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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Some Exciting New Dork News...and a Few Reviews

I don't have an actual bookish bucket list, but if I did "working at a bookstore" would be near the top. And now I can (pretend to) cross it off! A new indie called RoscoeBooks is opening just a few blocks from where I live here in Chicago, and despite the fact that this is damn near akin to hiring an alcoholic to bar tend, the owner is graciously allowing me to work there a few hours a week. I couldn't be more excited! The store opens this Saturday, Nov. 22 — if you're in Chicago, come say 'hello.' I'll be the one with ridiculous perma-grin-goofy-happy smile on my face. 

And but, one of the reasons I'm super excited to be a bookseller is, yes, to be able to recommend books I love to other people, but also to learn more about what other people are reading that fall outside my immediate comfort zone. Another reason I'm excited is working at a bookstore will only make it more apparent that there's always something to learn about books. So in some ways, this is selfish excitement, because I'll get to discover books I may have otherwise missed. And that's already happened just in the last week as a result of talking with the other booksellers (see below) and helping to shelve (I assume it's natural to talk to the authors as you shelve their books, right?). So anyway, yeah — I'm stoked. This...will be fun.

And so, here, have some reviews:

Submergence, by J.M. Ledgard — If you've never heard of this book, don't worry — I hadn't either until a few weeks ago. But the new owner of RoscoeBooks recommended this, and I read it in about two sittings. It's a short novel about a guy named James who is a British spy and gets kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Somalia. It's also about a woman named Danny who is a biomathematician — she studies microbial life in the deepest depths of the ocean. And finally, it's about how the two met, and how they discuss life, and why we're all here ("We're nature's brief experiment with self-awareness," Ledgard writes — a mind-blowing idea, when you really think about it.), and chance and luck, and art and literature, and it's just fantastic. The story's told in brief snippets, alternating perspectives between Danny and James, and between the present day, and when the two met at a French hotel on the Atlantic coast. If you've read and enjoyed Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, I think you'll love this, too.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber — This big, sprawling novel has one of the more inventive premises of any novel I've read in awhile. It's about a Christian missionary named Peter who is hired by a mysterious corporation called USIC to travel to a distant planet (which humans have dubbed Oasis) to preach the Bible to the native population (which Peter calls Oasans). Peter must leave his beloved wife Bea— who was his savior when he was a drug and alcohol addict, and who was his reason for his being "born again."  Life on Earth in general, and his wife Bea's life specifically (as he learns by communicating with her via a rudimentary emails machine — and Faber includes these missives at great length), begin to deteriorate and Peter feels helpless, but has success with the Oasans. Peter is the second minister to visit Oasis, and the Oasans, who refer to themselves as Jesus Lover Five, Jesus Lover Thirty, etc, are eager to learn more about Jesus. The novel, though often a bit too deliberate, is an interesting reflection on the egoism inherent in particular religious doctrine (being so sure you're right and everyone else is wrong) specifically, but humanity in general. When you finally see the whole picture —why the Oasans want a Christian minister and to learn about "The Book of Strange New Things" (the Bible) — you'll realize it's a conclusion that matches the ingenuity of the whole plot itself. But it's just a really long walk to get there.

A Map of Betrayal, by Ha Jin — I loved Ha Jin's novel War Trash, but I was only so-so on this one. It's the story of a Chinese spy who spends the last half of the 20th century in the U.S. taking an American wife and working at the CIA. It's also the story of his daughter, who in present day, is trying to learn the truth about her father and the rest of his family — her father had a whole other family back in China before he came to the U.S. It's a short, brisk novel that I thought actually read more like an outline for a novel than a novel itself. What's here is intriguing, but it just felt too slight.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How To Build a Girl: Assault on Cynicism

You don't pick up a novel about a teenage girl who attempts or reinvent herself and expect it to be a cautionary tale about how cynicism is exhausting. But here we are — and it's the main reason I really dug Caitlin Moran's filthy, funny coming-of-age novel, How to Build a Girl.

Johanna Morrigan is a 14-year-old girl living in small town in England. When she makes a terrible gaffe on live TV after winning a poetry contest — she does a regrettable Scooby Doo impression, which doesn't sound that bad at first, but in the scorching cauldron of the teenage world, it's all but a death sentence — she's forced to reinvent herself in such a way that she thinks will protect her from the emotional gauntlet to which teenagers are subject. So she decides to become Dolly Wilde, a slutty goth cynical music critic.

It goes well for awhile, but then, predictably, it all goes horribly wrong. It's often said that the measure of good novel is that its characters learn something, are able to change, and therefore readers learn along with them, this novel has that in spades.

Dolly/Johanna sleeps her way through the early-1990s indie rock scene, while using her poison pen to totally eviscerate all the silly new bands she's actually relyingson for her next sexual escapade. All the while, she cultivates a crush on a singer/songwriter named John Kite, who sort of becomes her spiritual guide through her burgeoning adulthood.

But then, the predictable comeuppance. And soon after, Moran gives us a page-and-a-half rail against cynicism that is absolutely shiver-inducing for its insightfulness. It's something EVERY teenage should be forced to read. Here's a taste:
“For when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas…Cynicism is, ultimately, fear...And of course the deepest irony about the young being cynical is that they are the ones that need to move, and dance, and trust the most. They need to cartwheel through a freshly burst galaxy of still-forming but glowing ideas, never sacred to say ‘Yes! Why not!’”
Man, I love that. And I really dug this novel — it's another novel that's rather waaaaaay outside my comfort zone. But it's worth the trip.

(Side note: There's a scene in the novel where Dolly/Johanna goes to review a Smashing Pumpkins concert. It's mid-1992, about a year Pumpkins had released their debut album, Gish. And she actually goes backstage, and briefly talks to D'Arcy (the bassist) about how she thought the show went. And Moran tells us that Johanna finds out later that D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha were in the midst of a breakup, and drummer Jimmy was starting his heroin habit, and singer/guitarist Billy was deeply depressed. And if you've read this blog for any measure of time, you know that Smashing Pumpkins is my favorite band of all time, and seeing them as characters in a novel damn near blew my mind.)