Thursday, June 19, 2014

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

I'm going to be lazy and not write about this strange "novel" by Julian Barnes, mostly because I don't feel competent to review it. I liked it very much, and it's undoubtedly clever. That's all I have to say!

Sunday, June 15, 2014


In my teen years, the bulk of my pleasure reading was romance novels, but with the notable exception of Jane Austen, I abandoned those after discovering the joys of literary fiction in college. If I had an inkling that Outlander was a bodice ripper, I doubt I would have checked it out. It only came to my attention because I have tickets to see the author at her upcoming and sold-out appearance in my town next month, and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

Part fantasy (the main character travels through time), part historical fiction, the novel is somewhat atypical of the romance genre, and the writing is better than most. However, it did strain my credulity at times even though I understand the convention in these stories is for the hero to always be rushing to the damsel's rescue at the last possible moment. The numerous narrow escapes from danger might be excessive even in a Hollywood action movie.

I have many nits to pick with this book, but perhaps I would be wise to judge it by its peers and note that the works of Hilary Mantel are not among those peers. This is light, albeit lengthy, entertainment. It is a diversion, if one is not too appalled by the prolific sex and violence, all of which receives absolution from a priest before the story ends. Despite the annoyances, I've already put the sequel on my holds list at the library. It's summer, after all.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Of the 23 books I've read so far this year, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was the most entertaining. It was exactly the diverting and fun tale I needed after so much heavy lifting from the other pages I've turned recently.

I don't know if author Robin Sloan grew up playing video games and reading fantasy novels, but I suspect he did as his narrator and main character, Clay Jannon, is attuned to the realm of wizards, warlocks, warriors and rogues, although their representatives in the novel tend to work at Google rather than reside in Middle Earth. As the late shift clerk in the strangest bookstore in San Francisco, if not the world, Clay sees his role in the mystery unfolding before him as a quest given him by a wizard, the eponymous bookstore owner.

This novel has mystery, adventure, secret societies, the parrots of Telegraph Hill, film special effects artists, knitting, friendship, romance, books, cyber-wizardry, and nerdy cocktails, yet it has no dark villain. The only character who could even remotely be considered a villain is nothing more than a disappointed and inflexible business executive. The other characters are uniformly endearing. Clay gets by with a little help from his friends, a Bay area collection of high tech superheroes. (One moral in the story: if, during your childhood or adolescence, you befriend the weird kid who sits alone at lunch, you will not regret it later!). The "quest" brings these 20-something tech wizards into the company of an eccentric group of scholars who are perhaps still dazzled by the invention of the Gugenheim press.

Sloan's writing is sharp, intelligent and witty, infused with wonder at the magic of human creativity and invention, whether the product is books or self-driving cars. Mr. Penumbra's reminds us that the world is still full of interesting things to discover. As Clay would say: cool.

Monday, June 02, 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

When I added My Life in Middlemarch to my list after reading glowing reviews, I expected to encounter something similar to Julie and Julia for the bookish set. Since I've only seen the film version of the latter, I can't adequately judge if this is a valid comparison, but the first parallel I noted was that each author's famous muse steals the show.

Rebecca Mead, a writer for The New Yorker, has penned this extraordinary memoir about her lifelong relationship with George Eliot's masterpiece, which some critics consider the greatest English novel. Mead combines biography, literary criticism, travelogue and personal reflection to explore the impact a single book can have on a reader. Yet Mead keeps herself in the shadows and the spotlight focused on Eliot.

Mead brings herself into the story somewhat reticently, as if she dares not suggest to her audience she is worthy of sharing a stage with Eliot. While this humility is to her credit, I would have liked to get to know Mead a bit better and understand why this novel, of the hundreds she has undoubtedly read, spoke so strongly to her for three decades.

I did not first read Middlemarch at age 17 as did Mead. My high school experience with Eliot was Silas Marner, which like most of my classmates, I did not appreciate at the time. As a teen, I would've found Middlemarch slightly less tedious than Silas Marner only because it had a bit of romance. I would've been enchanted by the dashing Will Ladislaw and, had I become bored with the other inhabitants of Middlemarch, skipped to the end to find out if he and Dorothea managed to get together.

I was in my 40s when I finally read Middlemarch, but even with three additional decades of maturity, I still did not successfully mine it for profound insights as Mead did, so I'm grateful to have her as a thoughtful and articulate guide to its nuances and I look forward to re-reading it in my 50s.