California Bookstore Day 2015!

Saturday was California Bookstore Day, an event celebrating indie bookstores all over the state. Tragically, my city doesn’t feature an independent bookstore (there are comic stores, but you know it’s not the same), and so my son and I went to the bookstore in our neighbouring town. There were events and literary goodies galore, and we started off by buying this poster.

About that anatomically incorrect guy in his underwear and the dog in a diaper. My son loves the Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey. You say you haven’t heard of Captain Underpants and Professor Poopypants and Super Diaper Baby? Some people have all the luck.

So….I haven’t warmed to these books (understatement alert), but I also recognize that they aren’t written for me but for a kid who thinks “butt” is the funniest word ever, right next to “stinky” and “slug”. As a parent, I mostly stumble around deciding on a case-by-case basis as to where to Draw The Line, and in the matter of Dav Pilkey’s work, I figured I wouldn’t/oughtn’t prevent my son from reading age-appropriate if utterly tasteless humour. So we laid down $10 for this poster, which is now hanging in my son’s room, and then we bought the latest Geronimo Stilton Spacemice book because his birthday is coming up soon.

But I’d had a secret agenda for visiting the store as well: I’d had my eye on these literary tea towels all along. Literature! Tea! in a glorious towel union!

teatowels

The teal one reads “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read–Lemony Snicket.” The yellow one says “People that like to read are always a little fucked up–Pat Conroy.” These are the “salty” towels–there’s another “sweet” set of two towels with different quotes featuring more family-friendly language.

But alas, I ended up not buying either set of towels. They were indeed brilliant as conversation pieces, but I didn’t think I’d get much traction from them when used for their intended purpose. I live with a seven-year-old who spreads jam around a twelve-foot radius every breakfast and often mistakes a tea towel for a dishrag, and these towels didn’t look like they’d survive such abuse. And I didn’t want to buy them just because they were cute (which they *totally* were). The notion of collecting stuff that is intended to be functional but ends up decorative confounds me–what’s the point, say, of dressing up a bed with those unyielding hand-embroidered pillows which must be removed each night? Moreover, I dislike collecting stuff that I don’t need or can’t use immediately. The prospect of having to take care of the said stuff, store and mentally catalogue it (and decide whom to bequeath it all upon my death) gives me the shivers. You know those homes with gracious glass-fronted display cases housing lovely objets d’art collected on world travels or crystal handed down by ancestors who bit bread (or had sex) with royalty? Well, that’s my nightmare residence. The only things I collect are books, hell yes! Indeed, it is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read…

I seem to have digressed from the topic of California Bookstore Day, which, in 2015, expanded to include independent bookstores all over the country. I hope you celebrated the weekend in your own bookish way! And check out @bookstoreday for pictures and tweets from the day.

Odds and Bods: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, Stiff by Mary Roach

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. From Amazon, “Beginning with the classic tale of David and Goliath and moving through history with figures such as Lawrence of Arabia and Martin Luther King Jr., Gladwell shows how, time and again, players labeled “underdog” use that status to their advantage and prevail through the elements of cunning and surprise.”

The book is, in essence, a string of feel-good anecdotes that make an easy point–that adversity (such as dyslexia, early loss of a parent etc.) spurs some to greatness while condemning others to struggle and failure. As always, Gladwell writes with such easy fluency that you’ll zip along as though reading a potboiler, but the premise is way too loose for a central thesis, and too slight to power this 320 page book.   And I found the whole argument problematic–by making it about individual effort, it diminishes the issue of institutional support for those who lack the ability or means or will to overcome overwhelmingly unfavorable odds. As for intellectual rigor, well, the author would sweep the podium were long jumps in logic an Olympic sport. The sweeping conclusions Gladwell draws from the slimmest of anecdotal evidence and reasons (with little or no proof) will leave you shaking your head as soon as you step off that well-oiled conveyor belt of a narrative.

Btw, have you visited the Malcolm Gladwell book generator? Here’s a sample:

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. I haven’t touched popular science writing in about a decade; my last attempt, if you must know, was pretending to appreciate Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought when I was dating my (now-) husband. Mary Roach (who writes for Salon and Wired, amongst other publications) has ended that dry spell. Stiff is a book about dead bodies, and it’s a charmer. A wide-ranging (if mostly West-oriented) exploration of our changing cultural and scientific narratives when dealing with cadavers, Roach analyzes issues and practises ranging from organ donation to embalming to cannibalism. The book is remarkably detailed (do not read this book while snacking) and livelier than you thought possible, irreverent but never disrespectful towards the dead.

Roach’s body of work includes books about the afterlife, sex, and digestion, in Spook, Bonk and Gulp respectively. Am I the only one who finds her titles sort of interchangeable?

YA reading update

I had the flu in January and ah, my friends and oh, my foes, please get the flu shot if/when you can, for my seven days of misery was followed by several weeks of exhaustion, all due to my own laziness and stupidity. The flu left me unable to read anything demanding–all I wanted was juicy plots sans navel gazing and happy endings, preferably in paperback so I could balance the book on my stomach while lying down flat.  (I could’ve done that with hardbacks but the covers cut into my tummy.) YA fantasy, in the form of strong girl protagonists kicking sorcerer butt over the course of a trilogy seemed the order of the day. Well, there’s an abundance of those books, and yes, most of them are painfully derivative and you could’ve saved your money for wine or acetaminophen, but I did find some winners. And I’m posting this piece in March because I finally finished all instalments of all these trilogies last week.

1. The Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson: 16-year-old Elisa, the overweight and underconfident younger princess of  a made-up-name kingdom has a special stone in her navel (ha!) that gives her magic powers. The Godstone is a gift from God, and as the stone-bearer, Elisa is fated to do a special act of heroism in service of God. Over the three books, Elisa meets dudes, becomes more confident and smarter, rises up to the challenge to save her kingdom, and becomes thin.

As you might have guessed, there was a bit too much God-talk for my liking, but overall, these are fun, engaging books, whose strong finish made up for their shaky start. And apparently I can live with navel gazing when there’s a pretty blue stone to look at. The only other real downside was the emphasis on weight loss. Can we have a plus-size protagonist without making her a teachable lesson already?

2.  Agent of Hel trilogy by Jacqueline Carey: If you are looking to gift this trilogy to your 12-year-old mighty girl, be warned: Carey’s protagonist Daisy has sex, with a different person, in each of the three books. There.

Daisy Johanssen was inadvertently conceived when her mom had a run-in with a Ouija board; her dad is a demon who wants to tempt her to the dark side. Daisy. Must. Resist. or she’ll cause Armageddon. Daisy is currently employed as the goddess Hel’s liaison with the mundane world in a small American town, where she solves paranormal crimes and banishes otherworldly evildoers.

The series is powered by excellent pacing and strong secondary characters, but Daisy’s tedious love life slows the books down, and her ultimate squeeze has all the appeal of week-old guacamole. Also, if you love Carey’s Kushiel books, note that the writing in AoH isn’t anywhere near half as good, and the romance is fathoms weaker.

3. Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas: Three books in this series have been published so far, with more to come, but let’s agree to call it a trilogy for the purposes of this post. Celaena Sardothien (yeah, I know) is the official Royal Assassin of made-up-name-kingdom–she won the Hunger Games in Book 1, see?  But Celaena is hiding a big (as in world-altering) secret, and her new position is fraught with an extra supply of supernatural danger.

Lots of political intrigue, painstaking world-building, a strong assassin heroine, and a thrill-a-minute plot make this series a true page turner. I did prefer the second and third book in the series to the first though–it’s like Maas stopped trying so hard to make her protagonist likeable and relatable, and instead trusted her enough to let her be. Maas’s strength lies in her kick ass action scenes that power her narrative–there’s an episode in the third book featuring a witch and a wyvern that is packed with surprises and intense emotion (and yep, lots of cliff falls and battles to the death). I flipped back and re-read that section immediately after I’d finished.  Yes, the writing is occasionally uneven, but when Maas is good, she’s phenomenal.

4. The Bone Knife by Intisar Khanani : This is one of those free-on-Kindle short stories for which I had floor-level expectations, but oh, I was so wrong. Khanani’s disciplined, tight prose is a joy to read, her pacing excellent, and her setting and characters are executed with grace and ease. Oh, and the story features some very necessary (and refreshing!) diversity; most YA novels seem to be set in Europe with an occasional sandy desert thrown in, and their covers favor ethereal blondes holding phallic weapons.

Rae, the oldest of three sisters, is hard-headed and sensible and wary of things that seem too easy. When a supernatural visitor threatens to inadvertently reveal the secret the sisters guard, Rae must put her formidable common sense to use to protect her family despite the danger she personally faces.

It’s a very short short story, be warned! But it’s good enough that I immediately bought Khanani’s novel Sunbolt for the princely sum of $ 1.99, and I’m going to start reading this weekend. Go buy this indie author’s books here!

5. His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers: LaFevers cleverly incorporates mysticism and romance into a slice of real-life fifteenth century history, wherein the young duchess of Brittany sought to protect her domain from enemies within and without–powerful France sought to gobble up the region, and many in the duchess’s court would have been glad to see it happen. In LaFevers’s imagining, there’s a Brittany convent serving Saint Mortain, the God of Death, which trains young girls (who are said to be marked as Death’s Daughters) in the art of killing. Each novel in the trilogy features a young assassin who helps the duchess maintain her position–and finds love on the way. The books are a satisfying marriage of political intrigue with an assassin-coming-of-age arc, and I enjoyed the (historical) happy ending; perhaps *you* don’t need Wikipedia to learn that  Anne of Brittany finally married Charles VIII of France, and managed to ensure a measure of independence for her duchy?

LaFevers is a very fluent writer, and I zipped happily through these books. (If I found the last instalment a tad too precious, it’s probably because I passed Young Adulthood many moons ago.) But oh, that series title. None of the books prioritize the appearance of the protagonists over their skills or character; calling the series “His Fair Assassin” make the books sound shallow, and does a significant disservice to the plot and the writing.

6. Snow like Ashes by Sara Raasch:  Published late 2014, Snow like Ashes is the first instalment of a planned trilogy. The Kingdom of Winter was conquered several years ago, and its citizens’ magic stolen by Spring. Eight survivors, including the heir to the throne, escaped, and have been working to regain their magic and their kingdom. Young Meira is one of the eight, and she hopes to be the one who’ll steal the magic locket that’ll help the Winterians rise again. Meira’s weapon of choice in her battle against the occupiers is the chakram (pictured below).

Serious points for the cover, which dares not to showcase the blonde skinny heroine, but I’m afraid I found this book derivative and bit ho-hum. The big plot twist was hugely predictable, there are too many info-dumps like “The Feni river gurgles off to my left, marking the northern border of Spring before it flows out to the Destas sea”, and fatally, the world-building is borderline silly. The evil guy is called Angra, the capital of Winter is Jannuari, and the Autumn Kingdom’s capital is Oktuber. Am I the only one who reads the last as an acceptable potato? The characters didn’t grab me at all, and so I flipped to the end to confirm my plot twist thesis before quitting this book midway.  One DNF out of 14 reads doesn’t seem too bad though.

Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator

When we meet fifty-one year old New Delhi detective extraordinaire Vish Puri, he’s consuming chili pakoras with relish–and obsessive neatness, for he’s afraid to leave any evidence of his meal lest his wife discover he’s flouting his doctor-mandated low-fat diet. Oh, and the reader is presented with a helpful footnote directing her to the glossary on page 297, for help with the word pakora.

The first page of this book pretty much sums up all that’s right (and the very little that’s not) with The Case of the Missing Servant (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Tarquin Hall (whose name, I must confess, immediately conjured for me the image of a stately manor filled with grim ancestral portraits) has created someone very special in Vish Puri, and the opening note of gentle humour and irony (the detective avoiding detection by his wife) immediately made me warm to the protagonist. But. While there are no further footnotes, this book contains a Glossary with a capital G. If I hadn’t borrowed The Case of … from the library, I’d have liberated it from pages 297 to 310, for this glossary includes sari and namaste and samosa–and oh, the horror–chai. CHAI. If my next English village cozy mystery doesn’t include a glossary explaining jumper, hiya, scone and cuppa, I shall take it very personally indeed.

Much of the business of Vish Puri’s Most Private Investigators Ltd. flows from the Pre-Matrimonial Service, i.e., investigations into the lifestyle and finances of clients’ potential (arranged) marriage partners. But now, Puri is presented with a truly interesting case by a prominent lawyer, Ajay Kasliwal, whose maid Mary vanished from his house in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Mary’s employer doesn’t know where she was from, doesn’t know her last name, doesn’t have a photograph of her, and Mary had no identifying documents. (Note: Many domestic workers in India are desperately poor migrants from marginalized areas, and as they’re unskilled, uneducated workers, they’re usually unprotected by legislation. Consequently, they are ill-treated and exploited all too often. Yes, this is a national shame.)

Puri must find the missing Mary amongst India’s billion people, and find her fast, for Kasliwal’s political enemies are claiming he impregnated the maid and subsequently murdered her. Puri and his trusty sidekicks (whom he’s code-named Tubelight, Handbrake, Flush and Facecream respectively) battle against the uncooperative local police and the intransigent Mrs. Kasliwal, all the while continuing with their ongoing pre-matrimonial investigation cases. Then things take a dire turn when someone attempts to shoot Puri.

It’s often tricky to write about India without coming off either as condescending or willfully blind towards the country’s flaws, but Hall’s balancing act is near perfect–he acknowledges the corruption and crappy infrastructure and structural injustice, but is quick to note uniquely Indian avenues to happiness. He is also both cognizant and appreciative of the cultural notions of duty and honor that kick in when the State and the toothless media fail its citizens. You could do much worse than use this book as a primer to contemporary Delhi–Hall is an acute observer with a nuanced understanding of North India (and Delhi in particular), and is careful to avoid stereotypes and generalizations.

My only beef with this book is the overabundance of explanation about the setting, and it’s not only to do with that Glossary. The initial chapters have a strong whiff of journalistic description about them–there’s much in the vein of “With the population explosion–now 16 million and rising–came a dramatic increase in crime”–and sometimes the writing takes on an expository tone. When Hall hits his stride, however, everything falls into its proper place, and I didn’t surface till page 297.

While there’s much to savor in Hall’s choice of setting, the true appeal of this book for me lies in its characters, both main and secondary (Puri’s mother Mummy-ji is awe-inspiring, and I’m very intrigued by Facecream and her khukhri knife). As a morally upright yet realistic person who actually gets things done in New Delhi (!), Puri is as heroic as he is agreeable, and indeed, Hall writes him with fond indulgence that’s very appealing. There are three further Vish Puri books, and I suspect that they’ll be even better than the first installment, now that Hall has the explain-ey bits out of the way. So it’s back to the library for me for The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Sounds like a hoot.

Weekend read: Harry Potter by Ayn Rand

Oh, I love funnywoman Mallory Ortberg (of The Toast), and if you haven’t read her work yet, you couldn’t do better than start with her Harry Potter Ayn Rand mash-ups. Like so:


Here’s an excerpt from the first piece.

Harry and Ron stood before the Mirror of Erised. “My God,” Ron said. “Harry, it’s your dead parents.”

Harry’s eyes flicked momentarily over to the mirror. “So it is. This information is neither useful nor productive. Let us leave at once, to assist Hagrid in his noble enterprise of raising as many dragon eggs as he sees fit, in spite of our country’s unjust dragon-trading restrictions.”

“But it’s your parents, Harry,” Ron said. Ron never really got it.

Harry sighed. “The fundamental standard for all relationships is the trader principle, Ron.”

“I don’t understand,” Ron said.

“Of course you don’t,” said Harry affectionately. “This principle holds that we should interact with people on the basis of the values we can trade with them – values of all sorts, including common interests in art, sports or music, similar philosophical outlooks, political beliefs, sense of life, and more. Dead people have no value according to the trader principle.”

“But they gave birth to y–“

“I made myself, Ron,” Harry said firmly.

Read the rest here.  And go on to  The Chamber of Secrets,  Prisoners of Collectivism , Goblet of Fire, Order of Psycho-epistemology, and Half-blood Prince.  You’re welcome. And now, the wait for The Deathly Hallows begins.

I’ll leave you with this lovely cover of Fabio-Harry battling evil Marxist Dementors in The Prisoners of Collectivism.

The New Hercule Poirot Mystery: The Monogram Murders

Hercule Poirot is back, mes amis! As you probably know, crime novelist Sophie Hannah received permission from the Christie Estate to resurrect Poirot for a new 1929 adventure  in The Monogram Murders (William Morrow, Sept. 2014). There’s a new narrator this time round–a young Scotland Yard detective named Edward Catchpool, with whom Poirot shares a lodging house. Catchpool is less bumbly, but oh! a lot more confused than Hastings of the beautifully unsuspicious mind.

At a London coffee-house, Poirot strikes up a conversation with a scared woman named Jennie who claims she’s being pursued by a murderer–and that she deserves to be killed, as it’s “the only way to make things right”. Later that evening, he meets Catchpool, who tells him about three murders at the swank Bloxham Hotel. Two women and a man have been found poisoned in their respective rooms, their bodies laid out in a formal manner, each one’s mouth holding a monogrammed cufflink bearing the letters PIJ. Intuiting a connection between the two events, Poirot sends Catchpool off to Great Holling (a St. Mary Mead stand-in), where the two murdered women came from, to talk to the locals and figure out what PIJ stands for, while he tries to track down Jennie, fearing she’ll be be the next victim.

Taking on the creation of a writer who’s been outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible is a gargantuan (and to me, mostly thankless) task; no wonder the curtain has stayed down all these years. I’ve never read any of Hannah’s work– she’s authored nine psychological thrillers, and they might all be superb, but alas! The Monogram Murders left me mostly unmoved. I finished this book primarily to find out the identity of the killer, for Hannah’s writing isn’t anywhere nearly as readable as Christie’s deceptively easy style. The book is undone by meagre characterizations, and none of the cast really comes to life. Catchpool was so thinly fleshed in that I can’t picture him at all. Hastings was a bit of an ass, but he was a loveable ass; Catchpool is just…flat. His defining characteristic–he’s a Scotland Yard detective with a long-standing aversion to dead bodies–seemed ill-chosen and downright weird. Don’t get me wrong: it’d be a great plot point were it lovingly explored in a psychological thriller, but in a brisk whodunit, the set-up borders on the ridiculous, because we never learn why Catchpool, given his phobia, chose to deal with murder in his professional life.

The plot centres around events in the past, and while it’s a solid, well-engineered plot triumphantly evocative of Christie, there’s little in the present-day narrative to make the reader feel truly invested in the outcome. Fatally, Hannah omits from her dramatis personae a likeable person (or persons) whose fate depends on the investigation. There are very few secondary characters, so the identity of the murderer is restricted to a small cast of suspects. And there simply aren’t enough juicy sub-plots involving these characters–the whole lot of them could have been poisoned too, for all I cared about them. Furthermore, I enjoy the touches of melodrama in Christie’s books (it’s at least partly why Poirot and Marple make for such good convalescence reads), and I found the book curiously staid. The dewy romance, the illegitimate child given away under duress, the snooty titled lordling, the long-lost sibling returned from the colonies, the false identity–all plausible plot devices in the time period, and ones that Christie employed with much relish in her oeuvre–are noticeably absent in Hannah’s work.  The setting is 1929, but you wouldn’t figure that from atmospheric detail but from the absence of modern technology. Hannah is careful with dialogue and setting, but mostly in terms of what she leaves out, and she makes little effort to build a picture of 1929 London for the reader–there’s scant references to the outside world or of the characters’ attitudes towards the issues of the day.

What about Poirot? Well, of course, there’s a generous scattering of Belgian-not-French reminders,references to the little grey cells,  and exclamations of the incroyable! variety. I actually thought Hannah got Poirot down very accurately, apart from one sour note–this Poirot is grievously lacking in compassion compared to Christie’s creation. ‘Poirot’s face was a mask of contempt. “If that is your opinion, then you must be every murderer’s favorite policeman.” ‘ he tells Catchpool.  In another instance, he tells the unfortunate Catchpool not to console him. “Always you want to turn away from pain and suffering, but I am not like you, Catchpool! I cannot countenance such…cowardice.” Zing! We all hold deeply cherished opinions about Poirot, and while he’s always seemed arrogant and full of himself and pompous and theatrical, I’ve never thought him capable of meanness, especially to his friends. I could (of course) be completely wrong in my assessment of Poirot, but let’s face it: it’s going to be nigh impossible for any author to win this game against us beady-eyed Poirot aficionados who’ve had decades in which to cement our opinions. Sophie Hannah, I feel for you, I do.

In sum, I found  The Monogram Murders admirably plotted, deftly engineered, and singularly devoid of charm. I think the probability of liking this book boils down the mysterious affair of writing style. It’s hard to judge if newcomers to Christie would warm to this novel; I imagine they’d enjoy the intricacy of the plot, but wouldn’t quite see what the fuss surrounding Poirot was about. And that would be a bit of a shame, n’est-ce pas?

Wonder by R.J.Palacio

Wonder by R.J.Palacio (Knopf, 2012) has over 5000 (mostly) 5-star reviews on Amazon; it’s apparently a phenomenon. 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, born with severe craniofacial anomalies, enters fifth grade at public school after  having been homeschooled all his life. He makes a few friends, and a few enemies who decide that his appearance makes him fair game for bullying; the majority of the kids don’t take sides.

Wonder is, in essence, a book about the importance of taking sides, of actively choosing to be generous and acting upon that impulse. In the context of Auggie’s condition as a form of outsiderness subject to discrimination, I was reminded of Beverly Tatum’s quote about the conveyor belt of racism.

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt… Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around…But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt- unless they are actively antiracist- they will find themselves carried along with the others.” 

There is everything to like and admire about a book that demands positive action from those who would remain bystanders and consider neutrality a sufficient response in the face of injustice. The fifth-grade English teacher at Auggie’s school gives the class a precept every month; the first precept is: “If you have the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” As the novel progresses, we witness the precept put to the test, and it’s heart-rending to read about Auggie’s struggle to be treated like a “normal” person in the real world.

I lent this book to a wonderful warm-hearted 10-year-old friend who read it in one breath and loved it. I would probably love it too were I a middle schooler, but seeing as I’m a cynical old biddy, I confess to two reservations.  [SPOILERS] My main issue was that the kids were too nice to be realistic–there’s ONE truly rotten apple in the entire fifth grade class. It’s simply too hard to believe that so many kids would value kindness over popularity and be so nice to Auggie. What’s this school, Utopia Elementary over in Messier 82? Which brings me to my second reservation, about the book’s ending. [MAJOR SPOILER] At the close of the school year, Auggie gets a medal and finds, to his surprise, that he is popular.  Auggie’s essentially being rewarded for being himself, for living his life as a child with an anomaly, and I found that somewhat condescending. (For more about this issue, see, for example, this parent’s discomfort when her disabled daughter is called heroic.)  So I’m going to recommend this book whole-heartedly if you plan to buy it for a younger reader or if you look fondly upon your school years, and recommend it with slight reservations for the rest of the world.