Thursday, November 29, 2012

How I Learned To Read

(This post originally appeared last week on Book Riot — I was feeling poetic.)

I learned to read when I opened my eyes.
I learned to read when I learned I loved stories.
I learned to read helping Encyclopedia Brown and Joe and Frank solve mysteries.
I learned to read when choosing my adventure was as much fun as choosing my next book.
I learned to read on long, warm summer afternoons when I wasn’t “supposed” to be reading.
I learned to read Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Harper Lee between pep rallies, tennis matches, and awkward dances.
I learned to read Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Irving around a square table for credit, and there were no wrong answers.
I learned to read all night. And I loved it.
I learned to read more selectively — to begin to understand what I liked, and what I didn’t. And, most importantly, why.
I learned to read when I learned to love what I love, and let others love what they love.
I learned to read in coffee shops in the evenings, after long desk-bound days spent wishing I was reading.
I learned to read on Sept. 12, 2008, when it was weird to feel like I missed someone I didn’t even know.
I learned to read in a community of other passionate readers.
I learned to read Riotously.
I learned to read on a screen or on a page — and it didn’t much matter.
I am still learning to read.
I will never, ever stop learning to read.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: Old Meets New, and Trendy

Robin Sloan's debut novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, is a funny, fashionable novel about the seeming tension between the computerized digital age and dusty, old-fashioned, mystery-infused books and bookstores. It's a novel that really wants you to know how hip it is — with asides about the Singularity (which Time Magazine actually covered last year), Google's absurd computing power and other really cool stuff you can do with computers, that, if you're impressed by, "you must be over 30."

At its heart, it's a literary mystery — just what is going on in this weird bookstore mid-20s San Franciscan Clay Jannon finds himself working at, after he's let go of his web design job? Who are all these weirdos that come to the store in the middle of the night and breathlessly request these books that don't exist anywhere else in the world (believe him, Clay's Googled them!)?

The action of the novel really starts when Clay and his new girlfriend Kat — who works at Google in data visualization, and is so smart and cute — solve one of the mysteries of the bookstore using fancy computer stuff. But of course, this mystery leads to a much bigger mystery involving a font from the middle ages and one of the first printers who published much of the knowledge of the ancient world. So Clay and Kat go to New York City to find Mr. Penumbra (who, of course, has disappeared, but they use computers to find where he's going), and try to get to the bottom of this incredibly mysterious bookish mystery.

This is one of those novels I know I'm supposed to like — but I'm not sure I did. I could never shake the feeling of how proud of itself it seemed to be. (I'll admit that it's entirely possible that I'm still smarting from that crack about the apparent simple-mindedness and lack of tech sophistication of people over 30.) Okay, but beyond that — there are sections of this novel that involve nearly impossible coincidences, and other sections that summarize a fantasy series of novels of which Clay and his friend are big fans of, but which seem like a parody of Game of Thrones, but which we're maybe supposed to take seriously?  And then these Game of Thrones-like stories suddenly become an important part of the plot too.  

And even though it really is a quick, often fun read (I read it in two sittings on planes — to and from San Francisco, incidentally), it just seemed to bow under the pressure from how hard it was trying to be cool and make you like it. Clay constantly produces these silly sarcastic asides (the story's told in first person), that are sometimes funny, but more often seeming to screaming "Please, like me! I'm really hip and urban and cool!" (Also, Clay and Kat's first date is "virtual" - i.e, he's working at the bookstore and on a video chat while she shepherds him-on-the-computer around a party. That was groan-worthy, for me.)

And but this is one you may not want to take my word for, since most people who have read it have seemed to like it — it has a 3.93 rating on Goodreads. I give it three stars, myself. Either way, it's not a huge time-committment and it's gotten a lot of hype, so I'd definitely be interested to hear someone talk me into liking it. Anyone?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes: To Live Is To Die

Jennifer Dubois' debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, is one of the more artfully written novels I've read in a long time. Here's an example of one of the many passages that exhibits Dubois' talent:
"…and an overgenerous fractured light came in through the windows. It was the kind of light that seemed to be throwing itself at your feet to beg for mercy. Or maybe the kind that falls down on its own knife in the name of honor.”
Dubois' characters seem to see a cruel, corrupt, perhaps hopeless world in these beautiful, poetic terms — and it's almost enough to distract them, and the reader, from the fact that their lives (and our lives!) are, at their most base, lost causes — because, quite obviously, we're all going to die. That's true, whether you're the victim of a debilitating disease like Huntington's that causes you to lose your sense of self, or whether you've devoted what remains of your life to a conviction that has no chance of success.

The former describes Irina Ellison, the 30-year-old Bostonian whose father lost himself, and then died of Huntington's disease. And doctor's have suggested the hereditary disease will hit her at about age 32 — so the clock is ticking on Irina remaining who she has come to know as herself. "When you are the lost cause, this makes for a lonely life," she says.

The latter describes the other protagonist (the novel is told in chapters alternating between the two characters' points of views, like chess moves) a chess prodigy named Aleksandr Bezetov, who we first meet in the early 1980s, moving to Leningrad to attend a chess academy. Aleksandr alternates in life between political conviction and the decadent lifestyle his fame as a chess champion affords."...his whole life had been about trying — and failing — to come to grips with the inevitable."

The touchstone for the plot is that Irina finds a letter her chess-playing father, who followed Aleksandr's career closely, had written to Aleksandr asking him what he does when, in the course of a game of chess, he knows he's going to lose. How does he deal with a game that's a lost cause? The life-chess metaphor is one we follow through the rest of the novel, as Irina decides to run away from her life in Boston to go to Russia (it's 2006 now) to track Aleksandr down and find the answer to her father's question — since she's soon to be in the same predicament.

The story itself, while interesting, isn't nearly as strong as the words used to tell it. But this is still a joy to read — and it's not just the illusory, imaginative passages that make it so. It's also how Dubois constructs the theme of hopelessness to make it feel somehow hopeful, and how Dubois' writing exhibits a sagacity and insightfulness you'd expect from a much, much older writer. (Dubois is 29, and was recently named by The National Book Foundation as one of its 5 under 35 honorees.) An example:
"...and that was the bottom line, he often thought: not that you could be sure that nothing would work, but that you could be sure you would never, never know what would."
I read this novel slowly — both to savor the writing, but also because the writing (and story) has to be taken in short doses to appreciate fully. But I'd highly recommend this for fans of smart literary fiction. 

(Thanks to Bookish Habits for the giveaway, from which I was lucky enough to win this great novel!)

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Book Riot Top 50: How Many Have You Read?

Over the last several weeks, Book Riot compiled a list of readers' favorite novels. 1,311 readers answered naming more than 1,200 different books. Now, Book Riot's asking how many you've read. The list is below (the ones I've read are bolded - 24 total) — count your total, and then go here to enter your number. Book Riot will tabulate and post the results regarding the averages and whatnot next week. 

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (126 votes)
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
  7. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  10. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  11. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  12. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  13. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  14. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  15. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  16. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  17. The Stand by Stephen King
  18. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  19. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  20. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  21. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  22. The PIcture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  23. The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  24. The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
  25. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (reading now)
  26. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  27. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  28. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  29. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  30. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  31. 1984 by George Orwell
  32. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  33. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  34. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  35. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  36. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  37. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams
  38. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  39. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  40. Ulysses by James Joyce
  41. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  42. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  43. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  45. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  46. Dune by Frank Herbert
  47. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  48. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  49. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  50. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (13 votes)