Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sarah Vowell, or Author Q&A

I love Sarah Vowell, as y'all might know or remember, so I was very excited to go see her read from her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.  We got two tickets, but Mike wasn't feeling well, so I took my sister instead.  She'd never heard of Sarah Vowell, but Vowell is funny, so I was pretty sure it was worth Marsha's time.  We ran into my friend Kris there, and it was a good reading--dry, witty, etc.

Now, you may all remember the worst Q&A I've ever been to was the last Sarah Vowell reading I went to.  It was humorously bad and kind of embarrassing (though there was a Lafayette callout there that predicted this book, which is kind of cool).  Anyway, that was more than made up for on Friday with the BEST Q&A I have ever attended.

Sarah (I'm going to call her Sarah now; we're tight like that) finished her reading and then said that the problem with a Q&A is that when you have a microphone, the only people who ask questions are the ones who are willing to walk up to a microphone, but when you don't, no one can hear the questions.  So she was going to have a special guest come up and repeat the questions into the microphone. 

And lo, from out of the crowd rose Nick Offerman, to stand beside Sarah on the podium with his own mic.  Apparently they're old friends, and since he's in town rehearsing a new production of Confederacy of Dunces, he showed up to support her.

It was hilarious.  When the questioners were too quiet to hear, he repeated the questions helpfully.  When they were full on loud enough, he would interpret them amusingly.  The question about her trips to France to research the book he repeated as, "Speak to us of cheese."  The one about the Puritans was, "Speak to us of corn."  When Sarah asked if he'd ever been to France, he talked about a trip he'd taken with his wife in which they scouted the guard patrol patterns in the sculpture garden at the Louvre so that they could take a photo of him posing naked with one of the statues.  He was charming and effusive in his love of the book, and she answered questions in her self-effacing but really smart way, and it was just delightful.  Marsha totally got her money's worth.

So now I'm not only enthusiastically awaiting my copy of Lafayette, but I have to rush out and get Paddle Your Own Canoe, to figure out what Nick Offerman writes about when he writes a book.  Poor me!

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Any hope I had of doing NaNoWriMo is really fading distantly into the background as I fail to write brief blog posts about the books I read (among other things I fail to write).

God, is there anything more boring than a blogger apologizing for not blogging?  So, new plan for the short term: little posts, mostly about comics I've been reading.

Just discovered Hexed, which is amazing and I can't wait to read the new arc, The Harlot and the Thief.  In the first book, though, Lucifer (Luci Jenifer) is an art thief with supernatural talents.  Her mentor, Val, gets her jobs, but she's also got her own past, and her own troubles.  A former client is unsatisfied with her service, and if she doesn't do some nasty things for him, Val could be in great danger.

Lucifer is smart, capable, and usually a step ahead of the game--but not always.  She's extremely competent, but she not only has flaws--she makes mistakes, even careless ones.  But she's not the only super-competent one around--I want to spend so much more time in this world.  So much so that I'm going to overlook the fact that she's in her underwear on the cover.  That was completely unnecessary, guys.

Anyway, it turns out there's a novel, too, and I'm going to try not to get my hopes too high, but I'm already very excited.  I'm also planning to read Michael Alan Nelson's Cthulu comics, because I think he might be amazing.  Let's find out, shall we?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Seriously Scary

The reason I wanted to pick up Wytches by Scott Snyder was because it takes place in Litchfield, NH, which is right next door to where I grew up; our high school served Hudson and Litchfield.

The reason it took me so long to get around to it is because the coloring has kind of a pointillist, spattered style that I found a bit confusing.  I tend to strongly prefer comics with clear, legible art; I hate not being able to figure out what's happening or who's who.

Finally, I got it from the library and started up.  It starts out kind of sad with a healthy dose of creepy. A family going through some tough times moves to a small town in New Hampshire to try to get their feet under them.  The mom has been in an accident and is in a wheelchair; the daughter had a bad experience with bullying that ended in violence.  They need a fresh start.

Some creepy things start happening around town--seeing things that seem ominous; hearing things that shouldn't be there.  It's all very atmospheric and eerie. 

And then, about halfway through?  Holy crap, the horror hits the fan.  Like, there are people and creatures and pacts and threats and people are threatened and taken.  This is about a family trying to hold together against the most terrifying, implacable forces of freaking EVIL with TEETH and it's so scary, guys, so scary.  And you never know where the enemy will come from.

This hit some serious parenting sore spots for me, which made it even more effective, and I have to say that I love and admire Sailor more than I thought I could.  My heart is kind of broken at the end, but I'm absolutely dying for the next book.

Do not read alone at night, but definitely read as Halloween approaches.  Holy crap.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Diversiverse: Love in the Time of Tinder

Welcome to the More Diverse Universe blog event! Check out Aarti's site for all the great posts from other participating bloggers!

I'm not sure if this is cheating, because I started reading this book without even thinking about Diversiverse.  But in addition to seeking out new authors and voices, it's worth spreading the word, so let's talk about Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance.

The craziest thing to me is that this book exists at all.  Aziz Ansari is a comedian and actor whom you may know from the incomparable TV show Parks & Rec. Seriously, that is the best show ever, go and watch it, and then check out Ansari's stand-up.  And then come back to this book and think about the fact that when this comedian decided to write a book, he didn't write a memoir or a humor book. 

No, he decided to write about modern romance--not as a comedian, but as a sociologist.  So he went out and teamed up with a real freakin' sociologist and just took this thing to town.  The book was coauthored by Eric Klinenberg, who is the director of something called the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU (according to Wikipedia) and author of several other books.  This is really a book about what dating is like in the modern world--with cellphones and texting and Tinder and OKCupid. 

And it's not from the point of view of a comedian, though there are plenty of laughs here.  Ansari talks about his own dating experiences, and relates stories that are familiar (if not personally--because I stopped dating before I was able to text--then through the osmosis of popular culture) and often funny. But the core of this book is real data, and the conducted focus groups and interviews and solicited information from people on message boards and basically aggregated a ton of data.

This talks about how instant communication has changed things like the wait to hear back from someone (leaving a phone message with their parents is NOT like texting); about how dating is very different whether you're a maximizer or a satisficer; about the inconsistencies between how people hope they will be treated and how they sometimes treat others. 

I listened to the audiobook, which means I couldn't see the graphs, but it also means I got to listen to Aziz Ansari tease me about how I couldn't see the graphs, which I think was a fair trade off.  The jokes were funny, and while a lot of the delivery is pretty straight, when he wants to make a point, he's a great performer.  My only complaint about the performance is that all of his quotes from interview subjects sound whiny--he sounds like he's making fun of whomever he's quoting.  My friend Noah does that when he's telling a story; even the people you're supposed to like in the story sound kind of dim.  I might be a little sensitive to that after hearing Noah quote me in anecdotes over the years.

I love pop sociology; "pop" as in "popular," but also as in "popcorn"--light, fluffy, delicious.  In the world of pop sociology, Aziz Ansari (and Eric Klinenberg) delivers.  Totally worth a listen.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Diversiverse: Creeping Terror

Welcome to the More Diverse Universe blog event! Check out Aarti's site for all the great posts from other participating bloggers!

No, wait, the Diversiverse isn't the creeping terror; it's Stephanie Kuehn's Complicit that is a creepfest of a book, in the best possible way.

Jamie's a bit of a nervous guy, and you can't blame him, because he's got problems.  The biggest one is that his older sister's just gotten out of jail, and he doesn't know what she's going to do. Cate was put away for burning a barn to the ground, an accident that killed several horses and severely injured a girl.  Jamie's nervous about what Cate's going to do.

And when Jamie gets nervous, his body betrays him.  His hands go numb, or he passes out, or loses time.  His memories are spotty; he can't remember anything before he was six, and almost nothing before he and his sister were adopted by their wealthy parents a few years later.  He has just the vaguest, distant images of his birth mother.

So when Jamie's phone starts ringing, and Cate starts calling, telling him that there are things he needs to know and to understand, he's not sure what to make of it.  We follow him as he gets closer to a girl, Jenny, at school, as he searches his past for understanding of Cate and of things he can't remember, and as he navigates school and therapy and his parents.

The sense of suffused dread that's going on here is insane.  You can tell from the very beginning that there is something going on, a lot more than what Jamie is telling you.  Jamie is the perfect unreliable narrator, because he is so straightforward.  Jamie's own confusion is enough of an indication of what is going on.  But the book still had me guessing at what the reveal would be, and I speculated my way through every possible permutation of any given character being actually dead, actually alive, or actually imaginary.

Really, I figured out the reveal well before the ending, but it wasn't one of those realizations where you then get frustrated that the book is lagging behind your understanding.  Instead, it's about watching the realizations unfold, and wondering where on earth this roller coaster is going to take you.

In addition to the aforementioned roller coaster, there is a lot of really great, meaty stuff going on here.  There are issues of class throughout this book that are dealt with in so many ways; Jamie and Cate are unique in their wealthy community, because they come from a poor, dangerous place, but now have all the privileges of their new family's status.  But they don't quite fit in, and they get trouble with a lot of people for that, in a way that makes you wonder where the loop of these troubled kids from the wrong side of the tracks being problem children started out. 

In so many ways, I felt like this was Cate's story, even though she's only in the book for a few minutes total.  Her presence looms large in Jamie's mind--really, all of his history, his memories (bot present and missing), and even the memories of others (their adoptive parents had two children who died years before) shape his life.  But Cate is the holder of the memories; this entire book is the process of Jamie figuring out what Cate knows--what she lived through and remembers, he is uncovering bit by bit.  And the more you learn about her, and the complex mess of her life and the actions she's had to take, the more you're kind of knocked over by her.

I love a book where you can look at any character and imagine how the story would look from their point of view--not just how the plot would unfold, but what angles and tangles would be added with their perspective.  This was a brilliant example of that kind of book.  And very, very creepy.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Ironically Titled

I finished the book Abandon, by Blake Crouch.  I kind of wish I hadn't.

(Got a free copy from Netgalley; this is definitely an honest review.)

I'm cramming this post out because I want to put this book behind me.  It's got a great premise that totally pulled me in: a hundred and some-odd years ago, a small mining town in Colorado became a ghost town.  Every resident disappeared, leaving behind no bodies, no clues, no indication of what had happened.  In 2009, some hikers are exploring the town.  We get the two parallel stories--Christmas in 1896, and the modern expedition.

When it comes to characters, we're starting off kind of weak.  In the 1890s, of course, we know everyone's going to disappear.  And by the time things really start happening, it becomes clear that that's not misleading--they're just all going to die.  The fact that it's dragged out and a lot of people die horribly in a lot of horrible ways, well, that's the part that makes it kind of like watching a slasher movie.  Sometimes there's blood and guts and sometimes horror and torture.  It's pretty disturbing, without a lot of psychological payoff.

In the modern parts, we get something similar.  It's straight out of a horror movie, between twists and double crosses and that moment of safety when OH NO THAT'S THE KILLER and random coincidences.  And even though you have nominally likeable characters--Abigail, our heroine, who's a reporter trying to connect with her estranged father while writing an article about the ghost hunters who are investigating the town; the ghost hunters themselves, Jane and Emmett, who seem well-intended and maybe to know some things; even Laurence, who's trying to reconnect with his daughter--there is zero character development.

Abigail doesn't start out meek and find her courage, or start out cocky and find her humility, or start out a flatlander and find her mountainous spirit.  Technically I guess she starts out comfortable and finds herself able to walk with lots of injuries, but Laura Dern's limping run across Jurassic Park to trip the circuit breaker stands out in my mind way more than the novel that I was reading literally an hour ago.

And let's talk about the details.  Abigail is a reporter, but during the two day hike to the town of Abandon, she asks no questions of her subjects.  They don't discuss their backgrounds, she doesn't chat them up.  The group talks a bit about their trip generally, but it's not till they've known each other for three days that she asks, say, "how did you get started in paranormal photography?"  She's a crappy reporter.

Really, I didn't like any of these characters.  Of course, tons of them turn out to be evil, or at least nasty, so that's deserved.  But it gave me nothing to hang my hat on.  I kind of liked a couple of the mining town residents, in an "interesting character" kind of way, but lots of them turned out evil, too.

I think I'm gonna keep thinking of things that bugged me about this book for ages.  I should probably just let it go.  The world is full of other great books to read.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Club of Books

So non-work book club appears to have fallen by the wayside: Persis is having a baby, Molly's super busy, and Natasha got married. A summer hiatus turned long-term.

But work book club has taken up the slack.  This month's meeting wasn't our best; I think the book didn't grab everyone, so most people hadn't finished it (which I consider to be a book club tradition, but which is a first with this group of overachievers).  I was halfway done at the meeting, but I'm almost through now, so I figured I'd at least give you a rundown.

Across the Nightingale Floor is the first book in the series Tales of the Otori, by Lian Hearn. I feel like I have many things to say about it, but they're not particularly complex.  Let's see, where to begin?

Summary: when the warlord Iida slaughters a village, there is one survivor.  He is taken in by a kind nobleman of the Otori clan, who opposes Iida.  Otori gives our orphan the name Takeo and adopts him as his own son, and Takeo and his adopted father plan to free the realm of their mutual enemy.

First thought: there are only so many tropes you should be allowed to have in one book.  I think the only YA trope that isn't here is the love triangle.  But you've got the Chosen One who is Naturally Good At Everything; you've got your standard Instalove, which tops out with a neat Falling Into Each Other's Arms During a Moment of Danger.  Some of these are so sticky I'm still trying to scrape them off--it turns out that Takeo's unknown father was a part of The Tribe, which is a group of people with ninja superpowers.  So Takeo has magic ninja powers and Only He can assassinate Iida!

So, yes, dense with tropes.  Rich in tropery.  There are parts I really like--a ton of kick-ass female characters, and some delighful set pieces of Takeo using his superpowers, people you think you trust making the wrong choices.  But between the tropes, the narrative style, the stoic characters and the major off-stage plot happenings, I felt like I was kept at a distance from some core part of the story.

It led to an interesting (if slightly awkward) book club, though, with big fans and big haters squaring off.  Which is usually worth it--though maybe not so much this time.

Speaking of, though, Kris and I have decided that we should resurrect Non-Work Book Club in the new year.  It needs a better name, though.  We'll need to get on that--clearly, top priority.