Escapist Fiction Swallows June: Cory Doctorow and Emma Bull

Cover illustration for Little Brother by Cory DoctorowIn Little Brother, Cory Doctorow tells the story of Marcus, a 17-year-old San Franciscan computer wiz caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the wake of a terrorist attack on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, Marcus and his friends are picked up by Homeland Security and imprisoned, interrogated and terrorized for several days. After his release, Marcus sets out to take down the agency, protect the city’s rights of free speech, assembly, and privacy, and save his friend Darryl, missing since their arrest.

Little Brother is the first technophile novel I’ve actually semi-enjoyed (i.e. finished). It’s long-winded and a bit preachy and it seems to draw an inordinate amount of inspiration from Hackers and Season 2 of Jericho. And, like all techie writers, Doctorow spends easily half his word count explaining what things are and how they work, which, for the plot enthusiasts among his readers, isn’t exactly the best use of time and descriptive prowess.

Little Brother is, however, a fast, entertaining read, a great resource for reluctant readers, especially boys, and (within the limited world of YA fiction) it offers a valuable alternative perspective. Still, I’m left wondering–is there anything Neil Gainman won’t endorse these days?

Cover illustration for Bone Dance by Emma BullI’ve loved Emma Bull since I first moved to Berkeley and the fabulous gentleman in The Other Change of Hobbit recommended War for the Oaks, a book I have pressed on pretty much everyone I know who’s likely to enjoy a modern urban fantasy featuring a hot guy who dresses like Prince and long descriptions of the main’s character’s band. So, I’ve been slowly acquiring her books for a few years as they come in and out of print and show up from time to time in the Green Apple annex.

Bone Dance is, like most of Bull’s work, well written and skillfully developed, structurally complex, and completely, fascinatingly bizarre, but (alas!) secondary to her one book that’s actually famous. (Isn’t it usually the opposite?)

Set in a post-apocalyptic, post-climate change version of Minneapolis, Bone Dance is told from the perspective of Sparrow, a genderless media enthusiast and technologist with mysterious origins. Our hero makes a living hawking classic films to wealthy collectors and mixing for a local nightclub. The rest of the time, Sparrow just tries to act normal and keep acquaintances at as much distance as possible. But lately Sparrow has started loosing time–waking up in the middle of nowhere with no memory of the night before, running into strangers who seem to have a bone to pick, and getting truly creepy tarrot readings from the friendly neighborhood Vodou priestess. The whole thing is very mysterious, but it just may have something to do with the Horsemen–psychic warriors capable of possessing, or “riding,” other people (like a horse, get it?).

Bull doesn’t hold her readers’ hands. There’s not a single pronoun relating to Sparrow in the first 3/4 of the novel (this could not have been written in the third person); she throws slang around, names people and places without explaining who or what they are, and expects us to catch on. After a while, we do, becoming acclimated to the unusual linguistic structure and the odd mix of eclectic classic movie quotes, noir references, vodou magic, and body-snatcher-style possession.

Incidentally, this one also features an endorsement from Neil Gainman (yep, he’s a whore…)

Room, Emma Donoghue

Cover illustration of Room by Emma DonoghueEmma Donoghue’s Room is longest 300 pages of mostly-dialog I’ve ever read. I think it literally took me six weeks, from my birthday in mid April to now, at the end of May, to work my way through this one. I actually considered putting it away without finishing, something I almost never do.

Not because it isn’t good. It’s actually pretty amazing–creative, insightful, revelatory in this incredibly sneaky, deceptively simplistic way, an incredible piece of craftsmanship. It’s good the way Schindler’s List is good; well done, but mostly not enjoyable.

The story is narrated in the first person by five-year-old Jack, a child raised entirely in Room, an 11×11 foot backyard shed where he and his mother are held prisoner by a man Jack knows only as Old Nick. At the beginning of the story, Jack feels safe and comfortable in Room–his daily routine includes meals and exercise, reading and chores, play time and no more than two television shows. But the realities of his situation are beginning to show through the safe world his Ma has created for him. At night, after Jack has gone to sleep in Wardrobe, Old Nick comes. Some days Ma is “switched off”–she stays in bed all day, and Jack is allowed to watch all the T.V. he wants. When Old Nick begins experiencing financial difficulties and providing fewer supplies, their situation becomes even more desperate.

In constructing Jack’s voice, the author gives herself some latitude, but her characterization is true to the narrator’s age overall. Like most five-year-olds Jack argues with his mother and has occasional tantrums. He experiences and expresses curiosity, anxiety and fear in authentic and believable ways. His constant one-on-one time with his mother has given him an advanced vocabulary as well as reading and math skills several years ahead of his real age. His emotional development, however, is complicated by the fact that he’s only really ever known one other person. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition and leaves plenty of room for growth later in the novel. My only complaint is that Jack always seems to know why he does things. In my experience, this is not the case with most children–or many adults for that matter. His capacity for self-consciousness and analysis is probably pretty unrealistic.

This is a well written, thoughtfully constructed book well worth reading. It’s harrowing and difficult, but it does end on a hopeful note.

Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue

Cover illustration for Slammerkin by Emma DonoghueOh, yeah, I have a blog. It’s funny how I forget that until there’s something pressing I should be doing elsewhere. I finished Slammerkin over three weeks ago and never wrote a word, but now that I’m trying to avoid writing a mere hundred words on effective virtual communication for my library management course message board, I will happily write as much as I can here instead.

Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin is a gorgeous, stark, startling book, and possibly the most convincing piece of historical fiction I have ever read. Donoghue loosely bases her novel on the surviving scraps of the life of Mary Saunders, a true story (turned morality tale chap book) of a servant driven to murder by her lust for “fine clothes.” Donoghue’s story is rich and complex, though several of the plot points do in fact turn on Mary’s passion for the finer things, its really a story about class and ambition, ownership and control.

Donoghue has clearly researched the period exhaustively, but her work is free of the long, boring explanatory paragraphs that plague so much historical fiction. Much is implied through context; the rest we learn along with Mary as she is inducted first into the world of London’s prostitutes, then into the seamstress’ trade.

The early sections of the novel are somewhat rushed and not quite so compelling as the rest of the work. The story begins in 1861, with Mary, poised on the edge of her teen years and eminently dissatisfied–her home with her mother, stepfather and half brother is squalid, school is prescriptive and dull, and she’s both curious about and envious of the brighter, easier, more glamorous lives of the St. Giles whores she sees all around. Her fall from grace is abrupt and somewhat predictable; she agrees to trade a peddler a kiss for a single beautiful red ribbon, and ends up trading her virginity as well. In the course of a few pages, Mary is pregnant and cast out of her mother’s house to fend for herself on the streets on London, where she’s repeatedly raped and beaten, and, finally, rescued by prostitute Doll Higgins.

And this is where is starts to get good.

The two become close. Mary and Doll lead a wild, reckless, exuberant life. As whores, they roam the whole city with a liberty and abandon not open to “decent” women. They take pleasure in drinking and partying, in their gaudy clothes, in being together. The work is grim, but the girls are practical.

But when Mary develops a lingering, dangerous cough, she goes to the Magdalen Charity Hospital to recover–maybe even to straighten out and leave whoring behind. There, she becomes a skilled seamstress. However, the oppressive religious and moral demands of the place soon send her back out into the city where she stumbles into a fight and ends of fleeing for her life. With all other options exhausted, Mary heads for the village of Monmouth, her mother’s hometown, and talks her way into a job as a servant to her mother’s old friend, seamstress Jane Jones.

This is where it gets really good.

With Jane Jones, Mary finds the kind of companionship and mentorship that she clearly craves; the two become friends, almost family. Yet Mary is still ambitious and driven, she still longs to be more than a servant, still aspires to wealth, ownership, a life of ease, control over her own destiny–and she’s still willing to sell herself to get them.

This Month in Trashy Books

Cover illustration for River Marked by Patricia Briggs  I found myself seriously in need of some escapist fare this month, so I abandoned all pretense of reading actual literature and instead entertained myself with Patricia Briggs, Michelle Tea, and Deanna Rayborn.

As excited as I was for the March 1 release of River Marked, the 6th installment of Briggs’ uber-popular urban fantasy series staring Mercy Thompson, it took me quite a while to work my way threw this book. The story opens (inexplicably) when our heroine pays a visit to her friend Stephan and finds him doing less-then-well. From there, we move on to Mercy’s wedding to long-time love interest Adam, a planned elopement which turns into a surprise wedding and reception, followed by a sex-filled camping trip/honeymoon. It’s sweet and satisfying, but again, not especially relevant. This may serve the series as a whole, but it makes for a rather rambling and plot-less opening to this installment. The actual story begins about 20% of the way through the book, when couple discover a monster in the Columbia River.

Even though these are the books that have really put Briggs on the map, the series has just become too much for me…especially when I consider that all five volumes have supposedly taken place over the course of just 18 months. This poor character gets beaten and maimed almost to death in every book, not to mention raped and coerced in #4. I mean, how many bad things can happen to one woman in a year and a half?

Cover illustration for Rent Girl by Michelle TeaAs a follow-up to Valencia, I decided to check out Michele Tea’s Rent Girl, a collaborative graphic novel style memoir about the author’s years as a prostitute in Boston and, briefly, San Francisco. I loved the style and aesthetic of this book (even though a bizarre number of the illustrations were just pictures of Tea in various outfits, facing the viewer with this “let me tell you how it is” look on her face).

The prose was stylistically similar to Tea’s other work, but more focused on the topic at hand. The author spends little time discussing her own emotions, thought processes and even her own life outside work and the people she worked with. This book is interesting not because Tea offers compelling characters or a fully developed life story, but because she explains frankly and unabashedly what prostitution is like.

Overall, it was a good read, but not as absorbing as some of her other work.

After devouring the Julia Grey series back in November, I thought I’d check out Deanna Raybourn’s newest offering, The Dead Travel Fast, an atmospheric mystery/romance staring Theodora, an aspiring novelist who travels from Edinburgh to, yes, Transylvania to visit an old school friend. As the guest of her friend’s noble family, she meets all the characters you might expect–the darkly romantic and super hot count, his mistreated and ailing mother, the strangely hostile maid servant, and the friendly local physician–and stumbles into what may (or may not) be a series of supernatural murders.

I can no longer accuse this author of writing predictable mysteries. The conclusion to this one took me completely by surprise. Ann Radcliffe like, Raybourn creates a Gothic horror story, and then, challenges it with the most mundane explanation imaginable (given the circumstances). Personally, I find Julia Grey a more compelling character, but I enjoyed this novel.

What happened?

Well…school. I’m still here. Just slightly less bored, and slightly over registered.

In the three(ish) weeks since I’ve logged in, I’ve read roughly 12 chapters in four text books, about 35 journal articles and miscellany, and 2 lessons of French, none of which warrants much comment. So far, it’s not actually too challenging or too interesting, which may be a bad sign…but after all a semester is only 14 weeks.

My next non-required reading will be The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by my old SLC classmate Benjamin Hale (yay Ben!). I haven’t even cracked it yet, but given all the buzz around this book (it’s been all over the industry newsletters for the past 18 months, and now that it’s out reviews are hitting all the time) it wouldn’t me surprised if it makes some of the awards lists this year. Pretty awesome…

The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff

Cover illustration for The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren GroffI found The Monsters of Templeton on the free table in the 5th floor lunchroom at my old job, left over, probably, from somebody’s book club. I loved the cover, so I picked it up.

Lauren Groff’s debut is a complex and humorous family saga tracing the lineage of one prominent small town family back through seven generations. Stanford PhD candidate Willie Upton returns to her upstate New York roots after a devastating affair with her older married professor. On the day she arrives back in Templeton (a stand-in for the author’s own hometown, Cooperstown), the corpse of a prehistoric monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass. That might seem like the jumping off point for a whimsical adventurous story about, you know, monsters. But in fact, the dinosaur serves as more of a metaphor–the actual “monsters” are still to come.

The story really begins when Willie’s eccentric mother, Vi, tells her a secret–Willie’s father is not, as she has always been told, one of several San Francisco hippies from her mother’s commune days, but someone from their own community. Vi refuses to tell Willie exactly who her real dad is, but after some nagging she does offer up a clue: Vi herself is related to town founder Marmaduke Temple on both her mother and her father’s sides through two different lines of decent, but Willie is descended from him through three lines. Apparently, Willie’s father is related to Marmaduke too, through “some sort of liaison at some point in the past.”

Armed with this information, Willie sets out to research the family history, locate the missing branch on the family tree, and identify her father. The novel follows Willie’s experiences with her mother, her best friend back in San Francisco, and her former high school classmates during her 2-3 week stay in her ancestral home, but the real focus of the work is her research into her family’s secretive past. Through letters, diaries, and a few unexplained monologues, we become acquainted with the Temple clan one generation at a time. We meet Marmaduke’s slave mistress, Hetty; Sy Upton, who married into the family and brought the baseball museum to town; Jacob Franklin Temple the famous novelist (a cipher for James Fenimore Cooper); his youngest daughter Charlotte, an uptight old maid raising her “nephew”; and many others.

The result is strong, but uneven. Each anecdote is engaging and enjoyable in itself, but the stakes aren’t very high for the reader, and it can be a little difficult to keep track of the various characters, how they are related to one another, and which ones are having affairs (there are a lot of affairs in this book).

In a sort of random fling at post-modernism lite, Groff also includes contemporary alternative narrators, including the Running Buds, a group of cheerful middle aged men who jog together everyday and narrate in the first person plural (we), and the monster itself. There isn’t a lot of plot to be gleaned from these sections of the novel, and they do add to the overall impression of confusion, but I enjoyed them quite a bit as isolated pieces of writing.

Overall, the novel is a good one, a promising start for a young writer–someone with a lot of creativity, a lot of ideas, a great capacity for detail, but issues around mechanics, pacing and structure still to work out. And, hey, she’s already a bestseller.

I’ll end with a quick shout out to Guenet Abraham, the designer of this book–the novel is greatly enhanced by Beth White’s photos and illustrations of the various ancestors rendered in appropriate historical style, as well as by the several versions of the family tree annotated by Willie and updated periodically as additional information is uncovered. It’s a nice touch, quirky, fun and entirely appropriate, and it has the added benefit of helping the reader keep tabs on the various story lines. Rock on!

On Grad School

About a year ago, I decided that the book publishing business isn’t for me, after all–at least not in it’s super-giant semi-evil conglomerate incarnation. A hard choice, since being an editor at a major house had been my goal for like 10 years. All those unpaid internships. Long days, strange hours, crap salaries, crazy bosses, weird corporate upsets, reorg after reorg after reorg. All the stuff I gave up so I could work, including, for a long time, my own writing. Not to mention the not-insignificant list of things I completely loved about my job.

It look me almost that whole year to decide on my next step, and to act on it. I registered to take the GRE the day I found out about the third reorganization at my company in as many years. Then I spent the next twelve months filling out job applications and university applications and loan applications and the FAFSA.

But when everything was in place and it was finally time to make the changes I’d been working toward it was hard to really enjoy it. In quitting my job I felt like a traitor. I adored my authors (most of them). Still do. I felt terrible leaving them all to their own devices. And my boss. I cried when I told him I was quitting. I felt so guilty, I couldn’t help it.

And now finally my first semester of library school is about to begin. I’m eager to get started, hopeful that this will turn out to be a better fit for me, relieved, honestly, just to be doing something proactive, uncertain (still) about my decision.

I don’t exactly think there’s something I’m “supposed” to be doing. But it’s still hard to believe there isn’t a right answer somewhere.

New Year, New Whatever: Recent reads from Robin McKinley and April Lindner

Cover illustration for Sunshine by RobinMcKinleyOn the lighter side of the reading scale, I kicked off this month with cult hit Sunshine, from everybody’s favorite feminist fantasy author, Robin McKinley. I read (and adored) McKinley’s 80s classic The Blue Sword, as well as her slightly obsessive multiple re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997) while still in high school, so I fully expected to love this book. Meh. It was okay. I’m going to try to sell it to Green Apple.

The story takes place in an alternative modern day America in which the various things that go bump in the night are all real, and the landscape has been ravaged by a recent inter-species war. The action begins when twenty-something baker and title character Sunshine is captured by vampires and offered up as a snack for a vampire prisoner, Constantine (no joke). Luckily her fellow prisoner refuses to eat her. When Sunshine’s latent magical abilities help her to escape, she decides to take Con with her as a sort of thanks-for-not-eating-me gesture. The two form a tight bond, and decide to face their captor together.

Cover illustration for Jane by April LindnerI’m a sucker (no pun) for modernizations of classic literature (“Cruel Intentions,” “Clueless,” how could you go wrong?), so I couldn’t quite resist this one. That, and this Jane goes to my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence (woo!). It’s a fun read, and fully lives of up to the legacy of–well, new movies about old books, more or less.

Minus the Lowood school and TB, the plot is virtually identical to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, right down to the wife in the attic–sure, Mr. Rochester is a middle aged rock star and Jane has an neglectful mother rather than a hateful aunt, but same dif. Despite the parallel plot line, however, author April Linder has managed to strip the story of it’s pathos and urgency, leaving behind only a rather charming romance.

Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an enormously effective Gothic mystery and a compelling romance–but it’s also a novel about self-respect, strength of mind, character, faith, and (though its anachronistic to use the term) feminism. It’s that deeper, richer portion of the novel that gets lost in translation–along with a certain amount of the logic behind the story.

In this modernization the need for secrecy surrounding Mrs. Rochester’s mental illness is unconvincing, nor does it seem that she’s better off locked inside all the time, unable to see or interact with anyone but a drunk maid, than she would be at a high class institution. Likewise, Jane’s struggles in leaving Thornfield loose their significance, and River St. John’s offer lacks force.

Truthfully I’m not sure it’s possible to translate Jane Eyre into a modern-day American context. The stakes in the modern world just aren’t high enough. The major plot points cannot retain their original emotional significance in a culture without either a true aristocracy or a powerful homogeneous faith, where women have more equal rights and opportunities, where premarital sex and divorce are both common, and where insane asylums are no longer glorified prisons. The story might play better set in a society with more rules and a more formalized class structure, like India or Iran. To achieve the emotional effect of Jane Eyre in a modern-day American novel, you’d have to tell a very different story.

Nobody cares where you sit, and other notes on contemporary politics

I haven’t had much to rant about on the political front in sometime, mainly because most of what I feel justified in commenting on has been on hold since the holiday recess began almost a month ago.

Just when congress was gearing up for a serious partisan smack down in the new year (something I would definitely have commented upon), maladjusted weirdo Jared Loughner shot up a Gabrielle Giffords speaking event for, apparently, no reason, killing six and injuring a dozen more. What followed was the oddest combination of genuine shock and grief and blame-slinging and political posturing in recent memory. Everyone made an initial statement, many of them quite honest and moving and heartfelt. Then everyone analyzed everyone else’s statement. Reactions were compared and contrasted.

Then the idea that the polarized political situation and negative, violent rhetoric inspired the shooting (just like rock music causes suicide, and Stairway to Heaven includes secret satanic messages) was covered exhaustively. Not to say that the tone in Washington is not a problem, but the sad truth is you can’t blame mean people for crazy ones–no matter how much you might want to. Or at least, you can blame them only in so much as their meanness contributes to the general malaise, the poisonous atmosphere that, combined with paranoia and delusion and a thousand other influences, creates both the madness and the motivation for such an act. Still, everyone vowed to play nice in the future. And then promptly turned and criticized someone else for not making the same promise, or for doing it too slowly, or whatever. I don’t even want to talk about what Sarah Palin odd little mini controversy, which was beyond bizarre from beginning to end.

The idea that an effort at civility is really a mandate for curtailing free speech was briefly floated. A hilarious concept considering that in the 1700s when the whole free speech thing took hold, the social niceties were so much more extreme that two people exchanged bows before trying to kill one another. The founding fathers it seems, were free to say and do just about anything without breaking the bounds of decorum. And, with our lax social standards, I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say so are we. It’s entirely possible to refute everything your opponent stands for without being aggressive and violent, sometimes without even being impolite.

In the midst of the back biting and general scramble to either avoid or acknowledge culpability as circumstances seemed to warrant, a few individuals stood up and stood out in an admirable way. The president broke out his not inconsiderable rhetorical skills at the memorial service Wednesday. The old John McCain, the McCain we loved for his compassion and his faithfulness and his ability to step outside his own perspective (even if he is a homophobic old coot), reemerged unexpectedly with Sunday’s Washington Post op-ed. Ms. Giffords staff opened the offices as usual on the Monday following the shooting.

So it’s been 10 days, and congress has decided it’s now appropriate to get back down to business–possibly a kinder, gentler business. So, the “job-killing health care bill” is now the “job-destroying health care bill,” (much less violent that way, right?) and we’re all going to sit side by side at the State of the Union (because this is 8th grade and it matters who we sit by). And now it’s time to see how it all goes forward.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer EganThis was a great one. Seriously. I enjoyed it more than anything I’ve read in recent months. A Visit from the Goon Squad is funny, sad, creative, endearing. The writing is spectacular–smart and apt, with an absorbing natural flow. The characters are fully fleshed, thoroughly flawed, and extremely winning.

Like most fiction with a claim to the “postmodern” label, A Visit from the Goon Squad is highly structured, with a somewhat nebulous plot. The novel is episodic, and Egan makes use of a variety of literary styles. Although a standard intimate third person past tense dominates, there are segments of present tense and first person, a mock-celebrity magazine article complete with footnotes (a well known staple of postmodern fiction), and even power point presentation. I’m frequently annoyed by these types of devices, but this came off beautifully. I have to agree with Ron Charles when he writes, “If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad follows a series of interconnected characters, all linked (occasionally though several degrees of separation) to record producer Bennie Salazar. The novel opens with Sasha, Bennie’s klepto assistant, in contemporary New York City. It flashes back to Bennie’s youth in the 1970s San Francisco punk rock scene; follows his producer-mentor on a family vacation to Africa; introduces his son, his (sometimes ex)wife, her journalist brother, and her boss, struggling publicist Dolly. We meet troubled actress Kitty Jackson, an assortment of Bennie’s high school friends, an unnamed dictator, and Sasha’s closest friend from college. Characters occasionally surface unexpectedly in the midst of other character’s narratives. The narrative slides smoothly through time and place without fanfare, a series of loosely connected anecdotes gradually building toward a climactic moment some ten or twenty years in the future.

Though the thematic core of the work centers on loss, on the slow chipping away over time, it’s surprisingly not nostalgic (except perhaps as concerns the music industry). Egan exhibits throughout an acute sense of humorous perversity, making the novel light and fast even in it’s more depressing moments.

Egan achieves a rare balance between the completely entertaining and the beautifully executed.