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Sometimes you come across a particular book that's exactly what you need to read at exactly the right time. And sometimes, you read a book and think, "Man, I wish I'd read this five years ago."

Margaret Lea, our heroine, is a solitary type and mostly content to be so, with a shop full of books for company and a father who does his best to mediate the Obligatory Family Angst. One day, however, she receives a letter from Vida Winter, Britain's most popular and most mysterious writer, now very ill and wanting a biographer who can understand the secret at the heart of her tale.

This is clearly a book written for book lovers, especially lovers of the sort of gothic English fiction that's become classic in the past century (Jane Eyre, The Woman In White, and Wuthering Heights are among the many stories repeatedly name-checked). In a lot of ways, the first half of the story feels like a pastiche of these more famous tales - elements cut and pasted, rearranged in a bouquet and tied with a bow or two. Interesting if you like that sort of thing, but it never quite achieves a sense of harmony, of being greater than the sum of its parts; and if you're not a fan of that particular genre, it'll probably feel overwrought and ridiculous. Even if you are, it's frankly a bit slow and boggy, with rather a lot of time spent inside Margaret's head.

A little over midway through, and after an entertainingly meta interlude where one minor character even points out the overwroughtness of the whole project, things start to feel a little more real. The characters become better-fleshed, with more nuance and personality. The story finds a surer footing. And while I'm not entirely convinced by the Big Secret, it brings enough of the disparate threads together for the conclusion to be satisfying, if perhaps not as cathartic as the author hoped.

I feel like if I'd read this some years ago, when my life was slower-paced, I spent a lot more time alone, and I was making a concerted effort to read a number of these classic gothic novels, I might have enjoyed this story a lot more. But as it is, I'm much busier and more social these days, so the slow pace of the story frankly annoyed me. (If it weren't for Audible's 1.5x speed-listen feature, I might not have gotten through the first part at all.) Still, everything moves in cycles; sooner or later I'll probably slow down again, and turn more to books for company. Perhaps I'll reread this book then, and see whether I appreciate it better. C+
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Not that I figure anyone really had any doubt; I've been plenty active on Facebook and even a bit on Twitter. But for a while I feel like I've had long-form writer's block; I have several blog posts full of Big Thoughts and Theories percolating in my head, but nothing's coming out. So instead of trying to write about Big Thoughts and Theories, I'm going to fall back on my usual blogging habits and relate some small things that are happening in my life right now.

--Things continue to go well in my work life. I've settled into the spa job, and found it to be both interesting and fairly lucrative. There's little opportunity to build repeat clientele, but I'm gaining all kinds of experience working with different body types, and the tips have been quite good on the whole. My private bookings have seen a real boost too, thanks to some good word of mouth, and I've acquired several regulars. For the past couple of months I've been averaging two to three bookings a week, which doesn't seem bad at all given that I'm working out of my home and don't advertise other than in person. And I've had a few of the yoga teachers at the studio specifically ask for feedback on their assists, which is gratifying.

--I'm gearing up for another Big Summer of Travel; upcoming is a trip to Alaska to help my mother move into her (giant, gorgeous) new house. (Related: if anyone's interested in traveling to Alaska in the future, hit me up - I know a great place we can stay.) Shortly thereafter is a trip to Washington, DC to visit [personal profile] peacefulleigh's family. Also, my fellow Arizona-dwelling PNW expatriate friend Niki is finally escaping the desert, moving not fifteen minutes away from Leigh's clan. (I may or may not catch her this trip - her tentative schedule has her arriving a couple of days after I leave - but still. Hurrah for good friends living close to each other! It's the next best thing to having them both live close to me.) Then in September, I have plans to take my friend Elyse to Anchorage to do touristy things, then hop down to Juneau to visit friends I haven't seen there in far too long. I'm looking forward to it.

--My Goodreads friends may have noticed, I've been on a real comics kick lately. After a good friend did a killer cosplay of Gwendolyn from Saga, I figured I should read the source material, and am enjoying it greatly - I love the contrast of the crazypants fever-dream worldbuilding with the so-shopworn-as-to-almost-be-mundane (but lovingly told) story. Also, courtesy of my local comics shop's Memorial Day sale, I picked up the first volume of Sunstone (already read on DeviantArt, but worth revisiting and supporting the author both) and a new-to-me series called Paper Girls. Hopefully that'll tide me over until the new Wicked and the Divine comes out.

--One of the long-form posts I've intended to write and never gotten around to has been a product review of Soylent, featuring some of the goofy labels Brian's written on the bottles as illustrations. Having built something of a backlog at this point, I've started a Twitter account to share them with non-Facebook-using friends. Feel free to follow or retweet!

--I feel like I'm barely skimming the surface here, but for whatever reason this is what my brain's coming up with at the moment. So I'll post this now, and maybe it'll help rekindle my more (semi-)regular writing habits. I can hope!
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This is very much a case of "not a bad book, just not the book for me".

If you're a fan of Larry Correia's Monster Hunter series, you'll probably love this book. (Heck, given how often it's popped up in my Audible recommendations, you probably already love this book.) It's a solid actioner, well-written, with a great hook and some impressive worldbuilding. It also, similar to Correia's books, happens to be written from the perspective of a straight white man with a hate-on for religion, a thing for power fantasies, and strong libertarian leanings.

But here's where it gets personal, and muddies the water somewhat. Because the truth is, I'm finding I have less and less patience with this perspective as time goes on. I get why it appeals to people - spend some time imagining yourself to be a bad-ass super-soldier, kicking ass and taking names! But what really struck me the most, listening to the first half of this story, was how completely it devalues any kind of human connection. The main character is a lone wolf, with a weapon or a snarky retort ready for any situation; the only two characters he shows any kind of vulnerability toward are both fridge-stuffed within pages, and in the second case, he gets caught and tortured for his trouble. No one is to be trusted, everyone is out to use you, religion is solely a tool for manipulation rather than a reason to strengthen social ties and reinforce shared humanity, et cetera, et cetera.

This isn't even getting into the inherent sexism. To the author's credit, he makes an effort, including several female characters who aren't victims or sirens (although there are both of those, too), but the the story goes to great lengths to demonstrate that anything feminine-coded (compassion, love, emotion, vulnerability) is a weakness that will get you killed. It doesn't help that the aforementioned female characters all come across as men-with-tits, i.e. they demonstrate no particular difference in perspective despite presumably having had a very different experience growing up than their male counterparts. And then there's the fact that, in order to more effectively torture him, the main character's captors put him in the body of an attractive young girl -- because everyone knows that attractive young women are for torturing, doncha know. Graphically.

You know what? I take back what I said at the start of this review. I mean, on the one hand, I'm clearly not the target audience here. But on the other, stories have power in people's minds. And any story that so blatantly dismisses our fundamental humanity, that casts any kind of vulnerability or compassion or basic kindness as weaknesses to be discarded, is just not a good story. F
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As my Goodreads friends may have noticed, there's a particular book on Renaissance history that's been stuck on my currently-reading list since April of 2014. To celebrate finally conquering Magnifico (and, hopefully, the imminent conquering of this cold that's given me the time and motivation to finally get through its five hundred pages), here are some reviews of stuff I've been reading lately!

Magnifico, by Miles J. Unger. I was inspired to purchase this after reading this excellent series on Machiavelli and his time; I was looking for further insight into the place and period which spawned the infamous political theorist and his work, and the life story of the ruler most solidly associated with the previous generation seemed a promising avenue. By that metric, it succeeded, albeit in a more roundabout way than I'd originally hoped; the author's takeaway seems to be that Lorenzo was a gifted statesman and generally benevolent (if nearly despotic) ruler, but that his style of rule depended almost entirely on his personal charisma, which (along with the changing political climate of Europe) was why Florentine government and prestige went into more or less permanent decline after his death, and why Machiavelli's cynicism was so profound. (It's got to be pretty tough to spend one's whole life trying desperately to assist a government that appears to have no real interest in self-preservation, especially after growing up during the tail end of its golden age, and thus having seen firsthand what it could be.)

I don't have anywhere near the knowledge of this period of history required to accurately judge the author's assumptions and conclusions, but he's clearly done his homework - there's a good fifty pages of indices, footnotes, bibliography, and other ephemera, and he clearly delineates in the text the more controversial parts of the history he cites as well as giving his reasons for his own take. There were a few bits that seemed to have slipped through editing - references to parts of the text that were further along, for instance, or the omission of small factoids that a general audience might not know. (I was completely confounded as to why, for instance, the pro-Medici faction during the Pazzi coup was shouting "Balls! Balls!" until I Googled and discovered that the Medici coat of arms prominently featured five red balls and one blue.) Still, it's an impressive (if highly dense) recounting of a singularly splendid part of Italian history, and well worth the effort to read if you're interested in Renaissance history, or love the art of the period and are curious about the time in which it came about. B+

The Wicked & The Divine vol. 3: Commercial Suicide, by Gillen McKelvie & Wilson Cowles (with guest artists). Conspiracy mysteries, while a popular genre and one with a number of built-in advantages (there's a built-in question to hook the audience and a similarly inherent driving plot force), are ultimately some of the trickiest stories to do well, especially when it comes to pacing and payoff. (The mid-2000s reboot of Battlestar Galactica, for instance, completely fell down on the payoff end; Season 2 of Orphan Black, while entertaining, had a lot of pacing issues.) We're not quite to the payoff point, but the pacing here is masterfully done; after one volume of buildup and one of pell-mell "Fandemonium", the writers are easing off the gas pedal a bit, giving the characters time to regroup and reflect and the audience some much-desired backstory. Most impressively, they manage to do it all without losing momentum - even as some questions are answered, more arise. (And despite their cheeky titling of the last few pages "The Inevitable Cliffhanger", the most interesting cliffhanger this time actually occurs mid-arc, at the end of the Odin issue.)

The series continues to have interesting things to say on the subject of hero worship, desire, the relationship of a celebrity to their fans, the unspoken contract inherent to that relationship, and (perhaps most pertinently in our age of media oversaturation and Tumblrization) the way history and myths alike are constructed and managed through the continual editing and reediting of interviews, video, written notes, and other records. The authors' research continues to shine, leaving all sorts of visual and textual clues for those familiar with the mythology of the deities involved. (Special shoutout to the revolving panel of guest artists who covered this arc; they each did a wonderful job capturing something about the outlook of the particular god their issue focused on.) This series is definitely headed towards "all-time favorite" status, even if The Morrigan's story hit just a little too close to my teenage self's capital-R Romantic ideals to be read without wincing. A+

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, by Zen Cho. A delightful little gem of a tale. At first glance, it's a very traditional girl-on-her-own-goes-and-gets-into-trouble sort of story, but I loved how it defied the shopworn tropes of the genre; at every turn, the characters surprise and delight, refusing to fall into their proscribed roles even when their situation couldn't be more conventional. Additionally, despite nearly every character falling into some minority group or other, it never feels particularly strident; their ethnic identities, sexualities, or neurotypes are just part of who they are, and influence their perspective accordingly. And the main character has one of the strongest voices I've ever read in fiction. A

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Allison Bechdel. A beautifully crafted memoir that's by turns fascinating, heartbreaking, and hilarious - though as the subtitle implies, it leans more toward poignancy. Bechdel relates her family life and various formative experiences with a crisp straightforwardness that belies their emotional heft. Moving back and forth through time, she traces recurring themes, as well as cause and effect and cause again - examining how later revelations caused her to scrutinize and reevaluate earlier experiences.

It's probably not surprising I resonated to this story; I am, after all, a queer woman who loves books and has a somewhat troubled relationship with her father. But the clarity with which the author sets forth her ambivalence in her family relationships felt reassuring, in a way; it was fascinating to see how hers (dys)functioned, where it was similar and where it diverged from my own experiences. Similarly fascinating for comparison were her accounts of queer culture in the 70s, and how her self-discovery and coming-out process went; I was surprised at how similar it was to my own, even if her environment (and eventual self-identity) was different.

In retrospect, the earlier chapters feel stronger and more contained, whereas the later ones feel a bit more open-ended; I'm not sure if it's due to the opacity of the source text or simply a lack of any new information, but the final, Ulysses-based chapter especially felt like it didn't quite hit the emotional notes it was aiming for. Still, the book as a whole was fascinating - as a time capsule, as a story of a family, and as an account of the experiences that made Bechdel the writer and artist she is today. A
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I found my Kindle. It was on the top shelf of the coat closet, with the winter accessories. The nearest I can figure is that I was in a hurry and grabbed it, intending to put it in my purse, reached up for a pair of gloves or a scarf, set it down, and forgot about it. (God knows I'm usually trying to do six things at once when I get ready, so it's believable, but seriously - WTF, me?)

So the Kindle Voyage stays on the wishlist for now. Maybe for my birthday...

A dilemma

Jan. 19th, 2016 12:38 pm
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I cannot, for the life of me, find my Kindle.

Given that I last remember using it here at home, and that I haven't seen any strange "Your Amazon Purchase of {probably porn}" emails, I sincerely doubt that I left it somewhere. More likely, in a frenzy of cleaning, I put it away somewhere safe...so safe, in fact, that I can't figure out where, even after a good week of searching. (I've also asked around at work, the other place I most commonly use it - the bright pink cover would make it stand out. But, alas, no luck.)

On the one hand, this is hardly an emergency situation. I have no shortage of paper books to read, after all, and my entire Kindle library is accessible via my phone and computer both. But on the other...I miss it far more than seems appropriate. It's super convenient for reading in the bath or at work, and I maintain that reading off an e-ink screen is much more pleasant for my eyes than a backlit LCD.

And gosh, wouldn't you know it...Amazon has a new model out, one that's moderately but perceptibly superior to my version in every way. Not enough to justify an upgrade, certainly, but if I'm having to replace it anyway...

I will mull for another week or two, I think. It's been a good few weeks, work-wise, and I've stumbled into yet another occasional fill-in job at another chiropractic office. But it's not like I don't have plenty of other things I should be saving for (like, y'know, a house), and some part of me is just convinced that if I order one, two days after it arrives I'll find my old one. I suppose I could pass it on to a friend; I have a few who're interested but have yet to jump onto the e-reader bandwagon. Although I suspect relatively few of them would've chosen a bright pink case. :)
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I'm genuinely torn about this book. Half of the writing is almost virtuoso; the other half solidly workaday. And half the time I'm not sure which half is which. Which, for a story with uncertainty as a major theme, is perhaps perfectly appropriate.

First, a warning: this is not a lighthearted, easy-read mystery/thriller. This is a dark book about deeply dysfunctional people and relationships, far more along the lines of Gone Girl than Nancy Drew. I know some people love this sort of thing and some hate it; personally, I have a pretty high tolerance for unlikable characters if they're well-drawn, but this was right on the edge of "too dark" even for me. Hence the warning: you know best if this is the kind of thing you're likely to appreciate.

That said, the portrayal of the three women who narrate the story - by turns Rachel, Megan, and Anna - is one of the virtuosic aspects I mentioned earlier. Rachel, an alcoholic who's sinking fast but hasn't yet hit her personal rock bottom, is particularly heart-rending; she's not likable, exactly, but her humanity is on full display, challenging us even as she tests the limits of our sympathy. Megan is Rachel's foil, possessed of the life Rachel wishes she had but haunted by her past decisions and mistakes. And then there's Anna, borderline sociopathic; so determined to live out her perfect-family fantasy that she ignores, diverts, or offloads any personal responsibility; happy so long as she can stay in denial. The whodunit plot, while not exactly boring, is almost secondary to meeting these three women, getting to know their stories, and watching them struggle to find their identity in a culture where the range of available roles is limited, and past mistakes are punished harshly.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that the book's biggest weak point is its male characters. We see signs of how they feel similarly restricted by their social roles, by the toxic side of masculine culture that values them as providers and protectors uber alles, that forbids them from showing the vulnerability necessary to truly reach out and connect with other human beings. But their stories are told obliquely, if at all; and their struggles with identity and loss don't come off as half so sympathetic as the women's. Which I think is a shame; it feels like there's a missed opportunity here to show that both genders have many of the same difficulties, and to emphasize that common ground rather than setting them in the far-too-common antagonistic roles.

On a more fundamental level, the writing vacillates between hauntingly poetic and...not quite thudding, but not particularly interesting. I really felt like we could've done with one or two fewer episodes of Rachel's wallowing in self-pity. And I count at least one major plot hole: cut for major spoilers ) But given that this is a debut novel, I found it nonetheless very impressive indeed; if the description sounds to your taste, then by all means pick it up. I just don't think I personally am in a hurry to read it again anytime soon. B-
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The word "book" seems insufficient to describe this 500+ page, multi-year, multi-collaborator project. Although now that I think about it, I think it's less a problem of linguistics than of presentation; the book format itself is insufficient to contain it.

Women In Clothes is an consideration of precisely that - women (of varying ages, cultures, body shapes, gender and sexual identities, and income levels) and their relationship with their clothing. The examination takes the form of a collection of short pieces: answers to a long (and continually evolving) survey they designed; transcribed, and occasionally translated, interviews; pictures of prized pieces or collections; and the occasional whimsical moment such as a series of photos of several women trying on each others' outfits in sequence. Often the pieces are cut and pasted, with a number of quotes grouped together to highlight their similarities, or a range of answers to a single question set against each other for contrast. The overarching concept seems to be to create an - or perhaps simply to record and replicate the existing - ongoing conversation about clothing between women from all over the globe and all walks of life.

It's an ambitious idea, and to a degree, effective; I've certainly come away with a broader understanding of how history and life stage and geographic location have affected the clothing choices of other women. The problem lies in the sheer amount of information involved. The book is nearly twice as long as an average novel; and, due to the inherently democratic nature of the project and the thoughtfulness of the contributors, there's just no easy part to point to and say "that could go". (I can only imagine what a laborious and painful process the editing must have been, and how much was probably left behind.)

Hitchcock is credited with the adage that a movie should not last longer than the average theatergoer's bladder capacity; while there's no similarly simple metric for books, the fact that it took me seven months to get through this despite it being about two of my favorite subjects indicates that something's not working in the presentation. I think it might have been better exhibited online somehow - wiki-style, perhaps, with hotlinks that encourage the reader to casually browse, swinging between related subjects, rather than railroading them along in a straight line. Still, even in book form, it's an interesting read for anyone interested in the intersection of psychology, sociology, and fashion. B-
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I picked this book up initially because, as a massage therapist, it sounded like it would be useful information for my field.  But it turned out to be far, far more than that.

As anyone who regularly reads this journal probably has guessed, I find people fascinating: the way our genetic proclivities and life experiences combine to form a literally infinite number of personalities; the way we build mental structures upon which we can hang the barrage of sensory input the world gives us each day; the way we're all susceptible to certain modes of thinking and flaws in reasoning and yet each find our own particular ways to deal with them. And, sadly, the ways in which we hurt each other, and ourselves, despite (usually) not meaning to.

This last has been a continuing source of fascination and frustration to me. What causes the self-destructive, or other-destructive, behavior that seems so tragically common? True, a small percentage of the population are psychopathic, uncaring of the damage they inflict except as it might come back to affect them; but the vast majority of hurt is either an unintentional treading upon a sore spot, or a lashing out in response to a perceived threat.

Dr. van der Kolk elegantly articulates something I'd observed but had trouble putting into words: with a few exceptions, people who hurt others do so because they are hurting, themselves. What's more, he posits, and backs up with numerous studies, that most of that hurt is caused by unresolved trauma; either from childhood (the results of the Adverse Childhood Experience study he and his colleagues pioneered, referenced several times in this book, paint a shocking picture of exactly how prevalent childhood trauma is in our culture) or from later on in life. Unfortunately, the current drug-focused psychiatric climate can do relatively little for these people, as medication can address the symptoms but do very little to resolve the underlying causes.

This sounds like a depressing subject, and it is - although described with clinical detachment, the events that many of Dr. van der Kolk's clients have undergone range from tragic to horrific. But the book takes a hopeful and (at times) inspirational tone, describing numerous successes and advances in treatment, citing both case studies and randomized trials demonstrating their efficacy (or, at times, suggesting the need for further study of promising but largely untested methods).

Even more strongly, Dr. van der Kolk advocates for the political will to take action in stopping trauma at its source - instituting educational and social-support programs for underprivileged families, refocusing school programs from punishing difficult children towards understanding and teaching them coping strategies, making treatment available at a low cost to people from all walks of life. As he states in the epilogue:

When I give presentations on trauma and trauma treatment, participants sometimes ask me to leave out the politics and confine myself to talking about neuroscience and therapy.  I wish I could separate trauma from politics, but as long as we continue to live in denial and treat only trauma while ignoring its origins, we are bound to fail.  In today's world your ZIP code, even more than your genetic code, determines whether you will live a safe and healthy life. {...} Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools, social isolation, widespread availability of guns, and substandard housing are all breeding grounds for trauma.  Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt other people.

For so much of my life, I've tried to understand why so many people - often people very dear to me - have trouble making positive decisions for themselves.  Now, thanks to this book, I have an answer - and not just a single answer, but a holistic framework that includes familial and social factors, a range of observable responses, and treatment possibilities.  Having recently acquired my LMT, I'd been mulling over possible further career goals; thanks to the inspiration of this book, I may well look into the field of trauma treatment.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in people and the ways they interact with the world; I'd go so far as to say it's a must-read for anyone in nursing, medical care, massage therapy, social work, counseling, or other socially-oriented professions where we see people in moments of vulnerability.  But honestly, I wish people everywhere could read it and take it to heart; compassion and empathy are fundamental to social connection, and given that we're wired to be social creatures, what could be more universal than learning why and how we are hurt, and how to help each other through it?  A++ with cherries on top
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Last Friday night, I had a very bad reaction to NyQuil.

To call it unexpected would be something of an understatement; NyQuil has always been my go-to cold medicine. When I've got a sore throat, am coughing too hard to sleep, or am otherwise miserable with a cold, it's always been there for me, willing to knock me out for a few hours of much-needed rest. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say I've probably taken it a hundred times over the past several years. Even this past week I'd taken it a few times - I've been dealing with a lingering cough and scratchy throat from the Swedish flu, which seems to get worse at night.

But this time, something in the chemistry was off. Instead of falling asleep and waking up in the morning, I awoke after two hours, heart pounding and blood pressure skyrocketing...only to nearly lose consciousness as it bottomed out a few minutes later. I had tremors, sweats, chills, nausea, and all the other symptoms of a bad flu, made worse by the clockwork shots of adrenaline that jolted my system every half-hour or so.

Since sleep was out of the question, I put the time to use doing what few things I could - Googling the symptoms (they all checked out as less-severe uncommon side effects of the drug), making and drinking tea to stay hydrated, and taking deep breaths and firmly telling myself that this was temporary, that I would make it through this. That last was rather more difficult than it sounds with the regular adrenaline dumps, but it was pretty much all I could do, so I did. (I would like to add with some minor grumpiness that, had I been in Sweden or just about any other first-world nation and could go to the ER without it costing literally thousands of dollars, I would have checked myself in for observation - "liver failure" was listed as a "severe" possible side effect. But I decided against it and instead checked my skin and the whites of my eyes every hour or so to make sure I wasn't showing signs of jaundice.)

Quite frankly, I was fucking terrified. In precisely the primal, hindbrain, violent sense that phrase evokes.


It's occurred to me, as I've been listening to the book on trauma that I was wrote about in my last post, that this qualified as a mildly traumatic experience - I was in fear for my life and I could do very little about it; even once it was past, I couldn't shake the feeling that it could recur, despite (obviously) avoiding NyQuil since then. And as I started to pick up the pieces of my daily routine, I realized that I could observe all the stages of healthy-person trauma recovery that Dr. van der Kolk discusses. I found words to describe the experience (naming and articulation). I reached out to friends and family for support (social connection). When I experienced some minor avoidance and flashback issues -- difficulty getting to sleep the next night despite being exhausted; performing a massage in an unusually warm room yesterday and, as I started to sweat, feeling my heart rate and blood pressure rise -- I dealt with them using deep breathing and centering techniques, reminding myself that this was not the past (reestablishment of temporal perception). And, gradually, my brain has been able to put the experience in the past (integration), instead of being constantly on alert, convinced that it will happen again.


Recently I've been ruminating on The Pictures are Pretty but the Struggle is Real, a plea for us to "be real" on the Internet. The author's a little fuzzy on the definition of "real", but suggests that we need to be honest about the things we're struggling with, to allow some of the rougher edges of our lives to show, in the hopes of better connecting with other people.

My feelings on this are...complex. I applaud her intent, but I think she glosses over a lot of the complexities of honesty and sharing. I think [livejournal.com profile] alexmegami had an excellent point over on Facebook: "The Internet is also home of the overshare. I question the ability to be fully yourself with an audience of hundreds or more. While I'm not opposed to honesty...a fight with your spouse is not something to be blasting across the tubes the day of or the day after or even within a week or two, especially without their okay." Vulnerability is powerful; misusing that power to hurt others is not cool, even if you genuinely need help.

And that's not even addressing the question of degrees. Is saying "I'm having a rough time of it today" any less honest than saying "My partner and I had a huge fight over moving today"? Is making a joke to put a humorous spin on a scary situation, as I did with NyQuil by announcing our breakup on Facebook, any less "real" than admitting how terrified I was, as I did above? Heck, is it somehow less honest of me to wait a few days to blog about it, until after I'd had some distance and time to process, than it would have been to write a mostly-incoherent in-the-moment accounting?

There's a lot to be said for the power of vulnerability: used conscientiously, it can be a powerful invitation to sympathy and connection. As [personal profile] peacefulleigh put it: "I strike a balance, or at least I try to, with triumphs and moments of frustration. But even in the latter, the point is not honesty, it's connectedness. I know that my friends have either felt that way too, or we can all laugh together at my foibles later."

And there, I think, is the key. There's nothing wrong with honesty (or "real"ness) in and of itself, just as there's nothing wrong with preferring to present a more polished appearance to the world. But neither of them are an end unto themselves. The point is connection; remembering that we need to strike a balance between reaching out from a position of power ("Look how thoughtful and smart and together I am!") and vulnerability ("I'm really scared about this and need help"). Maybe one's success on social media (and in the social world in general) is best measured in connections made. I think that's what I'm going to experiment with, ultimately; if I feel like I'm not engaging with people, I'll check to see if I'm spending too much time in one mode or the other. Which, yes, will probably require me being vulnerable a little more often. Sigh.
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--My goddaughter is here! Sophie was born last Wednesday, and (judging by the pictures) is tiny and adorable and only looks a little like a squashed potato. (Or Winston Churchill. Or Yoda. Newborns. *grins*) I can't wait to meet her in a month! And to see Donna; it's been far too long.

--The first week of my new job went well. Lots of requests for the standard fluff-and-buff, but I did get to work on one man who was right up my alley - his muscles were all knotted up from schlepping suitcases around, and some myofascial and trigger point work did wonders. The receptionist told me later that he couldn't say enough good things about me. He's not local, sadly, but his employer has an office here; I did tell him I'd love to see him again when he's in town next. We'll see. So far this upcoming week is looking pretty slow, but that's life at the bottom of the totem pole - priority for appointments is given based on the hours you were available in the previous month, which with my current schedule should put me solidly in the middle of the pack come November.

--Brian was in Dallas for work all last week...and has to go back today for another week. Boo. I don't mind the time alone, in principle - I can set the thermostat to whatever I want, or better yet, turn off the A/C completely and throw open the doors and windows! - but two weeks at a go starts to feel lonely. As independent as I fancy myself, I've lived with someone else nearly continuously for more than a decade now; that kind of time spent leaves an imprint in your life and habits. (And let's face it, he's pretty cool to have around. Half of my more clever quips I steal from him.)

--I picked up a copy of The Body Keeps The Score on an Audible Daily Deal, and it's turned out to be completely fascinating. I initially thought it would be about the ways our body reacts to trauma, a useful thing to learn about for a massage therapist; as it happens, while it touches on that subject, it's turned out to be more about the neurological effects and how they affect the body and mind of trauma victims both. Fascinating stuff, but what's really been eye-opening for me is the discussion of victims of childhood trauma - neglect, abuse, molestation. These people display a well-known constellation of symptoms - difficulty with emotional regulation, propensity toward obesity or anorexia, high likelihood of self-harm, high predisposition toward autoimmune disorders like lupus or fibromyalgia, and a significant lack of bodily awareness, among others - but the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the "psychiatrist's bible") has no separate diagnosis for the condition, and the completely drug-oriented treatment framework that's sadly the norm now doesn't help either. So they'll reach a crisis point and seek help, and be diagnosed with depression, or bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder, or (if they have a particularly observant therapist whom they trust enough to open up to) post-traumatic stress disorder, and be given drugs to 'treat' that disorder, which won't help long-term because their problems stem from neural patterns and behaviors that were (tragically) adaptive in their earlier years.

This particular bit of knowledge slots nicely into a gap I've been wondering about for years now. I was initially a psychology major in college, but I got discouraged precisely because the field seemed to be all about figuring out which drugs treated what problems, regardless of the person's background or experiences or anything else about them. In all fairness, I know some people for whom such drugs are life-changing; however, in the years since then, I've also had a number of friends who fit exactly the profile described in the book - they've been in and out of doctors' offices for years, trying to figure out why they feel broken and nothing seems to help. Many of them have managed to have amazing lives nonetheless; now that I have some idea of why life has been so difficult for them, I'm even more in awe of their accomplishments. I'm looking forward to listening to the section on treatment strategies, as well; it's good to know there are people working on strategies that actually help these people, even when the medical establishment refuses to recognize their problem.

--I was petting Dexter the other day when I realized that he's developed several more little white furs on his face. In retrospect, this is hardly surprising - he's twelve or thirteen years old, after all - but it startled me a little that I hadn't noticed until now. We humans are so good at seeing what we expect to see, and it's sometimes a little discouraging how easily we fall prey to the assumption that life is fundmentally unchanging. Often it takes something momentous - a birth, a death, a wedding, a career change, a betrayal - to make us realize exactly how time's been passing, and things and people have been changing, despite our merry assumptions of stasis.

I don't really have any great conclusion or insight to this observation, but it's interesting to me how even though we experience time in a linear fashion, we certainly don't perceive it that way. It reinforces my conviction that it's important to take the time to really listen to each other and connect, rather than just taking each others' presence for granted.

And I should definitely spend more time petting my cat.
missroserose: (Default)
Phew. Let it never be said that David Mitchell is unambitious.

This novel bears some similarities to Cloud Atlas, a later work of Mitchell's and one of my favorite books. Nine interlinked short stories are each related by a particular narrator, whose speech patterns, history, and current circumstances (expertly illuminated over the course of their narrative) all subtly construct their mental outlook on life, which thus defines their part in the book.

What is the book about, you ask?

I've just spent a good five minutes thinking it over, because initially, I had thought it was about a lot of things. But then I looked at the list and realized that they all come down, basically, to one subject: why things happen the way they do. Is it coincidence? Chance? Fate? The cyclical nature of the universe? Do we make our own choices? Can we truly, having been shaped by our DNA and the world around us, even claim to make our own choices? Are chance and fate ultimately the same thing, merely seen from different perspectives?

If Cloud Atlas is a symphony in book form, all elegant multipartite symmetrical construction and carefully-cultivated recurring motifs, ghostwritten is more of an improvisational jazz number. There's a bass line, and numerous themes and riffs that each player interprets individually, but the eventual goal of the piece is far less defined, and indeed seems to be as much about how it gets there as it is the actual destination. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, by any means - after all, it's only fair that a book fundamentally about chaos theory would be somewhat chaotic - but it makes me wonder if some of the subtler nuances get drowned out in the cymbal crashes, as it were.

Still, this is an impressive story, and all the more so for being Mitchell's first book. If you find people and their overlapping mental constructions fascinating, if you love quantum theory even if you're not a hundred percent certain you can explain it, if the questions of cause and effect and relativity and creativity are interesting to you - in short, if you're an observant and curious human being - pick this book up. It won't explain these things, but it at least illuminates them, a little, in that beautifully intuitive way Art can do while it waits for Science to catch up. A-
missroserose: (Incongruity)
I finished this book more than a week ago, and I'm still absolutely stunned by it.

Five stories, ranging in length from short story to novella. Each reminiscent of an old-school fairy tale (though only two are outright retellings of popular Western tales), both beautiful and disquieting, with various recognizable tropes and archetypes and plotlines and characters all delicately woven together into something entirely new. Each told in phraseology that echoes the rhythm and poetry of a truly gifted oral storyteller, full of sure-footed language that carefully signals character, time, place, while nonetheless belonging clearly to the voice of this author alone.

Cooney clearly understands the evolution of stories, how bits and pieces of their DNA free-float between people before recombining in our minds, adapting themselves to the time and environment in which they're told. The stories themselves are familiar and yet different from anything I've read in a long time. Her masterful use of language reminded me more than once of David Mitchell; and yet, while Mitchell's cleverness is the sort that (justifiably) demands recognition, Cooney's style is almost the opposite. Subtle, lyrical, with a beauty that shines through its familiar trappings; you could read each story without ever noticing the careful craft of the words, and then they would be there to surprise and delight you upon reread.

These aren't long stories, but they're not quick reads either. They're as much poem as story, meant to be thoroughly enjoyed; read quickly, they lose much of their power. But if you love fairy tales, if you love stories, if you love beautiful use of language, if you enjoy the journey of the story as much as the destination? This is the book you didn't even know you desperately wanted. A++ with cherries on top
missroserose: (Joy of Reading)
In the tradition of soon-to-be-godparents everywhere, I've been on the hunt for gifts, especially books to start my goddaughter's collection. Given that her mother and I met in Alaska, I was hoping to find some Alaska-themed illustrated books while I was here, but I ran into a problem I didn't foresee.

Most children's books just aren't that fun to read.

Kids' books, especially those aimed at younger children, are often written in rhyme - which makes sense, as the intended audience is learning about the sounds of words and how they go together. So it seems like it should follow that they'd be written in meter, as well. The bouncy rhythm helps them learn our patterns of speech as much as the individual words, and emphasizes which syllables are stressed and which words go where. Plus, it's way more fun as a parent to read a book aloud when it's got a good rhythm. (There's a reason Dr. Seuss remains so popular - and he made up half his words!) But I came across a lot of books that, while they maybe had a cool concept or nifty illustrations, were just plain lazy in the writing. It looked like the author had gone "Oh, hey, here's a couple of words that rhyme, the lines all look roughly the same length, toss it together, we're good to go." 

Case in point: Sitka Rose, by Shelley Gill and Shannon Cartwright. Great Alaskan-themed illustrations, great concept (how often do you see tall tales about women?), a fun story, and the words even have a sort of folk-song feel to them. But the scansion is terrible:

Rose was raised up grander than the average child
She skied avalanche chutes for fun,
and when her vegetables needed more light
well Rose, she lassoed the sun.

I mean, you've got pretty consistent dactyls in the first line, but after that there's iambs, trochees and anapests all jumbled together. And don't even get me started on how it starts in hexameter and ends in trimeter just in this one stanza.

I realize that children aren't exactly the most discerning audience in the world, and I suppose that explains how most such books got past their respective editors. But think of the poor parents who have to read this book for the ten thousandth time, carefully navigating around the unexpected rhythmic roadblocks and line breaks. I mean, that's just cruel.

Fortunately, with the help of some old memories and a friend of my mother's, I found a few books that were a little more promising:

Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse and Barbara Lavallee

Mama, do you love me?

Yes I do, Dear One.

How much?

I love you more than the raven loves his treasure,
more than the dog loves his tail,
more than the whale loves his spout.

This was one of my favorite books to read with my mother when I was a child. It's not written in verse, but the words nonetheless flow beautifully, and the repetition lends it a feel of poetry absent from many such books. Plus the watercolors are completely sweet, portraying the Inupiaq mother and daughter and the Arctic wildlife with real substance. And, bonus - it comes in a board book version, which will hopefully hold up for a while.

Hooray for Fish!, by Lucy Cousins

Hello, hello, hello fish!
Red, blue, and yellow fish.
Spotty fish, stripy fish,
happy fish, gripy fish.

This one is pretty clearly aimed at younger kids, but given that my goddaughter hasn't even been born yet, I suspect that's all right. :) The meter does change in places, but not mid-stanza; the pages are sturdy, and the illustrations are simple and bright-colored and adorable.  (As Brian commented, "It looks like a tasty book to chew on.")  Plus, biodiversity!

Red Sings from Treetops: a year in colors, by Joyce Sidman and Pamela Zagarenski

Red sings from treetops:
each note dropping
like a cherry
into my ear.

Red turns
the maples feathery,
sprouts in rhubarb spears;
Red squirms on the road
after rain.

This book reminds me so much of [livejournal.com profile] asakiyume it's kind of uncanny.  The words find that same sort of quiet poetry and everyday magic, and the imagery is just gorgeous.  It's also rendered in free verse, the word rhythms and sounds and onomatopoeia and occasional surprising rhymes all blending harmoniously.  I'm frankly envious - free verse is so hard to do well, far harder than something strictly metered like a sonnet.  I realize this one will probably have to wait until my goddaughter's a little older, but given that my expectant friend is an artist, I suspect she'll get lots of enjoyment out of it in the interim.

And in the present moment, Alaska Airlines had a sale, so I booked my tickets to Washington to go meet my goddaughter during the tail end of October.  Which means, between that and this Anchorage trip and Brian's and my vacation to Sweden in August, this will kind of be the Time of All The Traveling.  I guess I'm making up for the seven months being a school-oriented recluse. 

missroserose: (Joy of Reading)


I'm...at a loss.

I realize, typing this out on in a review, that I sound facetious at best - why else would I say I'm at a loss, and then proceed to go on for several paragraphs, thus clearly demonstrating that I'm not lost at all? But it's an accurate representation of how I feel when I try to consider rating this book.

Let me see if I can explain.

My biggest criteria for judging a work of art is how it affects me emotionally. Does it make me feel...something? Sad, disgusted, angry, upset, uplifted, thoughtful? Does it do so through cheap manipulation, or the genuine creation of a conversation between artist and audience? Is its effect the one the artist intended? (Can you even tell?)

By that metric, the book succeeds; there's a lot of authentically affecting stuff, here. Some beautiful prose, thoroughly-developed complex characters, and a few moments of near-sublime beauty. There's even some philosophy, although it occasionally toes the line between "thought-provoking" and "pretentious". This isn't just some cheap entertainment, every page practically yells, but a Book With Aspirations.

But, ultimately, that's the book's failing. Donna Tartt clearly wants to write a capital-N Novel, an Important Work that sticks with people long past when they close the cover of their Kindle (or, in my case, mark it "finished" in the Audible app). And in many ways, she's succeeded - the ambition in this book is clear, and the payoff is almost enough to be worth the extra-long journey it takes to get there. But cripes, it takes forever to get there - and much of the time is spent in well-written but not-particularly-pleasant places in our protagonist's head. Always beautifully described, of course, but I suspect about 200 pages of Theo's angst could have been cut with no real loss to the narrative.

So I'm in a bind. I want to give it three stars - an average of sorts between the five-star bits and the two-star bits where I almost stopped listening - but that means I'm putting it in the same rating as the many "lighthearted fun, but flawed and/or didn't stick with me" type books that I read. And if anything, The Goldfinch is the opposite - heavy, and often not particularly fun, but with quite a bit of substance and plenty of bits worth chewing over. But given how its imperfections are largely what's sticking in my mind when I remember the experience of listening to it, I think three stars is fair. I admire its ambition, and in some ways it hit the mark. But I hope Tartt's next editor is much more aggressive with the red pen. B-
missroserose: (Default)

Oh wow.

Oh, seriously, wow.

Within three pages, I was intrigued. Within ten, I was impressed. By the end of the first issue, I had felt genuine inspiration, compassion, amusement, shock, and delight in turns. And I still had four more to go.

I'm not bragging when I say I read a lot of books. And part of the reason I write reviews is because, having been taught critical thinking at a young age, analysis has always come naturally to me. I read, I compare to what I've read before, I appreciate what's done well and think about what could have been done better. I can spot an archetype at fifty pages, name five commonly-used devices off the top of my head, outline the rising action of a plot, and name the roles each major character plays in an ensemble piece.

The downside of these abilities, however, is that it puts an emotional wall between me and the story. I want to be dazzled, to be impressed, to be swept off my feet. But I've read so much by now, and been disappointed enough times, that it's really difficult for me to get excited about a new story. When it starts off strongly, I hold my breath, afraid it's going to let me down by the end. And often it does.

But once in every long, long while, a story comes along that impresses me so much, I let down that guard and end up just taking it on its own terms. It's a rare thing; the author has to convince me that they know what they're doing, that the ship is going somewhere amazing and I can let them steer. That this story managed to do so within its first issue amazed me; even The Sandman, my current go-to example of amazing graphic-novel storytelling, took a good five or six issues to really find its feet. Needless to say, I burned through the rest of the collection in that half-mad state every avid reader hopes to find: that thrilling realization that I genuinely had no idea where this was going, and that I had to know.

Of course, I still don't know, because this is the first (and as of this writing, only published) volume of an ongoing series. But in these paltry five issues, it manages character development, worldbuilding, and emotional inspiration on a level many longer series can only dream of achieving, all the while planting seeds of implication and foreshadowing that hint at a thoroughly involved (and, I hope, meticulously plotted) greater storyline. If the writers can cash even half the cheques they've written in this first volume, it's going to be a great series; if they can keep this level of quality up for the subsequent volumes, it may knock Sandman out of my personal #1 spot. A++ with cherries on top
missroserose: (Joy of Reading)
Pen Pal is the sort of book that people say “defies categorization”. Its settings are just this side of fantastical, its tone almost magical; it certainly doesn’t feel out of place in the Indie Fantasy Bundle where I encountered it. And yet, it takes place firmly within a world very much like our own, with the Internet and global news and international tensions, where those who live outside the mainstream are viewed with suspicion, and where most of the magics are the fleeting, everyday sorts we create for ourselves. Even its intended audience is uncertain - the story is simple enough to read to a middle-grade audience, but its themes and questions complex enough to keep an adult book club in conversation long past the first glass of wine.

12-year-old Em lives in the tiny community of Mermaid’s Hands, a group of houses built on floating rafts that bob about during high tide, only to settle on the mud flats when it goes back out. Through a particularly fortunate message in a bottle, she becomes pen pals with Kaya, a political prisoner and reluctant activist kept in a platform suspended over a lake of molten lava.

As they discuss the complexities of their respective situations, and the complications both natural and political that occur, they raise questions that are all too pertinent to our world. How do members of a small minority maintain their autonomy when they are dependent upon a majority culture? When faced with a clearly stronger force determined to maintain control, is it better to fight to the death, or to spare the lives of your people at the cost of your cultural identity? How do you maintain your integrity when isolated from your community and betrayed by your friends? And what responsibility do we bear to the traditions, perhaps even to the deities, with which we were raised?

With its constant multicultural background tension, and the way Em and Kaya’s deities wander in and out of the story, at times Pen Pal reminded me of Sherman Alexie’s stories of growing up on an Indian reservation. But where Alexie’s stories are angry and frustrated, Forrest’s tale is kindhearted and innocent. Occasionally that innocence makes it feel a touch naive, or incomplete - a couple of themes about the harmfulness of expressing uninformed opinions, or the way some groups exploit minority cultures under the guise of “saving” them, are touched on but not really explored. But as a plea to treat each other with compassion, and even a warning of what can happen when we’re careless, it’s a necessary sort of story; and as a paean to the quiet, everyday joys that are easy to overlook in our busy lives, it’s a sheer delight. A-
missroserose: (Joy of Reading)
Much like its title character, this book is intelligent, fascinating, frustrating, passionate, immature, and infuriating - sometimes all at once. But I'll say this much for it: it's never boring.

When I read the plot description, I thought it had potential, but I was expecting the two-dimensional placeholder-for-personal-projection characters that are so common in pornographic tales. What I got was an ensemble story populated with real people - smart, broken, yearning, often floundering, but nonetheless struggling to figure out themselves and their lives and each other, and maybe, just maybe, find a moment of perfect happiness in an arbitrary and imperfect world.

It’s unfortunate, then, than the prose is similarly imperfect. The pace bogs down in a couple of places; there's more than one instance where a past event is described, and then later played out in an unnecessary flashback; there’s one secondary character who plays a pivotal role in the climax, but is completely absent until then. Most crucially, the author’s plans for a particular conflict required a reaction from Zach that felt distinctly out of character and melodramatic; this was especially frustrating because that whole subplot could have been excised with little to no impact on the story. (And on a personal/trigger-warning note, the extent of Nora's S&M desires was a little difficult to read. I'm not unfamiliar with the scene and believe strongly in the consenting-adults philosophy, but I still was more on Wesley’s side regarding the results of her dalliances with Søren. Reisz wisely limits these to two plot-necessary instances.)

These are serious issues, and in another book I would likely have quit reading partway through. But Reisz's cast is so dynamic and complicated and fascinating, her understanding of the psychology of attraction and power so keen, that I was willing to forgive the story’s rough edges just to see what they would do next. And while I've read enough sex scenes to be jaded about them at this point, the later ones in this story were different; I cared about the people involved, and that caring gave them an emotional heft that left even me a little hot and bothered.

What kept me tied up: Well-drawn characters who felt true and generally consistent. Strong understanding of the complicated power interplay of attraction, orientation, and situation. Sex scenes with real emotional heft.

What deserved a flogging: Occasional redundant patches in the manuscript. A couple of plot points that felt shoehorned in. Lack of subtlety. A few issues with structure and balance. Repeated instances of tell-don't-show, including several egregious cases of "Character X knew Character Y wanted/was thinking/hoped..." How did they know? What was the tell?

What I'd say if the author blindfolded me and ordered me to confess: Take Zach's editing advice. Trust the story. Show, don't tell. Or to put it in Nora's terms: stop beating your readers over the head. A little bit of restraint would give the experience greater savor.
missroserose: (Default)
Ambrosia N. Rose
Amateur Book Reviewer, Goodreads.com


24 October 2014

The Lovecraftian mythos has, in the Internet age, suffered from the sort of social watering-down that any popular horror eventually does. I think especially, here, of Frankenstein's monster: once a literate, intelligent creature capable of terrifying its creator with its elaborately enacted plans for revenge; now a shambling, zombified, bolt-necked hulk that inspires endless cards and candies at this time of year. In the same game of popular-culture Telephone that has dubbed that unfortunate creature with its creator's name, Lovecraft's age-old terrors beneath the waves have become punchlines; the inspiration for dozens of satirical comics, stories, and merchandise.

Our collective desire to create reflections of our shadow selves having summoned these creatures into our artistic consciousness, we proceed to deliberately misunderstand them, recasting them as ridiculous, laughable, so that we may better reassure ourselves that of course, only other people see their darker natures reflected in these silly dumb beasts.

We, being shining beacons of virtue, have nothing to fear.

Forgive me, for this is meant to be a book review, not a cynical anthropological treatise. But if I may attempt to justify my initial digression, I meant it as a roundabout compliment to this manuscript. Cherie Priest clearly understands what it is that made Lovecraft's initial short stories, despite their execrable writing and subsequent bastardizations, catch hold of people's imaginations in the first place: the unshakable belief in the accuracy and reliability of our perceptions despite clear evidence to the contrary; the absolute terror at the thought of that sanctity being violated by outside influences we literally cannot conceive of; the universal fear that those forces might not be external at all, but exist in the form of our own unconscious, only metaphorically represented by the depths of the ocean.

But first, the summary. Lizbeth Andrew Borden, wealthy spinster, social pariah, and murderess in popular legend if not legal status, lives a reclusive life with her consumptive older sister Emma, studying a series of phenomena that have led her to believe that the lives and minds of the residents of her hometown are in serious, if frustratingly nonspecific, danger. Their situation makes finding confidantes difficult; eventually, they enlist the help of Dr. Seabury, a local physician still suffering the psychological ramifications of the Civil War, in discovering precisely what the threat is and how to stop it. The story is told from a rotating perspective, often through journal entries and letters; a commonly-criticized technique, but it works well here, as social isolation is both a theme and a primary antagonist in the story, and seeing each character apply their very different backgrounds and worldviews in an attempt to solve the same mystery engenders a blind-men-describing-the-elephant sort of hopelessness...even before the more complex and delicate effects of the ocean-borne threat become clear.

It is in this last respect, especially, that Maplecroft proves itself uncannily perceptive into human nature. Yes, Lizbeth discovers objects that induce obsession, summon monsters and, given time and exposure, cause outright insanity; but this danger can be measured, quantified, and addressed - often with her axe. It serves as a red herring of sorts to distract from the subtler effects that this terror enacts upon those who would fight it; namely, the quiet magnification of their darker emotions. Emma's resentment of her helplessness, Seabury's despair at a cruel and senseless world, Lizbeth's guilt over her lover; these insidious menaces are far likelier to destroy our heroes even as they begin to find a pattern to the mystery. Are they being amplified by a malevolent force? Or merely exacerbated by isolation and stress? Either way, they come dangerously close to dissolving the fragile social bonds that are the one human defense against any large-scale threat.

If I had one quibble with the narrative, it might be that the heavy reliance on atmosphere leads to a truncated-feeling ending, with several plot threads left dangling. Still, given the themes of the story, this doesn't feel entirely out of place. This is not a tragedy, in the strictest sense of the term, but it bears many of the same hallmarks, of free will being a moot point in the face of certain events and character interactions. And victory, if it is to be obtained, if it can even be identified, will not be achieved without cost. A
missroserose: (Joy of Reading)
Note: In the following review, I discuss the book's structural conceit, which is not obvious until midway through the narrative. As said conceit has no real effect on the plot, I personally don't think the discussion would keep anyone from enjoying the story. But I know some people prefer to go in cold, so consider this a spoiler warning for the first half of the book.

It's so rare that a book surprises me like this.

I love stories. In college I was an English major, and while I never actually finished my degree, I always enjoyed literary analysis, studying theme and foreshadowing and archetypes and narrative arcs. And while all this knowledge has given me the ability to articulate much of what I enjoy about storytelling, it also means that I usually have a pretty good idea where a well-constructed tale is going. And that's fine; as with music, even when the underlying chord structure is largely the same, there's great joy to be found in the differing details that each author's perspective adds to the universal plot beats.

For the first several chapters, Black Swan Green feels like a pretty standard coming-of-age story - a memoir-style 1980s Tom Sawyer. Well-written, to be sure, and boasting David Mitchell's established facility with slang and dialect in evoking class and setting, but nonetheless pretty straightforward, with none of the metafictional commentary featured in the author's other work. I was fine with that, really; as much as I loved Cloud Atlas, there were parts where the Mitchell's cleverness was borderline distracting. Besides, I would never begrudge an author the desire to branch out and try something new. So I settled in to read the story of Jason Taylor, thirteen-year-old boy in Thatcherite England, schoolboy and secret poet, growing up under equally dysfunctional auspices of his parents' rapidly-disintegrating marriage and the Conservative Empire To Last A Thousand Years.

And then, precisely halfway through, Taylor meets a particular old woman who lectures him on the nature of art and poetry and writing, who challenges his assumptions and reorients his whole perspective...and who, in the course of her explanations, alters our perspective on the text as well, shifting it just a hair to the left until what appeared to be a workaday growing-up tale reveals the metafictional commentary that it's been harboring the whole time. And that's really the genius of it - the commentary's been there all along, but the story's protective coloring is so effective that even if you're half-expecting it, you don't catch it until it's pointed out to you. (In the lone concession to Mitchell's previously-noted tendencies toward self-indulgent wit, the perspective-shifting character is related to one of the characters from Cloud Atlas, a much more obviously metafictional tale.) And for the entire rest of the story, you see where and how the commentary is placed - never obtrusive, but now that your attention has been drawn to it, it's everywhere.

Still, as delightful (or self-satisfied, depending on your perspective) as that turn is, it would feel hollow if Jason Taylor's story had merely been a vehicle for cleverness. Fortunately, Mitchell's also-established facility with character and dialogue is out in full force. Taylor's world is populated with authentic-feeling characters, and his struggles, both internal (dealing with a speech impediment, his desire for acceptance, his deciding which of his internal personae to listen to at any given moment) and external (being on the sidelines of his parents' dissolving marriage, fighting to maintain his place on the slippery social ladder) have real weight and pathos. And, because Mitchell is probably incapable of not being clever, Taylor's arc mirrors that of the novel - growing from a social chameleon of unremarkable status and fickle loyalties to a young man confident enough to break the unwritten rules for the sake of speaking the truth.

I love stories. I love seeing stories try to do something unusual. I love it even better when they don't forget that they're stories first and foremost. I love it best when they manage to pull off both at once. And given that we're two-for-two on amazing novels from him, I think it's safe to say at this point that I love David Mitchell, too. A++ with cherries on top


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