May in Books

Ok, I have a lot to catch up on, blog-wise. Mostly because of the creeping laziness that has sucked me into its gooey embrace. I have finally started catching up on all the blogs I love to read and have so sorely neglected over the past two months, but this is proving a daunting task (and one that has expanded, balloon-like, to fill all the time I would normally spend blogging, reading, watching movies, doing work, talking to friends...).

So I will begin my return to blog-duty with an account of my last month of reading, with links to reviews already written:

  1. Special Assignments by Boris Akunin (1999, trans. 2006)
    • The latest in the best-selling Erast Fandorin series of mysteries by the Russian writer who operates under the (semi-anarchistic) pseudonym of Boris Akunin. I bought this in the UK (I don't think it has been published on this side of the Atlantic yet) as a Father's Day present for my Akunin-addicted pa. The delight of the series is referential: each book (without explicitly stating that this is its aim) takes a different sub-genre of mystery and inserts the hero (a dandyish but tragic Russian bureaucrat / detective) into its conventions. In the first book (my favorite, because it gave us access to Fandorin's inner life to a degree that has been frustratingly denied us in later works) the nervous neophyte criminologist is plopped down into a Holmesian logical whodunit (with traces of Auguste Dupin). Later we get a war thriller and an Agatha Christie-ish cruise ship murder mystery. This latest volume collects two novellas which bring Fandorin (now a mature detective of good international reputation) back to Russia to catch Jack the Ripper, among other things. In many ways Special Assignments returns to aspects of the series I have missed, making Fandorin less of a cipher and more of a nuanced human oddity. Like Holmes, Fandorin picks up a side-kick here, through whose less-than-expert eyes we see the events unfold, and this is a more satisfying narrative strategy than some of Akunin's. But there is an odd vein of bigotry (most pointedly leaning towards Orientalism, but not limited to it) running through the book, which is not sufficiently ironized to avoid giving me a good case of the skin-crawls. [May 8, **]
  2. Unlikely by Jeffrey Brown (2003)
    • I had the oddest feeling when I read Jeff Brown's account of the birth and death of a relationship. It seemed incredibly, unsettlingly familiar. Much more familiar than many books I actually had read (Le Guin's Earthsea cycle, which I apparently - my book diary claims - read in 1994). I now realize that Brown's oeuvre is much more like one long, autobiographical meditation, often on the subjects of love and loneliness. Brown's aesthetic is unsettling to me; it is pointedly sketchy, like a teenager's tortured, shy doodlings. But the character he draws for himself evokes a wincing sympathy, and almost everyone will recognize the delicate, detailed realism with which he outlines the progress of love. [May 10, ***1/2]
  3. Last Dance: Behind the Scene at the Final Four by John Feinstein (2006)
    • If you were reading my blog in March of this year, you may have gathered that I am a rabid fan of college basketball. This is not entirely accurate. I really know very little about college basketball, but I am a rabid fan of Tar Heel basketball, the premier sport of my alma mater (well, I will admit -proudly- that women's soccer at UNC does enjoy an even greater level of success, if not of prestige). John Feinstein's wonderfully gossipy portrait of the crown prince of sporting events (second only to the Super Bowl) follows a Final Four that is close to my heart - 2005's, when the Tar Heels won the title against an impossible strong Illinois team. The book is filled with excellent UNC lore, like the tale of near-deified coach Dean Smith's role in desegregating Chapel Hill's restaurants, or the numerous near-fistfights that broke out around this famously gentle but fiercely competitive man. At the same time, it manages to be painstakingly fair to Carolina's arch-rival Duke, a major force in college basketball, and Duke's famously skillful (if somewhat rodenty) coach, Mike Krzyzewski. Any book which can be utterly entertaining, while being equally admiring of both UNC and Duke (not to mention coaches, journalists, and refs) is a work of some skill and delicacy. [May 13, ****]
  4. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
    • The second in Le Guin's "Earthsea" cycle, The Tombs of Atuan leaves Ged, the hero of the A Wizard of Earthsea, behind for most of the book in order to focus on Tenar, a girl who is dedicated at an early age to the service of the Nameless Ones, chthonic beings who strip her name and identity from her. She becomes Arha ("the eaten one") and is taught an increasing brutality as her duties call for her to practice human sacrifice and navigate complex temple politics. A Wizard of Earthsea (which I read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge) was very much a simple, elegant expression of the archetypal magical coming of age story. It was hard to say what made it so satisfying, since it partook of the same basic plot as the Harry Potter books (and many others). The Tombs of Atuan draws on similarly archetypal mythic and narrative material (a labyrinth, for instance, plays a crucial, Ariadnean role), but it approaches this material with such graceful, urgent simplicity that I found myself hungrily speeding through the slim tome. I am trying to ration out the rest of the series, to make the two more that I own last through the summer. Gulp. [May 14, ****]
  5. Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde (2004) [May 17, **]
    • Alas, this was not nearly the book that I was hoping for, after the rest of the series.
  6. The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett (1983)
    • When I announced my intention of leaping into Terry Pratchett's Discworld series to my better-read friends, they jumped for joy and then recommended several works from the middle of the series. Ah no, I thought superciliously, when I start a series, I start at the beginning. That's really not necessary, they assured me, and The Color of Magic is not the most interesting or assured of beginnings. Of course, I arrogantly ignored their advice, and paid the price: The Color of Magic was fun, but not great. It is a collection of shorter tales set on Discworld, held together by two characters: the hapless tourist Twoflower and his grumpy and unskilled wizard companion Rincewind. Not to mention Twoflower's manic, muscular animated luggage, which refuses to allow Rincewind to abandon his charge. Or the meatheaded and mercenary (I'm on a alliterative tear here) heroes they encounter along the way. Some of the satire and pastiche of the fantasy genre is witty and engaging, and the novel turned out to be (I am not entirely happy to say) as light as I expected it to be. But I was forewarned, and will rush on eagerly with the series, knowing that the best is ahead and it was foolish to be such a slave to chronology. As soon as I can acquire the second in the series, that is. [May 23, ***]
  7. Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg (2006)
    • I want to devote longer reviews to both Twilight and Beasts of No Nation than I have time or room for here. Stay tuned. [May 26, ***1/2, NYTNotableBooks Challenge]
  8. Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks (2001)
    • Dylan Horrocks's metacomic about a small town in New Zealand that houses the world's highest density of graphic novel enthusiasts jumped to the top of my TBR pile when some other library user recalled it from me. All I can say is this: thank you, anonymous recaller-of-books. This complicated and multilayered story about authorship, betrayal, and identity turned out to be one of the great delights of my month. In it, comics reporter and adulating historian Leonard Batts (whose name reminded me, every single time I saw it, of poor Leonard Bast from Howards End) comes to remote Hicksville to do research for his biography of native son and comics mogul Dick Burger. But the more he mentions Burger's name, the colder his local reception becomes. Hicksville is overflowing with mise-en-abymes - comics within comics about comics and those who write them - and if it has a failure, it is that it is neither long enough for my taste, nor does it capitalize on all the narrative complexities it promises at the beginning. Call me postmodern (no, wait - please don't), but I was hoping for a little more (or more extended) examination on the boundaries between reality and art in biographical comics, which has emerged as such a dominant genre in stand-alone graphic novels. But I can still recommend this highly to anyone who is interested in comics, New Zealand, or metaliterature. You can find excerpts from Hicksville on Dylan Horrocks's website. [May 26, ****]
  9. Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (2006)
    • See above (#7). [May 30, ***1/2, NYTNotableBooks Challenge]
  10. Burmese Days by George Orwell (1934)
    • I had sworn to myself that I would finish this book before the end of May, but as the 31st arrived, I still had over a hundred pages to go. As I made the traditional wimping out gestures and noises, my boyfriend declared that a hundred pages could be easily accomplished by midnight and he was not going to speak to me until I had fulfilled my goal. So I entered into one of my most uninterrupted, undistracted reading pushes of recent memory. Burmese Days was inspired by Orwell's time in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, when he was just out of school, and it is filled with a vitriolic disgust with the workings of imperialism, and (more particularly) the mindless bureaucratic cogs whose utter lack of empathy makes Empire possible. The novel opens with the poisonous and portly Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin, who is plotting his own ascension of the ladder of respectability by means of the character assassination of the local toady, er, respectable figure, the scrupulously honest if self-hating Dr. Veraswami. Oddly, U Po Kyin then fades into the background for most of the rest of the novel, which follows Veraswami's spineless British friend Flory as he woos a prim but carnivorous new arrival to Burma, Elizabeth Lackersteen. The primary drama then becomes Flory's struggle to make love compatible with his Anglo-Indian identity, an identity that is almost entirely defined by the loneliness of powerful not-belonging. Orwell is unpityingly harsh to his characters, who are universally rotten people, with the exception of Veraswami and Flory, who are merely contemptibly, immorally weak. The result is a novel which, in its urge towards satire, relies too strongly on stereotypes (Asian characters are often defined by their similarity to various animals) which eat away at the novel's moral core. Still, an interesting early work from a fascinating writer. [May 31, ***, British Classics Bookgroup, 1001 Books you Must Read Before you Die]
Some notes on my May reading:
  • As you may notice, my challenges and book groups didn't see a lot of progress this month. Sigh. BUT - I did finish two New York Times Notable Books that had been sitting half-finished on my shelf for several months with weepy puppy-dog eyes, wondering what they had done to deserve this kind of shabby treatment from me. And that is a major source of triumph.
  • My reading didn't venture outside the 20th and 21st centuries this month. Boo to that. More heckling from my internal diversity watchdog: I read only one book in translation/not originally written in English this month. Tsk.
  • Genre diversity? Well, there were two graphic novels and one non-fiction book, but NO plays, to my very great dismay. Also, there was a fair amount of fantasy, but only one book that contributed to the "Once Upon a Time Challenge." Odd.
So how am I doing on my June goals? Well, I have started The Stone Diaries for my Book Awards Book Group, and it is engrossing but not very swift in its progress (by which I mean that MY progress through it is not very swift). I am about a third of the way through The Golden Ass for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, and I may have to switch Morphology of the Folktale out for Grendel as my last book in that challenge, since we have bought our tickets back to the east coast (where my copy of Morphology currently lives) for the very day the challenge ends, making it unlikely that I will finish the last few chapters before the deadline. You can see my (non-)progress through my monthly goal here.

4 Responses so far.

  1. I really enjoyed it, myutopia. And I should mention that its scope is considerably wider than the history of the North Carolina powerhouse schools. It is more interested in the big personalities of basketball, wherever they worked...

  2. Carl V. says:

    That Russian mystery series sounds wonderful!!! I may have to track those down online if they aren't available over here.

    Creeping laziness is something I have to fight tooth and nail every summer and I've been feeling its tendrils reaching for me eventhough spring is not quite over!

  3. The Boris Akunin books are indeed available over here, Carl V. (if "here" is the U.S.), they just lag a bit behind U.K. publication. I think that (at the moment) every book in the Erast Fandorin series is in print in the U.S. except this most recent one, which should be here by Fall or Winter. Let me know what you think of them!

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