read if that conversation is something you’re interested in. However, it’s very flatly written, a chessboard where Sloan could’ve given us a 3D journey. When I checked it out, the genre was labeled as “magical realism.” I hate to give away too much of anything, but I found the story to be magical in the way that books themselves are: transporting, engaging, elevating, but ultimately very real, everyday objects, not magical in and of themselves.

The characters themselves were collections of very pleasant quirks. Sloan’s protagonist, Clay, has apparently never met anyone he didn’t ultimately find uniquely talented and interesting. That’s a nice enough trait for a character. It threw me when that trait was almost universally rewarded. Maybe I’m too cynical?

Ultimately, this book is very optimistic. You will not be rewarded for navel-gazing or misanthropy. This is a book for hopers and dreamers, for readers and doers.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

Just So-So Stories

I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning reading Rob Lowe’s book, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. The late hour was not due to any exceptional interest in the book (though I am a sucker for good Hollywood gossip) nor any other particular qualities. I just really wanted to finish reading it.

 

To those who would shame my interest in decades-old drama, be content with the knowledge that I did not get what I came for. As an author, Lowe pulls his punches. There are no villains in Rob Lowe’s life. He seems remarkably well-adjusted despite the childhood trauma of his parents’ divorce, and subsequent stardom and infamy. Lowe spends the first third of the book talking about that childhood, while the rest is divided into the making of “The Outsiders,” and, incredibly, he manages to cram everything since then into the final third. The most arguably eventful period of his life is glossed over, and even the “villains” of his story (the writer who coined the term “Brat Pack” comes to mind) are given free passes for having screwed him over.

 

This did not feel like a book of stories Lowe only tells his friends. This felt like a book of anecdotes Lowe might share with the neighbors at the block party. It does not feel intimate, but it does feel sincere. He approaches California, fancy new jobs and fancy new neighbors with a midwesterner’s awe. He is not Sam Seaborn. He is not Chris Traeger. As actors go, he seems to have spent the last two decades demurring from the spotlight as far as his personal life goes. And that’s fine, and probably makes for a very happy, satisfying life. However, it doesn’t make for a very interesting book.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

 

Sure, I’d like to do cool sh*t.

It’s the title. The impish little asterisk accentuated by Crayola-colored block print on a field of black. The irreverence of such a scatological term in a title, of all places. Maybe you knew Miki Agrawal before you picked up Do Cool Sh*t, as the owner of WILD, or maybe, like me, you’d heard of her latest endeavor, Thinx, before you ever heard the name of the “Bohemian Capitalist” (that one’s from the Grey Lady herself, not me). But what drew me to the book was definitely the title.

I mean, who doesn’t want to do cool sh*t? When I began reading, I didn’t know exactly what Agrawal’s cool sh*t credentials were, but the title alone made me feel like she got it. As I read on, I found a fount of vignettes from her life, warts and all, that helped develop her current success. If you’re interested, by all means, check it out, as I did, at the library, but I will share her wisdom here: a fearless attitude and the ability to ask for things will get you far.

Perhaps that is oversimplifying things a bit. But while I found myself occasionally rolling my eyes at her rather singular life experiences, I never felt that I had to recreate those experiences in order to duplicate her success. I think if I were an extrovert, that would get me farther than Agrawal’s degree from Cornell, or her extremely close relationship with her twin sister, or her aborted soccer career. Relationships (in general) and expressing gratitude seem to be Agrawal’s strengths. This book aims to help you find your own, although it’s a little light in that department. This is a narrative, not a textbook.

But yes, Agrawal has absolutely done some cool sh*t. Whether or not her cool sh*t is your cup of tea, if you are floundering, her experiences will hopefully guide you to your own.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

Worst Neighbors Ever.

I wanted to love The Wordy Shipmates. If there’s anything that speaks to the essence of Me, it’s highly literate, passive-aggressive Puritans with authority issues. Who wouldn’t be into that? I re-read Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation last year, and she has a way of making history so relatable, with real, long-reaching consequences that 21st century Americans feel everyday. The Wordy Shipmates is really no different in that sense. But there’s something missing

 

As to the writing, Vowell’s tongue is lodged firmly in her cheek. No one is safe from her snark. She is most sincere when she discusses what she loves about the Massachusetts Bay Company, acknowledging moments that are of course emotionally manipulative and problematic to our eyes (for instance, John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon, while still celebrating their intent.

 

I found a few heroes here. This book brought back a few latent APUSH/junior year historical crushes on Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. I love cantankerous idealists, and these two fought so hard for their beliefs (including a shared belief in religious freedom), and ticked off so many people, that they went and founded an entirely new state. And then, it wasn’t enough that now THEY had religious freedom; they had to go and guarantee it for others who were escaping religious oppression. It’s a beautiful idea, and it makes me want to visit Rhode Island, which sounds like a utopia of sorts. They make interesting foils for Winthrop, who seems all right himself, at first. If you read the book, read it for Williams and Hutchinson.

 

But of course this is history, and it’s not all freedom from oppression and religious liberty. Other people had to get stepped on to guarantee all that freedom, right? Vowell’s introduction of the Pequot War is ominous, and the book ends on this topic, which is probably why I felt so bad after it ended. I don’t know that I would re-read The Wordy Shipmates as readily as Assassination Vacation, barring an early U.S. history cram session, or participating in a Sarah Vowell compendium. Or maybe just to get reacquainted with Hutchinson and Williams.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

 

A Busy Season

Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America in 1927 invites you to the party. Bryson narrates the major historical events of that summer (and there were a lot of them), weaved together loosely with aviation (Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight and its aftermath are recurring motifs) and law and order (multiple murders and executions, including that of the controversial Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti). The book has a freewheeling feel to it that perfectly captures the 1920s and the decade’s major influences. Lindbergh’s nascent airplane with limited forward visibility, propelling through uncharted air. Babe Ruth’s sixtieth home run, hit off Tom Zachary’s arm, hurtling past the outfield. The ingenuity of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, deciding to tax gangsters for their ill-gotten gains.

 

Bryson manages to give an open, unapologetic view of the 20s. This book is neither deluded nor disillusioned, celebrating the optimism of an era where the sky was literally the limit while acknowledging the very real flaws (see: Prohibition, when the government would rather poison its citizens than let them have a drink), as well as hinting at the horrors to come. The book captures a feeling of mania, and that was fascinating to read. So much happened in 1927, that it’s easy to see how intoxicating that summer might have been for American citizens – metaphorically, of course.

 

I really enjoyed this book. It took a chapter for it to grab me, but when it did, I didn’t want to put it down. This is the first Bryson book I’ve read, but if his prose is always this witty (and his other subjects as engrossing), I will definitely be looking into more of his books.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

A Different Look at Art

It was really hard for me to turn off my teacher brain while reading Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer. The book’s intended audience is middle-grade readers, and while I think the me of that age would have been delighted with this book (it would have appealed to my snootiest, inner-art-snob instincts), 33-year-old me had a hard time getting into it. I kept looking at it from a “Would I want to teach this?” perspective, rather than from “Am I enjoying reading this?” I don’t know that I did.

 

Balliett does a terrific job of bringing alive the setting. I loved imaging Hyde Park in the fall, as well as Ms. Hussey’s classroom. The main characters, Calder and Petra, seem like nice kids, maybe a little prodigious, but altogether nice. Foils are provided in the form of a nosey classmate and a malcontent older lady.

 

My chief complaint is that mysteries must have their solutions hidden in their pages. Solutions that come out of nowhere or coincidentally are not satisfying solutions to any mysteries other than the author’s (“How am I going to get this character from point A to point B?”). The ending does not offer a satisfying conclusion.

 

I think I am jealous of Calder and Petra. These are students who have regular access to the Art Institute of Chicago, who attend an experimental university-sponsored school, one of whom “works” at a world-famous bookstore. Both 12-year-old and 33-year-old me are envious.

 

Would I teach Chasing Vermeer? Not in my current situation. I probably will read the sequels, but my enthusiasm has dampened somewhat from what I imagined the mystery could be.

This review has been cross-posted to Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing all of the books I read in 2016 as I attempt to reach my goal of 52. Read along with me!

Here, Have a Black Spot.

When I first read Treasure Island, I was living in Georgia’s low country, an area embroiled in pirate history (in fact, the Benbow Inn is rumored to have been modeled on Savannah’s Pirate House).  I like my reading to provide a little bit of local color. Anyway, perhaps it was my own location that made it easy to fall into Stevenson’s world. I can understand how Jim Hawkins might feel every time his little world is intruded upon by a pirate, those dual senses of danger and thrill, and how those emotions both might appeal to a kid like Jim (who manages to not only encounter danger, but practically invite it at every available opportunity). I’m a grown woman, and I recommend reading the first part of the book in a darkened room, at night, on a full moon. It’ll add to the experience.

The book is a classic, and it’s a classic for a reason. You will find the DNA of nearly every pirate trope here (minus any relating to women, as they are few and far between here). I will admit to being a lot more impressed with the characterization the first time I read Treasure Island, but I’m wondering if my impressions were strongly colored by the different film versions (it is one of the most adapted books in film history). I recall a Long John Silver who is as warm and paternal as he is changeable and cunning, which of course adds to the danger, and a Jim who is hungry for a similar father figure. I didn’t quite find them here. What I did find, however, was a classic story of suspense and adventure, well worth an evening read.

This review has been posted at the Cannonball Read, where I am attempting to read and review 52 books in 2016. Read along with me!

 

Scandalous!

I don’t remember how I discovered Anne Helen Petersen’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood series over on the Hairpin. But I do remember devouring the latest entries during downtime at my job as a secretary. Petersen let contemporary fans like myself experience the restrictive glamour of stars under the old studio system. She did it with a clever, confidential voice that benefitted from hindsight, and I found the results fascinating. Her blog was a weekly read.

The book is more of the same, which feels familiar but oddly not enough. It’s divided into multiple parts, each focusing on a classic Hollywood phenotype, with chapters about separate stars (in other words, long-format essays akin to one of the Hairpin pieces). Much of it is ground already tread in the Hairpin, which I expected to some degree. However, the book was a quick read, and it left me feeling unsatisfied. Make of that what you will.

This is also pretty obviously going to appeal to a very niche audience (of which I am obviously a member). Petersen approaches gossip that’s up to a hundred years old with an academic’s interest, but a blogger’s voice. That’s appealing to me. While contemporary audiences lap up gossip about today’s stars, it’s easy to assume that I’m not “one of them,” even as I devour a chapter about Mae West’s bawdy career. Again, Petersen is concerned with what this interest in stardom says about the film industry and society at large. That’s certainly a subject worth tackling. However, I found myself constantly questioning my own motives for reading this book. Was I couching my own schadenfreude in academic curiosity? The lives these stars led (at least the ones Petersen focuses on) were pretty tragic. Was I consuming them (again) for further entertainment? The answer is, probably. I do get a vicarious thrill from reading about these stars, much like their contemporary audiences did, much like we get from our own stars today. Gossip is appealing for a reason, and apparently, it’s timeless.

 

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

Breaking Brontosaurus News

I loved My Beloved Brontosaurus. I really did. I was trying to pinpoint some sort of flaw as a reason why I would rate this book anything other than five stars, and I couldn’t. Maybe you’re not into science or dinosaurs (if that is the case, why did you pick this book up to begin with?). But I do love dinosaurs, truly, and the author takes some 200 years of paleontological research, including controversial updates, and synthesizes it into 222 pages of accessible, engaging science. I found it delightful, and inspiring.

For a topic as dry as dinosaur bones, the writing is funny. The entire chapter on dinosaur sex (at this point, discussed in hypotheticals) is pure gold, providing several laugh-out-loud moments, and at one point, prompting me to grab my phone to tweet a line. The book follows a practical procession of dinosaurs’ lifecycles, from conception to their inevitable (maybe), untimely (perhaps) destruction. Switek makes multiple detours along the way for recent scientific revelations, and those revelations hold the heart of the book.

Switek (an amateur paleontologist, freelance science writer, and the dinosaur adviser on “Jurassic World”) is appealing in particular to latent dino lovers who discovered the giants at a similar age to himself – late ’80s/early ’90s millenials whose worlds were rocked when the Brontosaurus was relegated to Pluto-status (or rather, denounced as not a dinosaur, was never a dinosaur, and should never have been named a dinosaur to begin with). I mention the age not because I think it should exclude anyone who was not a “true 90s kid,” but rather because I relate to that viewpoint so well. I understand exactly where Switek is coming from. So much of contemporary conventional paleontology has changed since my second grade dinosaur unit. I think sometimes, as learners, we are taught “facts” that stick in our brains, immobilized, almost fossils themselves, until something comes to root them out. This book makes a first-rate shovel.

 

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read. My goal is to read 52 books in 2016.

So Many Religious Puns…

…And I’ve attempted to avoid all of them. I obviously enjoyed Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked and the Divine enough to read the issues again, this time as a collected trade paperback titled The Faust Act. I’ve been following the series since I started buying comics again, roughly a year ago, and I’ve enjoyed the pair’s original work, following them from Phonogram and so forth.

 

But this review is about The Wicked and the Divine. The premise is this: a pantheon of gods return to the earth every ninety years as pop stars. They live for two years, and then through various means, pass away from this world. For the current recurrence, we readers have Laura, a uni student and admitted fangirl, to serve as our eyes and ears and entry into the world of the gods. Laura strikes up a relationship (flirtation/quasi-employment) with the incarnation of Lucifer, brilliantly inspired by David Bowie. This leads to all kinds of mayhem, and Laura’s further inculcation into the pantheon.

The gods themselves are portrayed as human and petty as such gods as ever have been, yet they continue to hold some fascination for the faithful. In this first trade, we get glimpses of their world: assassins, conspiracies, mind-boggling powers.Those powers themselves are fairly shadowy. Even within their world, only those who attend the shows are able to experience the gods’ power, as any attempts to record the music result in only static and silence. As for the shows themselves, imagine the best concert you’ve ever been to, and then imagine you experienced religious levels of euphoria, possibly resulting in passing out or sexual climax (or maybe both?).

My favorite character is Laura. I can’t relate to any of the gods, but she is unapologetic in her fervor for the gods. She is quintessentially a fan, in a universe where fan tips over into zealot. One of my favorite bits is Laura’s inner commentary on the proceedings, the things she says to herself (and to us) that she believes are too much for everyone else to handle. Everyone can relate to that. I don’t dig her desire to be one of the pantheon, that thirst to be special, but even that is something everyone can see in themselves.

The art is beautiful. I always admire McKelvie’s line work, but Matthew Wilson’s coloring is radiant, reinforcing the idea of candles burning too brightly. As to the story, as I read the trade, I was confused by several points, such as the gods’ purpose (Ananke makes a brief reference to inspiration, but otherwise the point is not driven home). But this is at heart, a long, high-concept murder mystery (lasting roughly two years). I’ll be re-reading the second trade as well, and I expect those issues will be clarified.

wicdivsnap.jpg

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read. My goal is to read 52 books in 2016.