Category Archives: Books

General books.

End of the semester

My last semester of law school is currently in full swing; there are a little more than two weeks left of class, then exams, then graduation. Then the bar exam. My reading is suffering a little and this blog has definitely become less frequently updated; I just don’t have the desire to think critically about anything right now.

Just for fun, though, here is a list of titles from the stack of books that currently do not fit on any of the bookshelves in my apartment. Most of them I have read; some of them I have not.

  • The Poems of Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas
  • The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition, Catullus, translated by Peter Green
  • Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  • The Dreams in the Witch House, H. P. Lovecraft
  • Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, translated by Julie Rose
  • Poems of the New Century, Weingarten + Higgerson, eds.
  • Elective Affinities, Goethe
  • The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks, Sir Joseph Banks
  • Paradise Lost, John Milton
  • Tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann, E. T. A. Hoffmann, translated by Leonard Kent and Elizabeth Knight
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
  • The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas, translated by Richard Pevear
  • The Later Middle Ages, 1271 – 1485, George Holmes
  • Chaucer’s London, D. W. Robertson, Jr.
  • Life in a Medieval Castle, Frances and Joseph Gies
  • The Medieval Underworld, Andrew McCall
  • From Hell, Alan Moore
  • The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien, the lovely green, red, and gold illustrated edition

They are all teetering precariously atop my little white shelf and are topped off with a pink knit hat that I never wear.

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Borders

Very sad that the Borders in Center City is closing up. Out of the two big chains, I always much preferred Borders (though I was a Barnes & Noble employee… or perhaps because I was a Barnes & Noble employee!) because I felt that their selection was a little better, especially in regards to literature, history, and poetry (my main concerns).

Unfortunately, their landlord raised the rent of the Center City store too high, and so that store is closing as well as the one in King of Prussia.

I felt a little weird picking through closing sale books (everything must go!), especially with the knowledge that the employees cheerfully greeting me would soon be out of work. It felt very vulture-like, as though I was going over the store’s bones. Still, 10 books for around $100 was a pretty great deal, especially considering what I managed to find.

This was a great incentive to finally buy a copy of Stacia Kane’s Downside series (though try as I might I could not find the second book!) instead of repeatedly taking them out of the library. I also think I might already own Sigurd & Gudrun in hardcover, but I couldn’t remember for sure.

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Karen Russell — Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! is the tale of the swamp-dwelling Bigtrees, owners of a small island where they wrestle alligators for plump tourists, all still grieving the loss of their matriarch in their own ways: Ava by attempting to fill her shoes, Osceola by dating ghosts, Kiwi by plotting his escape, the Chief, their father, steadfastly pretending that nothing is missing or wrong. Each of them will embark on their own epic journeys.

Very impressed with this debut novel. Her writing is lovely, and plays with language in such fabulous ways. The child protagonist avoids the trap that many authors fall into–making them either too precocious, or too annoyingly childish. Ava’s voice straddles the line nicely but remains convincingly her age. The magical realist journey that she embarks upon in Florida’s nightmare swamps is drawn in language that causes you to feel, to taste and smell the landscape vividly.

Scattered throughout were gorgeous lines that stuck in the memory. For example:

Loving a ghost was different, she explained—that kind of love was a bare branch.

I found myself constantly highlighting passages that I wanted to return to later. I found myself most interested in Ava’s story, less in Kiwi’s, narrated in sarcastic third person and populated by ridiculous cartoon character mainlanders. But Ava’s incredible journey is impossible to put down. My one qualm with it was that a traumatic event is brushed over rather quickly and I didn’t feel adequately addressed, but other than that I really loved Swamplandia! unabashedly. I’ve seen the words “quirky” banded about in other reviews, and “quirky” always seems to have some negative connotations. Not so here. The characters are odd, to be sure, but in their own strangely logical ways.

Recommended.

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What I’ve Been Reading

Lately school has tipped into the “overwhelming” stage of the year, especially with the bar exam coming up (not really coming up–I have until the beginning of June to start worrying about the real studying) but I’m in the process of finishing up my application and one class I have is a constant, nagging reminder about how much I’m going to have to re-learn and how hard it’s going to be.

As a consequence, I haven’t really wanted to read much by way of “serious” literature.

I read Heat Wave, the first Castle tie-in, ostensibly written by Richard Castle himself–it’s a “cute” conceit, that the novelist main character of the TV series has actually published his Jameson Rook/Nikki Heat books in the real world. The writing was about what I expected, it seems kind of run of the mill “popular mystery/thriller” style, with a number of ridiculous cliches sprinkled liberally throughout. It was kind of fun as a fan of the show to try and pick out moments inspired by tidbits from the episode, but that couldn’t really make up for the predictable plot (twist, another twist, big twist at the end) and the fact that if you are at all a fan of mystery or crime novels (I am) you will be able to pick out the murderer as soon as that character appears for the first time. I started the second book, Naked Heat, but lost interest a few pages in and just put it down, never to pick up again.

Also read recently, the Medicus series (murder mysteries where the main character is an army doctor set in Roman Britain? yes please) and enjoyed them. They are by R. S. Downie but I don’t have much to say about those, other than that they are entertaining murder mysteries, and not bad as historical novels, from what I can tell (and I’m very picky about historical novels–these strike a good balance between modern affectations and humor, and period atmosphere).

ALSO reading, an annotated addition of Pride & Prejudice. P&P is my “chicken soup” reading, what I tend to pick up when I’m feeling down, and this has been fun. Some of the annotations are a little condescending (yes, I KNOW the dialogue is ironic, you don’t need to explain to me WHY) but some of the historical information and extra detail they provide is the kind of thing I like to know. So I alternate between interest and frustration.

At some point, I will go back to reading serious literature and things I haven’t read 50,000 times already.

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Ben Aaronovich — Rivers of London

I’m just going to review it under this title because I like it a lot better (and the cover is a lot classier) than the US version, which is just tacky. This always seems to happen–the covers for Joe Abercrombie’s books are always yards better in the UK but alas, there’s not a lot I can do.

I will preface this review by saying I am not much of an urban fantasy reader (though I did really enjoy Stacia Kane’s Chess Putnam series, which I will have to review one of these days) and the genre name seems to have a number of negative connotations. However, this is a modern fantasy set in an urban environment so I guess that’s the best genre definition you could have? Anyway, I was excited to read this book because I thought the UK cover was lovely and the summary sounded right up my alley (and in fact is a distant cousin to the general idea of one of my own works in progress), a mix of police procedural and fantasy.

Probationary constable Peter Grant, after witnessing a violent murder and subsequently interviewing a ghost, is thrust into a division of the police force that deals with magic–it’s all real, and there are a number of in-jokes and weary nods regarding common misconceptions. It’s led by Thomas Nightingale, England’s last wizard, who may be much older than he looks, and who takes Peter under his proverbial wing. Together, they are forced to deal with a number of problems including a vampire nest in Purley, territorial disputes between river gods, and of course, the main mystery: why are people suddenly losing their minds, having their faces collapse, and murdering each other violently?

It’s a good police procedural; I appreciated the little nods and inside jokes, and Aaronovich really does a good job of making London come alive in a similar Neverwhere-ish fashion. I liked the dry humor that ran throughout the story, including a Harry Potter reference; the writing was self-aware of the tropes it used but not obnoxious about it. Some of the twists and turns were a little predictable, I had an idea of where the malevolent spirit was “hiding” about a quarter of the way in, and guessed a few other things, but there were enough surprises to make it not disappointing to read. Peter was a good character to follow the world through: as we are introduced to magical concepts, so is he, though the exposition isn’t done in a dull way because of his inquiring mind and “deviousness” (several characters make reference to this–I didn’t quite see it, myself, but that’s all right). I felt the “romance” sideplots were a little underdone, and read another reviewer complaining about Peter’s attitude towards women, but to be honest, it just seemed fairly normal for a man… I don’t know what THAT says, exactly.

The writing really gave a nice sense of London’s multiculturalism, again seen through Peter’s background (his mother is from Sierra Leone; his father is a white Londoner) as well as through the people with whom he interacts: the river gods are both traveling folk and African immigrants. The descriptions of both the rituals and the food give the book a lively bit of flair and really drop you into the world. There are some scenes of intense violence, as well, but they were not overdone.

In summary, it was a good, fluffy light reading book in between all of my schoolwork, though it was occasionally scary (a nice balance of fluff and fright). I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this series. And hopefully getting back into the swing of book reviewing for a bit.

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Tim Gunn — Gunn’s Golden Rules

Okay, I’ll admit I’m slightly ashamed that my first update in AGES is Tim Gunn’s new book… I feel like I should be breaking a silence or reading rut with something more serious. But unfortunately, this was a quick, breezy book to blow through in between reheating old samosas for dinner and attempting to teach myself Federal Income Tax.

If you don’t know Tim Gunn, you probably don’t watch Project Runway, and probably won’t be terribly interested in this book. Although I GIVE UP on that show after this season, Tim is probably the most appealing thing about it. He serves as the designers’ mentor, go-to advice guy, and general father figure. He comes across on television (and in the book) as just such a genuinely nice, likable person. Gunn’s Golden Rules is a small, slim book centered around his “golden rules” of how to treat people–the book begins with him bemoaning a dearth of manners in the modern world. Each chapter is centered around one of these rules, and fleshed out with his own experiences with people who followed or didn’t follow those rules, little anecdotes about his life (which is really fascinating–the story about the time that, at age 8, he might have met J. Edgar Hoover in full drag regalia is a doozy to be sure), and about his experiences with Project Runway, and the fashion world (best story: Diane von Furstenberg drunkenly demanding a hot dog.)

Gunn, or his ghostwriter, has a conversational style that is enjoyable and easy to read. Of course, it’s not going to win any literary awards–it’s basically just that, a one-sided conversation on paper. But no one’s reading this because they were looking for the next Great American Novel, they’re reading because they’re interested in what Tim has to say. (And I have to say I would have liked a little more Project Runway gossip, but what is in there is interesting if presented in a typically NICE and conciliatory manner.) I’m not a huge fan of the celebrity memoir genre in general, but I have to say that this was a nice palate cleanser in between characteristics of gross income, personal deductions, and capital gains and losses.

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Emma Donoghue — Slammerkin

It came to Daffy then, how easily the worst in oneself could rise up and strike a blow. How even the most enlightened man had little power over his own darkness.

That quote alone, from the pages of Slammerkin, is a good, succinct summary of the book’s themes: a number of people each affected by their own darknesses. Set in 1763, this book follows the tribulations of Mary Saunders, a young girl whose desire for a red ribbon in a harlot’s hair sends her on a self-destructive path that will wreck her own life and the lives of those around her.

This is the kind of historical novel that I wish I could write. The prose reads both modern and grounded in the past, it flows beautifully, with the smallest observations making sentences so evocative, an unexpected turn of phrase making a reader stop and re-read (“Sometimes words were like glass that broke in her mouth”). And in the book are so many different themes woven in cunningly into the story so that you don’t even notice so much while you’re reading, but only after you have time to consider the book as a whole: freedom of various sorts (Mary’s desire for liberty, while Abi, a slave, considers her not to be a free woman), beauty, ambition… it’s really masterful how Donoghue pulls it off so seamlessly.

It’s obvious that she’s done her historical research though again, the details are woven into the cloth of the story and don’t stand out obnoxiously. Together they give an extremely vivid picture of life in both London and Monmouth: the riotous chaos vs. the more staid but no less treacherous for it. Especially the story of Mary Saunders, based loosely on a real girl’s tragic tale. Mary in the book is a curious character: there’s a selfishness and violence to her, that was there before life turned hard–but one could also argue that even with her mother, life was hard for her. Mary is a girl who longs for beauty, stifled by the drab of her parents’ existence. Even though she has so many unsympathetic qualities, though, Donoghue manages to make her likable and even sympathetic: there but for the grace, etc. And she has a dry wit and an energy that is captivating even on the page. The other characters are, similarly, flawed but with tiny kernels of salvation, that are just ignored.

This is not a happy novel; it’s quite wrenching, but beautiful. I’m seriously envious that she could write a book like this, and also like Room, so totally different in voice and structure but both so beautiful and impressive in their own ways.

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