April 3, 2012

February/March Reading Recap

Since I didn't do my regular monthly reading posts in March, this is an extra-large recap covering two months of books. I read everything on my February list, plus a couple more:

THE MIRAGE by Matt Ruff - I've already posted a longer recommendation for this novel, the latest from my favorite author. The short version: It's an ambitious alternate history with a challenging premise, and it's great. As a followup for readers interesting in learning more about the book and the process of writing it, I recommend this in-depth interview with Ruff on the Agony Column Podcast.

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon - I already waxed enthusiastic about this book, too. Another strong recommendation. Since this is the first Chabon work I've read, I'm looking forward to reading more, including the Pulitzer-winning THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY.

THE FLAME ALPHABET by Ben Marcus - I've been puzzling over how to describe this novel. I have to begin with the oh-so-eloquent statement that it's really weird. Interesting, potentially worth checking out depending on your tastes, but decidedly weird.

I'll start with the premise: Adults are becoming sickened by children's language. Speech itself, when delivered by children, is causing terrible illness. That concept was what interested me in the book. It's unusual, but it's not the weird part.

What I'm not sure how to explain is the way the story is told. This isn't a science fictional treatment exploring all the details of what would happen in a world where this occurred. The style is more like a fairy tale or fable (but that's not quite right, either), not too burdened with plausibility or logic. The book is self-conscious about language, which is fitting for the story. It sometimes seems like an extended metaphor. And I haven't even addressed the secretive form of Judaism practiced by the narrator and his wife in a private hut in the forest.

I listened to an interview with Marcus and wasn't surprised to hear that for him, writing is primarily about doing things with language, while presenting an ongoing narrative is not a given and was an experiment for him in this book. A quote, slightly edited for clarity: "It just made me really think about plot, and I really never had. My short stories were a lot more about language and strange situations or a set of strange images. I hadn't really written very many stories with a ticking clock and things happening."

All that said, THE FLAME ALPHABET does present a fairly compelling narrative, full of emotion and horror. At the core of the book is the idea that no matter what, a parent's love for their child endures. The main characters are sickened almost to death by every word their horrible, hateful teenage daughter utters, yet all they want is to be near her. You see what I'm saying about metaphor?

HALF LIFE by Shelley Jackson - This story is narrated by one of a pair of conjoined twins, in a world where "twofers" are common enough (and also uncommon enough) to have a pride movement. Nora lives in San Francisco, a hotbed of Twofer Pride, but she has no interest in being an activist or associating with the movement. Her situation is unusual in that her twin has been asleep for fifteen years, and Nora would like to take the controversial step of having her surgically removed, which would effectively be murder.

HALF LIFE is an engrossing and fun novel. I loved the gentle parody of pride movement practices and types that serves as a backdrop for the more serious and emotional main story. As Nora's quest for a willing surgeon unfolds, alternate chapters recount the twins' childhood in the Nevada desert. Along the way, the story features dollhouses and nuclear testing, both subjects I find fascinating. I recommend this book to anyone attracted by the description.

Jackson was selected as FOGcon Honored Guest but wasn't able to make it in person. At the con, I attended a discussion and a reading of her work, and I'm interested to read more of it.

BROWN GIRL IN THE RING by Nalo Hopkinson - Ti-Jeanne is struggling to deal with the needs of her newborn baby, her conflicted feelings about the child's bad-boy father, and the supernatural visions she's begun having. Her grandmother, who practices Caribbean healing and magic, says that Ti-Jeanne must learn to use her powers as a seer, but Ti-Jeanne is reluctant and overwhelmed.

The novel is set in an alternate Toronto with a post-apocalyptic feel, but what's interesting is that there haven't been any of the usual cataclysmic events. Instead, severe urban decay and government withdrawal from the inner city have left the downtown to the poor and the criminal elements. The characters live in abandoned buildings without public services and have returned to farming and bartering, while out in the suburbs, modern life continues. The setting and the use of Caribbean creole throughout the book create a rich world for the story.

Hopkinson was the other FOGcon Honored Guest, and I enjoyed hearing her read an excerpt from her brand new young adult novel, THE CHAOS, which is set in a different nightmare version of Toronto.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen - Lately I've been reading some of the classic works of literature that I missed in my education, and I've mostly found them a lot less appealing than they're supposed to be. So I was thrilled to make my first foray into Austen and immediately discover that her work really is as fun and funny as everyone says.

The first sentence of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE always appears in lists of famous first lines, so I'd read it many times, but I'd never been particularly impressed. Once I read the second sentence, I finally understood that it's a joke:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Sarcasm! Biting social commentary! A plot that's engaging to someone accustomed to modern writing! If you've been avoiding Austen because you're as scared of long-dead authors as I am, I'm here to say that this is one old book that lives up to the hype.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders at io9 offers 10 Secrets to Creating Unforgettable Supporting Characters: "Arcs are hard. But faking an arc is easy. Writers on television do it all the time. Shakespeare did it all the time, too -- read Henry IV, Part 2 and look for Hal's arc. You can create the appearance of an arc by establishing that a character feels a particular way -- and then, a couple hundred pages later, you mention that now the character feels a different way."


laurenhat said...

"Along the way, the story features dollhouses and nuclear testing, both subjects I find fascinating" -- this juxtaposition made me laugh. :)

I'm still intrigued but really unsure if I would enjoy THE FLAME ALPHABET. A bonus of the new Kindle I just bought -- I can get a sample of that book, as well as all of these books that you've recommended here (and which I haven't already read) and try them out! Yay. (I guess I could do that before on my computer/phone, but I somehow never thought of it before.)

laurenhat said...

Also, I've bookmarked that link in case I ever get back to OUTLANDIA! Very helpful in thinking about how to revise in a not-too-daunting fashion.

mamagotcha said...

Ooh, thanks! A couple of these are going onto my to-read list right now!

Lisa Eckstein said...

laurenhat: If you read the first 30 or so pages of FLAME ALPHABET (not sure how long the Kindle sample is, you can also look at my copy), you'll have a pretty good idea of whether you want to read the rest. I do recommend HALF LIFE to you in particular if you're interested, and you're welcome to borrow it.

mamagotcha: I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Sally said...

Yay! I'm so glad you finally read P&P and that you enjoyed it. It is certainly an entertaining book. I think the sarcasm is what saves it from just being a soppy, insipid, run of the mill romantic comedy. It's also a very well-crafted novel, and I think that Elizabeth Bennet is one of the most charming protagonists out there.

Interestingly, though, my mom seems to be engaging more with Jane Eyre than she did with P&P. Granted, this may be due to external circumstances/timing, and may also have to do with having it read to her instead of reading it herself. Jane Eyre is so much more intense that it might be easier to follow--plus there are fewer characters to keep track of. But she did enjoy P&P, especially once we got about halfway through it. And we're not done yet with Jane Eyre, so her preferences may shift!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Sally, I'm looking forward to discussing Pride & Prejudice (and Jane Eyre) with both of you next time we get together!

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