Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Runaround

As I said, I've been in a bit of a rut.  I'm wandering back and forth between about six books, none of which is quite scratching my itch.  I'm going to have to hit hard on the fun, exciting stuff for the next few things I pick up.

The sad part is that a few of these--not disappointments, but mood-breakers--are books I've been really excited about.  Like Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, which is the basis of the recent Oscar-nominated movie Carol.  I've wanted to read The Price of Salt for years, because of how much I enjoyed (slash was-freaked-out-by) The Talented Mr. Ripley.  What I knew about the book was that it was one of the first books about a lesbian romance that didn't end tragically.  I knew that the main character fell in love/became obsessed with a beautiful woman, and that at some point they travel together.  That's pretty much it.

This is one of those books that I don't enjoy nearly as much as I appreciate it, or nearly as much as I want to enjoy it.  I rather liked it at first, actually--we meet Therese, who is young and living in New York, trying to work as a set designer but working at a department store over Christmas to make ends meet.  I liked Therese's small life and her small observations, her boyfriend whom she is fond of but not in love with, her fear of getting caught forever at the department store.

And then she meets Carol, and her overwhelming sense of fascination with her is pretty great, too.  You know how it is (or at least I do) when you meet someone and you instantly feel like they're the most amazing person. As the unlikely friendship starts to grow, I was interested by how it evolved, and by how hard it was to figure out what Carol is thinking.

But as you get further into the book and you get to know Carol and Therese better, I don't feel like I'm getting to understand better what they're thinking.  Quite the opposite, actually--it's gone from feeling like the mystery of understanding the people around Therese is something that she and I share to feeling like Therese has crossed over into understanding the subtext of what's going on, what the people in the story think and want and might do, where I'm still on the outside, confused. 

There are so many conversations where everyone has a few drinks and lights a few cigarettes and talk about where they'll eat and who they'll see, and it seems to mean something to the other people but I can't even figure out the tone.  Are you free tonight? We might see Abby, but she's busy.  We can take a drive.  Shall we got that funny little Russian tea house?  No, Rumplemeyer's is right there.  All of these things seem to be evocative, but I have no idea of what.  So as Therese becomes more and more of the world, I'm more and more shut out. 

I'm nearly to the end, so I'll finish it, if only because I do want to see the movie.  I feel like the movie can't help but loop me in on what's going on between the lines, and I think Cate Blanchett is the perfect choice for this fascinating, worldly, aloof woman.  I'm not sorry I'm reading it, but I'll be glad to be done.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Parker to the Rescue

My book rut has been broken, and thank you to K.J. Parker for writing the novella I just read, Downfall of the Gods.

I got it from Netgalley; it appears to be an upcoming reissue in ebook format of a book from a few years ago.  Every time I read K.J. Parker, I am delighted.  His (I'm pretty sure he's officially been made public as being a man, right? It was a bit of a mystery there for a while) stories are both cynical and hopeful, and his characters are both untrustworthy (both to the reader and to others in the story) and generally non-evil.  I think.  Mostly.

This book is about a goddess--youngish, as these things go, or so it seems--who refuses absolution to someone who prays for it.  This leads to some disagreement among her divine relatives, and so she sets the penitent mortal a task and helps him along on his quest.

And so we follow the put-upon Archias, who is neither an evil man nor a blameless one, as he tries to avoid damnation.  Having a god for a sidekick is often more trouble than it's worth, and watching Archias's faith and understanding of what it means evolve over the course of the book is one of the best parts.  Gods make poor sidekicks; they have no sense of time, are easily distracted, and tend to ignore irritating things like laws and weather and physics.

We also meet many other gods and learn about some of their petty infighting, what it means to be eternal, and the paradoxes of omnipotence. They mostly seem to hate each other--or at least to dislike our narrator--and what at first seems to be all sly wit and wordplay gradually reveals itself to be real insight into the strange world they inhabit.

There's no way for an outline to do the book justice, because it's all about the laughs that make you think, and the characters getting enlightened in the background.  K.J. Parker's narrators in general are for fans of Miles Vorkosigan and Eugenides the thief--just as bright, just as sharp, but also darker, and more dangerous.  Brenda, this is a book I highly recommend for you.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Audio Stumble

Well, my excellent book streak over the holidays has been broken up a bit, not by bad books (for the most part) but by long ones that I'm reading all at once, and therefore not finishing.  A lot of them are kind of meaty, too, which I tend to dip in and out of, because I tend not to find the meaty ones quite as compelling.

But I think I've hit a big stumbling block with the audiobook I've been listening too.  Longbourn, by Jo Baker, is billed as Pride and Prejudice from the view belowstairs.  It had me for a while--the reader is very good, and her delicate, deliberate voice very much matches the literary tone of the book.  And I love the details of how a manor house runs, and the glimpses of the drawing room drama that we all know so well from our beloved P&P.

So I've made it about halfway through so far, but I'm thinking of giving it up.  I'd say that it had my attention for a while, but only tenuously. What the book really doesn't capture is what makes Jane Austen so great; this book has a very modern style, in that it is almost entirely composed of the fine minutiae of daily life--what the cloth feels like on your skin and the exact dampness of a certain kind of rain wetting your skirts and chilblains and flower scents and the meadow in the morning and in the moonlight and and and.  It's all sensory information.

Did you know that there's no physical description of Jane or Elizabeth in P&P.  We know Jane is lovely, and fairer than Lizzie, and that's basically it.  I realize this is a contrast Baker is playing on--that Austen ignored the mud that was getting tracked in, and the dishes that needed to be cleared, because she ignored the people who did those tasks, that even gauzy, floating young ladies had bodies that sweated and underclothes to be washed and chamberpots to be emptied.  But those details can't keep me going forever.

I'm a little confused by Sarah's sense of being trapped in the country--does everyone feel so trapped?  Is the idea that every small life feels small, or that Special People like Sarah aren't meant for these backwaters?  Also, is the sketchiness of Ptolmey Bingley really that sketchy?  I mean, he seems very smug and urbane, and that seems kind of a jerky response--the "reverse" snobbery of the country folk for the city.  I was dismissing that until Sarah didn't actually fall for him.  But then there's James--he's the romantic hero mostly because he's there, it seems.

And now, at the part I'm mired in, we're getting James's war stores in flashback form, and they're grim and brutal, yes, but they're also inevitable.  It's perfectly clear from what went before that he's on the run from the militia, as a deserter, presumably.  It's worth it to learn the nature of this downfall there, but it's the longest damned chapter of the book, and I know exactly how it's going to end.  War is hell, she said for 50 more pages.

It's not a bad book, I think.  It's very much a minutely observed literary novel in which not much happens, our favorite P&P characters appear only long enough to ignore the servants to a greater or lesser degree. Some of them get painted more sympathetically than Austen paints them, which I usually appreciate (see Joan Aiken) but here kind of resented, not because I don't like the idea of Mary being put upon or Mr. Collins just doing his best, but because the heavy implication is that Austen was being snobbish about people who are not terribly charming.  But she's showed herself to sympathize with the uncharming over the charming often enough (hell, Darcy's a fine example of that), so I'm not really on her side there, either.

I don't know--I hate ditching a book, but I've been avoiding listening to it, which seems like a bad sign.  Maybe I'll pick up the next Rivers of London book, or the first Flavia de Luce, and see if I ever come back to Longbourn.  That seems disingenuous, though.  I should probably just put it down.

In closing, let me leaving you with another piece of non-authentic Austeniana, one that I'm very excited about.

(PS. Who told me (on Goodreads, I think) that they would be interested to see my reaction to the book?  I can't find the note, but I want to discuss it with you!)

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Round Up

I have been reading SO many incredibly great round-ups, best-of lists, and year-end sign-offs.  And I've had an amazing run of books these past few months, some of the best stuff I've ever read.

It's also been a year of fewer books than I've read in a long time. 95 total, according to Goodreads, and I think that's over by a few, because it counts things that I mark as discarded in the middle (which I don't count).  But taking 95 as the number, 25 of those were comics, which, given how easy it is to zip through one of those, I kind of consider that a different list.  Leaving 70 novels.  For comparison, last year I read 173 total, 69 of which comics, meaning 104 novels.

I blame the fanfiction.  I've read well over 10 novel-length fics this year, but Goodreads doesn't know how to count those. I'm not even sure how to track back through how many of those I read, but if you then count the short ones--well, it was really a lot of pages.

My best-ofs have already been covered here, for the most part (or will be soon, I hope!), but for the purpose of posterity (and of offer someone else the delight of reading a blog post listing a bunch of good books), here's a list:

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik (Rich and personal and beautiful fantasy)
Illuminae, by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman (Perfect roller coaster of action and emotion and real thoughtfulness)
The Imperial Radch, by Ann Leckie (Possibly the best science fiction series ever)
Castle Hangnail, by Ursula Vernon (Haven't blogged this yet, but it was SO much fun)
Pip Bartlett's Guide to Magical Creatures, by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater (Bright, sassy, and a ton of fun)

Hexed, by Michael Alan Nelson (They say Lucifer is the next Buffy, and they might be right)
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed (Human vulnerability has never been so powerful or personal)
Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge (Pure storytelling, unexpected and inevitable)
The Scorpion Rules, by Erin Bow (I will follow Erin Bow anywhere; here it was a pleasure)
Jenny Lawson in general (I can't believe I didn't blog these!  Her memoirs are the BEST audiobooks--hilarious and so perfectly delivered.)

There's so much I could say about how great the last few months of reading have been, and how tough it was to pick favorites.  But mostly I'm feeling overwhelmed by the AMAZING books that are being recommended elsewhere, and I really just want to go read more.  So I'll just sign off and say happy new year!