Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

While everyone else is out trick-or-treating tonight, I will be dressed like a hippie and playing in a trombone choir concert. My university is awesome and has a great trombone professor (Irv Wagner) who's organized a 30-member choir in which, since it's non-auditioned, I am quite fortunately able to participate. The music tonight seems to be an odd mix of classical trombone repertoire (all related to death and the Afterlife, because that's traditional for the instrument) and Broadway pieces. Here's some of them, though not played by our group:

Three Equali by Beethoven (Southeast Trombone Symposium)

Scherzo Funebre by Derek Bourgeois (OSU Choir)

Suite for Four Trombones by Flor Peeters (Quarteto de Trombones Gilberto Gagliardi)

Send in the Clowns by Stephen Sondheim, arr. Irv Wagner (Alessi Seminar Choir)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

YA Sci-Fi: The Bridge by Jane Higgins

Publisher: Tundra Books
Date: August 2011 (Australia); October 9, 2012 (US/CA)
Format: hardback
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 340
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: The City is divided. The bridges gated. In Southside, the hostiles live in squalor and desperation, waiting for a chance to overrun the residents of Cityside. Nik is still in high school but destined for a great career with the Internal Security and Intelligence Services, the brains behind the war. But when ISIS comes recruiting, everyone is shocked when he isn’t chosen. There must be an explanation, but no one will talk about it. Then the school is bombed and the hostiles take the bridges. Buildings are burning, kids are dead, and the hostiles have kidnapped Sol. Now ISIS is hunting for Nik. But Nik is on the run, with Sol’s sister Fyffe and ISIS hot on their trail. They cross the bridge in search of Sol, and Nik finds answers to questions he’d never dared to ask.

My review: Mixed feelings. Most of The Bridge seemed to be not very different from all the other recent dystopian-genre novels. The action was exciting and it maintained interest, but there weren't really any innovative ideas or situations kicked around. I felt like the various aspects of the plot - the politics in Southside, the attempted rescue of Sol, Nik's mysterious heritage - weren't entirely cohesive and well-developed. I was reminded most of all of a slightly disjointed, dystopian version of one of Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper books.

The ending, though, was not like all the other let's-write-a-bestselling-dystopian-trilogy conclusions. Not a cliffhanger, but really depressing and open. There's clearly room for developing this into a series, but in a way, I think the ending of The Bridge would better establish its uniqueness and pessimistic realism if the author doesn't try to continue the story.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fiction: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Publisher: Picador
Translator: Anne Born
Date: 2003 (trans. 2005)
Format: paperback
Source: World Literature Today Book Club
Read: for the WLT Book Club
Pages: 238
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: Trond's friend Jon often appeared at his doorstep with an adventure in mind for the two of them. But this morning was different. What began as a joy ride on "borrowed" horses ends with Jon falling into a strange trance of grief. Trond soon learns what befell Jon earlier that day--an incident that marks the beginning of a series of vital losses for both boys. Set in the easternmost region of Norway, Out Stealing Horses begins with an ending. Sixty-seven-year-old Trond has settled into a rustic cabin in an isolated area to live the rest of his life with a quiet deliberation. A meeting with his only neighbor, however, forces him to reflect on that fateful summer.

My review: I have mixed opinions on Out Stealing Horses. On the one hand, I enjoyed the author's writing style and thought the translation was excellent. It felt very cinematic; the entire time, I felt like I was watching an essentially plotless, but thought-provoking, rather philosophically-inclined film. The story was interesting, a bildungsroman with its roots in rural World War Two and post-World War Norway. It reminded me a great deal of A Separate Peace by John Knowles. On the other hand, it also reminded me of A Separate Peace in that there were times when it felt like I was missing a part of the meaning behind all that was going on and being described. The story meandered around, but in general, it never felt like it reached any decisive point. Some details from beyond the time described were inferred, but I wish more information had been given about specific aspects of the novel that I thought were going to be explored but never were. While I enjoyed reading Out Stealing Horses, I was left with a vague sense of incompletion.

On a side note, I really wish this had been assigned for my English class. I was reading this while I was supposed to be writing a paper on Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh," specifically about narrative techniques and related matters, and it would have been far easier to write that paper on Out Stealing Horses than on "Shiloh" because such details just jumped out in the novel.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

In My Mailbox #38

For free:
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Honors College reading group)

Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game) by Hermann Hesse

From the university library sale:
Mortal Engines (Hungry City Chronicles #1) by Philip Reeve
The Carbon Diaries #1: 2015 by Saci Lloyd
In the Shadow of the Ark by Anne Provoost
The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
The Epic of Qayaq by Lela Kiana Oman
Folk Songs of Europe by Maud Karpeles
Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America by George Pullen Jackson
The Medieval Popular Ballad by Johannes C.H.R. Steenstrup
The Troubadours by Robert Briffault
Stones, Bones, and Ancient Cities by Lawrence H. Robbins
Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski
Time Among the Maya by Ronald Wright
The First Woman in America: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child by Carolyn L. Kircher
The Rise of the Novel by Ian Watt
The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East by Robert C. Dentan
The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours
The New Golden Bough by James George Frazier
Mountain Jack Tales by Gail Haley
Lucinda; or, The Mountain Mourner by P.D. Manvill

From the public library sale:
Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne
Rave New World by Lynne Hansen
The Hollow Earth by Rudy Rucker
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Pamela by Samuel Richardson
An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction
Bear Chief's War Shirt by James Willard Schultz
Indeh: An Apache Odyssey by Eve Ball
Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman
The Mountain People by Colin M. Turnbull
Early Greece: The Bronze and Archaic Ages by M.I. Finley
The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey
The State of Jones by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer
The Prehistory of China by Judith M. Treistman
Atlantis: The Antediluvian World by Ignatius Donnelly
The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shephard

Back at home:
Jane by Robin Maxwell (thanks, Reading Lark!)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sci-Fi: Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales

Series: Apollo Quartet #1
Publisher: Whippleshield Books
Date: April 2012
Format: paperback
Source: author
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 52
Reading time: 90 minutes

From GoodReads: When a nuclear war breaks out and the nations of the Earth are destroyed, it maroons a group of astronauts on the Moon. Using the "torsion field generator", they hope to find an alternate Earth that did not suffer nuclear armageddon. But once they do, how will they return home? They have one Lunar Module,. which can carry only four astronauts into lunar orbit...

My review: Interesting alternate-history premise, great writing and development. I'm reminded to some degree of Ray Bradbury. Though short, the length fits the story; this novella feels like neither a too-long short story or a too-short novel. The rather muted style was refreshing, as this could just as easily have become another flashy space adventure. Instead, Sales focuses on the characters and the history of the space program, especially how they relate to the Cold War and his alternate version of it. There's a heck of a lot pressed into relatively few pages, and I'll be interested in seeing (and reading) what comes next.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Classic Sci-Fi: Voyage to Kazohinia by Sandor Szathmari

Publisher: New Europe Books
Translator: Inez Kemenes
Date: 1941 (July 2012)
Format: paperback
Source: WLT giveaway shelf
Read: because I love classic dystopian novels
Pages: 350
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: Voyage to Kazohinia is a tour de force of twentieth-century literature--and it is here published in English for the first time outside of Hungary. Sándor Szathmári's comical novel chronicles the travels of a modern Gulliver on the eve of World War II. A shipwrecked English ship's surgeon finds himself on an unknown island whose inhabitants, the Hins, live a technologically advanced existence without emotions, desires, arts, money, or politics. Soon unhappy amid this bleak perfection, Gulliver asks to be admitted to the closed settlement of the Behins, beings with souls and atavistic human traits. He has seen nothing yet. A massively entertaining mix of satire and science fiction, Voyage to Kazohinia has seen half a dozen editions in Hungary in the seventy years since its original publication and remains the country's most popular cult classic.

My review: I'm still marveling that this novel was off my radar until I happened across a free copy of the book. Classic dystopian literature is one of "my things," and the ones I find most interesting are those from non-English-speaking countries. Still, I was a little wary about reading this, since lately I've been in a slump with older, especially translated, novels. I also highly did not enjoy Gulliver's Travels this past summer (sadface after the genius of Swift's "A Modest Proposal"), and Voyage to Kazohinia is written as Gulliver's 20th-century travels. Well...I can't believe Kazohinia wasn't published in English before, because it really does rival other classics like 1984 and Anthem in terms of its dystopian awesomeness.

Voyage to Kazohinia is divided into two parts. In the first, Gulliver arrives among the Hins. Their world could be considered utopian, but they lack a lot of the things that make us humans happy (and also angsty and unstable). Pointed jab at communism here? Maybe. It's an ideal world in many ways (so what communism just wants to be), but, like Gulliver, most of us wouldn't actually want to live there. Gulliver's navigation of this strange people is hilarious all the way through, so, except for some parts that include way too much explanatory dialogue, it's highly enjoyable.

Gulliver eventually decides to move in with the Behins, otherwise known as the "insane" Hins. Here the story ceases to be hilarious and is really rather sad. Gulliver fails to see what is obvious to the reader, that the beliefs and idiosyncrasies of the Behins mirror those of our own society. Meanwhile, the Behins appear so illogical that I generally felt like (metaphorically) banging my head against the wall. But, there were still some really funny parts, like when feeding women food becomes symbolic of prostitution. Don't ask, just go read the book.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Fiction: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Publisher: Riverhead
Date: 2007
Format: paperback
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 335
Reading time: five days

From the back cover: Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkein and, most of all, of finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fuku - a curse that has haunted Oscar's family for generations, following them on their epic journey from the Dominican Republic to the United States and back again.

My review: My thoughts for the first 50 pages: this guy is just like Sherman Alexie*, only writing about Dominican Diaspora life rather than American Indian reservation life. Hilarious, satirical, occasionally self-deprecating, a bit crude; has a way with words that hooks the reader and makes them appreciate the book not just for the content, but also for the writing. After about 50 pages, this excellence in writing continued, but I began to be able to differentiate between Diaz's and Alexie's styles.

I absolutely loved the author's sidenotes, generally rather tongue-in-cheek, giving historical details about Dominican life, especially during the reign of Trujillo. Dictators are so easy to satirize for some reason. For the first part of the book, I felt like I could identify very well with Oscar (minus the overweight Dominican male aspect, as I'm none of those). Sci-fi/fantasy geek, lacks great social skills, can't get a date - the archetype of nerds everywhere, and not what I had been expecting from a Dominican-American protagonist.

But...after a while, like the first 2/3 or so of the novel, things got old and my enthusiasm lagged. The footnotes stopped (why?! those were some of my favorite parts!) and, as he grew older, Oscar wasn't quite so likeable anymore. The conclusion, especially how it related to the fuku and other fantastic elements, didn't seem to be completely coherent. Given how excellent the rest of the book was, I ended up being somewhat disappointed by the build-up of the last chapters, though at least the final pages were sweet and gave a good sense of closure.

Maturity factor: profanity, non-explicit sex, crudity

*If you think this is completely untrue, blame on the fact that, regrettably, the only book by Alexie that I've read is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and that was a couple years ago.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In My Mailbox #37

How many weeks have I been in college now? I'm not sure, but at least, for the most part, everything's going very well. I've even had (some) spare time to read and blog! I'm also going stir-crazy from not being able to go to a good of the things I'm highly anticipating about Christmas break.

For review:
Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull (LibraryThing Early Reviewers)
See my review here.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (GoodReads First Look)
Review forthcoming within the next week.
Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales (author)

For free, because college is awesome like that:
Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow by Zak Smith (Honors Program)
This monster goes along with the Gravity's Rainbow reading group; we joke (but it's true) that we have the most expensive group. Other people went for the Thrift Editions; we went for the $40 picture book.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (World Literature Today Book Club)

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
$2 on the bookstore bargain shelf, with a nice hot pink velvet cover.
A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature by Wilfred L. Guerin et al.
For Intro to Critical Reading and Writing.

Back at home:
Snow Whyte and the Queen of Mayhem by Melissa Lemon (won from her blog; thanks, Melissa!)
The Book of the Night by Pearl North (thanks, Tina's Book Reviews!)
This is the third Libyrinth book; I picked up the first at some point, too, but haven't yet had time to read it.
A Plague Year by Edward Bloor (Random Buzzers)
Because Bloor's first novel, Tangerine, is amazing.

What did you get in your mailbox?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nonfiction: The Irresistible Fairy Tale by Jack Zipes

Subtitle: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre
Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press
Date: April 2012
Format: hardback
Source: WLT giveaway shelf
Read: because I'm fascinated by folklore
Pages: 189 (including appendixes)

From GoodReads: If there is one genre that has captured the imagination of people in all walks of life throughout the world, it is the fairy tale. Yet we still have great difficulty understanding how it originated, evolved, and spread--or why so many people cannot resist its appeal, no matter how it changes or what form it takes. In this book, renowned fairy-tale expert Jack Zipes presents a provocative new theory about why fairy tales were created and retold--and why they became such an indelible and infinitely adaptable part of cultures around the world.

My review: With only seven chapters and 155 pages of content (excluding the two appendixes), The Irresistible Fairy Tale isn't what I would consider a comprehensive history of the genre. It primarily focuses on an explanation of fairy tales' evolution and meaning, then a few more specific subjects such as "Bluebeard," witches, several 19th-century European folklorists, and contemporary art. I was a bit disappointed by this specialization, but the information included was very interesting.

I'm not that familiar with fairy tale and literary criticism, so I didn't quite grasp a lot of the theory discussed by Zipes. Memetics was one such popular topic. However, the chapters on fairy tales' historical development, including a brief evolution of the 'witch' figure in premodern Europe and a discussion of female 19th-century fairy tale collectors, were fascinating. While I don't think the subtitle "The Cultural and Social History of a Genre" is entirely accurate for this book, the work does provide a miscellany of good information on various developments in the genre over a wide time span.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mini-Reviews: College Reading Part 1

These are all nonfiction books that, while not standard textbooks, were required for my classes this semester.

Ibn Battuta in Black Africa ed. by Said Hamdun and Noel King
2005; read for Survey of African Civilizations
Ibn Battuta was a North African Arab scholar who made extensive travels throughout Muslim lands during the 14th century. His full account has been published, though this edition focuses on only two portions of his journey. The book was fairly interesting and clear to read, but I felt like I lacked the knowledge of the underlying geographical and historical backgrounds to make this a truly informative read. The footnotes didn't provide much help to my understanding, either.

Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak
1981; read for General Anthropology
Nisa, part autobiographical narrative and part ethnography, has long been a classic text for introductory anthropology courses. Once you read it, it's not hard to see why - it's a very readable and engaging look at another culture. Through Nisa's story, Shostak traces a fairly typical life for a woman of the Khoisan people in southern Africa. The book is fascinating for culture enthusiasts, and it also provides a gentle, clear introduction to the field for people less familiar with it.

The Two Princes of Calabar by Randy J. Sparks
2004; also read for Survey of African Civilizations
The Two Princes in question provide an interesting case from the Atlantic slave trade; they were African slave traders themselves but were captured and taken to the Americas and then to Britain during the late 1760s and early '70s. The book provides both an account of their journey and how it fits into the trans-Atlantic trade and British abolitionist efforts at that time. It's a fascinating case study, and at around 150 pages of easily-understood writing it's also a pretty quick and informative read.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

MG Fantasy: Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull

Publisher: Dutton
Date: October 2, 2012
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 344
Reading time: six days

From GoodReads: When their parents disappear in the middle of the night, young sisters Summer and Bird set off on a quest to find them. A cryptic picture message from their mother leads them to a familiar gate in the woods, but comfortable sights quickly give way to a new world entirely—Down—one inhabited by talking birds and the evil Puppeteer queen. Summer and Bird are quickly separated, and their divided hearts lead them each in a very different direction in the quest to find their parents, vanquish the Puppeteer, lead the birds back to their Green Home, and discover the identity of the true bird queen.

My review: I found it very difficult to get into Summer and Bird, and reading it continuously felt like a long uphill slog. The plot was slow and distant, so it seemed like it took me forever to read just a few pages in which nothing much happened. I found the characters mostly unrelatable, as, even for children, they seemed very petty and immature. Their mindsets and behaviors actually made this a fairly depressing read because there wasn't much optimism and healing, just emotional pain and anger. About the only thing that kept the novel interesting for me was the incorporation of the Swan Maiden motif and folksongs into the storyline; the author was quite creative in how she adapted the traditional tale to be told from two viewpoints largely neglected in the original.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sci-Fi: Postsingular by Rudy Rucker

Series: there's a sequel, Hylozoic
Publisher: Tor
Date: 2007
Format: paperback
Source: Honors College
Read: for an Honors College informal reading group
Pages: 320

From GoodReads: It begins the day after next year in California. A maladjusted computer industry billionaire and a somewhat crazy US president initiate a radical transformation of the world through sentient nanotechnology, sort of the equivalent of biological artificial intelligence. At first they succeed, but their plans are reversed by Chu, an autistic boy. The next time it isn’t so easy to stop them. Most of the story takes place in our world after a previously unimaginable transformation. All things look the same, and all people feel the same—but they are different (they’re able to read each others’ minds, for starters). Travel to and from other nearby worlds in the quantum universe is possible. And our world is visited by giant humanoids from another quantum universe, some of whom mean to tidy up the mess we’ve made. Or maybe just run things.

My review: I hadn't noticed this before, but the above blurb (the same as what's on the back of my book) is a fantastic example of how this novel reads: a bit disconnected and random. It took me a while to get into the author's style. The entire storyline isn't terribly coherent in the first place, but the flow between the initial chapters, originally written as individual short stories, is especially choppy. For most of the book, the characters aren't that likable, as they seem silly and flighty - like "we've just come up with this great scientific breakthrough that will completely alter our entire world, so we're really as concerned with our petty love affairs right now as we are with all that world-altering stuff."

Eventually, I was able to go more with the flow. I still wish Rucker would explain his science more, since he mostly just throws out ideas with little background information and to someone with only a high school level of scientific knowledge, most of these seem like fantasy rather than anything approaching at least theoretical possibility. I've been told there's actually a good bit of string theory and quantum stuff going on. But, otherwise, the novel becomes more fun the farther one gets into it. Two or three main characters emerge who take on more life, and the seeming randomness of the plot, quickly flitting from one idea and event to another, takes on an almost '60s, psychedelic air. The author's writing continues to be pretty flat, but there are several humorous moments and times when you're left wondering WTF?! when something unexpected occurs. If you succeed in suspending your disbelief, the book becomes much more engaging and enjoyable. In the words of one Hibrane character, it's vibby, man. It's weird. I still can't figure out whether I absolutely love the book or think it's just poorly-written sci-fi mind candy, but hey, reading it with this college group was a good experience.

Maturity factor: nonexplicit sex, a few crude moments, and adults behaving badly

Monday, October 1, 2012

YA Fantasy: The Order of Odd-Fish by James Kennedy

Publisher: Laurel-Leaf
Date: 2008
Format: paperback
Source: author
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 403

From GoodReads: Jo Larouche has lived her 13 years in the California desert with her Aunt Lily, ever since she was dropped on Lily’s doorstep with this note: This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a dangerous baby. At Lily’s annual Christmas costume party, a variety of strange events take place that lead Jo and Lily out of California forever—and into the mysterious, strange, fantastical world of Eldritch City. There, Jo learns the scandalous truth about who she is, and she and Lily join the Order of Odd-Fish, a collection of knights who research useless information. Glamorous cockroach butlers, pointless quests, obsolete weapons, and bizarre festivals fill their days, but two villains are controlling their fate. Jo is inching closer and closer to the day when her destiny is fulfilled, and no one in Eldritch City will ever be the same.

My review: The Order of Odd-Fish is one of the most delightful YA books I've read in a while, perhaps since Going Bovine over a year ago. It's completely wacky and bizarre in a very fun, lighthearted way. I was laughing the entire time I was reading because of all the unexpected things that happen and the author's humorous characterizations and dialogue. It's a refreshing read because it's nothing like other YA fantasy novels, so there's no expectations of epic world-building or teen romance or fitting certain narrative archetypes. Anything can (and often will) happen, and all the reader has to do is hold on tight for an exciting ride.

The characters are great, each with his or her own, unique, quirky personality. It's nearly impossible to tell where the author is going to go next - past a certain point, I had no idea how in the world he was going to pull off a suitable ending (but, of course, he did) - which is a big part of the fun. At around four hundred pages, I felt like the novel was a bit long for how the main plotline is developed, but the story stays interesting and engaging the entire way through. The Order of Odd-Fish is a fantastic read if you're looking for something different from the current genre fads: its quirkiness and, well, oddness distinguish it as a fun read that stands out from the rest of the pack.

Reminds me of: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll