February Reading Update

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It's March already (where has the time gone?!), so that means it's time for a reading update! Last month I posted about my one resolution for the year--to read 52 books for fun, one for each week of the year. I'm happy to report that we are nine full weeks into 2012, and I have already read nine books, so I'm right on track!

I have had to alter my reading agenda for the year, however. In order to stay up on current trends in fiction, I originally planned to read twelve new YA novels and twelve new works of literary fiction this year (one a month of each). While it's been easy to find new YA novels I want to read each month, new literary fiction of interest has been a bit more difficult.** I'm not saying that there isn't anything being published I would want to read, just that if there is, I don't know about it. I don't have time to keep up with what the small presses are doing (although I would love those sorts of recommendations), so I'm pretty much reliant on the GoodReads and Amazon newsletters each month to see what's being published, which books the editors have spotlighted, etc. I've even tried downloading the first chapters of several books on my Kindle, but nothing has really compelled me to keep reading yet, and I'm not going to force myself to read something I'm not interested in when there are so many other good books in the world to be read. So I've decided to modify my original resolution: instead of reading twelve brand new works of literary fiction, I just have to read twelve that are fairly recent. With those new rules in play, I'm pretty much right on track for the year.

This month I read four disparate titles: Julianna Baggott's Pure (post-apocalyptic YA), Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness (contemporary short stories), Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides (literary novel), and Margaret Atwood's In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (essays, book reviews, and short "tributes" on science fiction). I enjoyed all of these works immensely. How could I not? They are by four writers I love and respect, including two of my all-time favorite writers (I'll let you guess which two). I don't have time to give lengthy reviews of each, but I thought I would briefly give my thoughts on them.

First, Pure:

GoodReads summary:

We know you are here, our brothers and sisters . . . 
Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost-how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers . . . to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns, and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run. 

Burn a Pure and Breathe the Ash . . . 
There are those who escaped the apocalypse unmarked. Pures. They are tucked safely inside the Dome that protects their healthy, superior bodies. Yet Partridge, whose father is one of the most influential men in the Dome, feels isolated and lonely. Different. He thinks about loss-maybe just because his family is broken; his father is emotionally distant; his brother killed himself; and his mother never made it inside their shelter. Or maybe it's his claustrophobia: his feeling that this Dome has become a swaddling of intensely rigid order. So when a slipped phrase suggests his mother might still be alive, Partridge risks his life to leave the Dome to find her. 

When Pressia meets Partridge, their worlds shatter all over again.

The good: I've been waiting for this book to be released since I read on Julianna Baggott's blog that the film rights had sold for a hefty sum--long before the book was even published. Baggott's post-apocalyptic novel is the darkest and grittiest vision of the future I've read--and I mean that in the best way possible. Her heroine is uniquely damaged and flawed--not your cookie-cutter YA protagonist--and most of the supporting characters are as well. Baggott skillfully shows that even "villains" have a capacity for good--but heroes also have a capacity for evil. In a world like this one, normal standards of morality don't apply. Her world building is phenomenal; the writing is gorgeous, poetic and cinematic; and the plot/action keeps the book moving swiftly along. Clear a weekend for this one because once you start, you won't want to stop. It's also the first book of a trilogy, which means more Pressia/Partridge/Bradwell/El Capitan/Lyda goodness to come.

The not-so-good: The majority of the story alternates between Pressia's and Patridge's POV (both written in third-person), but occasionally El Capitan and Lyda are given chapters. I found this to be jarring and disruptive (and Lyda's chapters to be particularly annoying). It seemed to me they should have either been used more often (so that their voices didn't take me away from the action so much; until the end, it felt like Lyda was slowing down the action instead of contributing to it) or else used less--as in not at all. I understand why Baggott felt the need to include these chapters, and I think the character will play bigger roles in later books, but in Pure their chapters seemed to interrupt more than add to the narrative. (Although I admit that I enjoyed getting to know El Capitan better. Perhaps more of him, less of Lyda is the solution?) My only other complaint is about how (un)believable all the fused creatures were. To me, speculative fiction (post-apocalyptic worlds, dystopias, etc.) should operate within the bounds of reason and science, should be believable as a possible future. That's what makes them so scary. While I can believe in the possibility of Baggott's Dome, Detonations, OSR death squads, Special Forces, and survivors fused to inanimate objects and even, within certain bounds, other people, I thought the Groupies, Beasts, and sand creatures were a bit much. Still, these are small criticisms and the book is definitely worth picking up.

Final verdict: 4.5/5 stars

GoodReads summary/review:

Ten superb new stories by one of our most beloved and admired writers—the winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize. 

In the first story a young wife and mother receives release from the unbearable pain of losing her three children from a most surprising source. In another, a young woman, in the aftermath of an unusual and humiliating seduction, reacts in a clever if less-than-admirable fashion. Other stories uncover the “deep-holes” in a marriage, the unsuspected cruelty of children, and how a boy’s disfigured face provides both the good things in his life and the bad. And in the long title story, we accompany Sophia Kovalevsky—a late-nineteenth-century Russian √©migr√© and mathematician—on a winter journey that takes her from the Riviera, where she visits her lover, to Paris, Germany, and, Denmark, where she has a fateful meeting with a local doctor, and finally to Sweden, where she teaches at the only university in Europe willing to employ a female mathematician.

With clarity and ease, Alice Munro once again renders complex, difficult events and emotions into stories that shed light on the unpredictable ways in which men and women accommodate and often transcend what happens in their lives.

Too Much Happiness is a compelling, provocative—even daring—collection.

The good: Munro is the queen of the contemporary short story, especially ones involving everyday people living in rural Canada. Several of these stories deliver moments and situations that lingered with me long afterward, such as in "Dimensions" and "Free Radicals." My favorite story, though, was probably "Fiction" (though probably only because there is a writer in it and therefore fun jabs at writers and publishing).

The not-so-good: I don't think the stories in this collection live up to her usual standard. There were no stories that reached "classic" status for me, the way I've come to expect from a Munro collection. There were fewer moments of insightful revelation, fewer breathtakingly beautiful descriptions and turns of phrase. The stories themselves meander more than usual, spend pages and pages developing characters and seemingly banal situations before finally delivering the moment of crisis just before ending. Although that's kind of Munro's style, these stories seemed to take that structure to a whole other level and often felt like they were unraveling instead of coming together.

Final verdict: 3/5 stars

GoodReads summary:

This beautiful and sad first novel, recently adapted for a major motion picture, tells of a band of teenage sleuths who piece together the story of a twenty-year-old family tragedy begun by the youngest daughter’s spectacular demise by self-defenestration, which inaugurates “the year of the suicides.”

The good: Okay, first, that summary is a bit misleading because a) it isn't a bunch of teenage sleuths, it's a bunch of middle-aged men piecing together a story from their teenage years, and b) it isn't really a year of suicides. I'm not going to say more than that because I don't want to give anything away, but I found that description to be misleading, and if you read the book, you'll know why. On to the good...this book is gorgeously, sumptuously written. Eugenides is a master of nuanced description and building interesting, three-dimensional characters from small, seemingly insignificant details. The point of view (1st person plural) is also fascinating because it's so rarely seen in fiction today. In many ways, this is a tragedy in the traditional sense (from the very first page, you know everyone will be dead by the end), but the character development and story structure is so interesting that knowing the conclusion doesn't really take away from the joy of reading the story. In fact, like in any good tragedy, it contributes to it.

The not-so-good: There wasn't really anything "not-so-good" about the novel, except maybe the last couple of pages felt a little too forced or preachy. I'm actually working on a suicide story (a couple of them, in fact) and coming to a different conclusion than Eugenides, so maybe that's part of the issue. That's a relatively minor complaint, though, for a novel that's pretty close to perfect. (Strangely, even though the Sophia Coppola-directed adaptation is pretty faithful to the book, it doesn't affect me in the same way. I didn't find it memorable at all after watching it back in college, and after rewatching it last weekend after I finished the book, I appreciated it more but still felt like it was lacking something. Heart? Empathy? I'm not quite sure.)

Final verdict: 4.5/5 stars

GoodReads summary:

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is Margaret Atwood's account of her relationship with the literary form we have come to know as "science fiction." This relationship has been lifelong, stretching from her days as a child reader in the 1940s, through her time as a graduate student at Harvard, where she worked on the Victorian ancestors of the form, and continuing as a writer and reviewer. This book brings together her three heretofore unpublished Ellmann Lectures on 2010 - "Flying Rabbits," which begins with Atwood's early rabbit superhero creations, and goes on to speculate about masks, capes, weakling alter egos, and Things with Wings; "Burning Bushes," which follows her into Victorian otherlands and beyond; and "Dire Cartographies," which investigates Utopias and Dystopias. In Other Worlds also reprints some of Atwood's key reviews of other practitioners of the form and thoughts about SF. She also elucidates the differences (as she sees them) between "science fiction" proper, and "speculative fiction," as well as "sword and sorcery/fantasy" and "slipstream fiction." For all readers who have loved the work of Margaret Atwood, especially The Handmaid's TaleThe Blind Assassin,Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood - not to mention Atwood's 100,000-plus Twitter followers - In Other Worlds is a must.

The good: The first three essays in this book come from the Ellwood Lectures Atwood did at Emory a couple of years ago (which I am still mad I missed). Since I'm reading so much speculative/sci-fi and even writing it now, her musings on the subject, on her own history with the genre, and on how she distinguishes between different subgenres, were both fascinating and thought-provoking. Her reviews of so many foundational works of science fiction also educated me on so many aspects of the genre that were previously unknown to me, as well as doubling my current TBR list. The "tributes" she included were fun experiments with the form and subject matter of science fiction.

The not-so-good: More please! Seriously, that's my only complaint. Perhaps I wish there were less book reviews, and more of her new, original content--fictional tributes, essays and meditations, whatever you want to call them. Just more of Atwood thinking, musing, talking, suggesting, telling stories from childhood. There's a reason I paid an exorbitant amount for a signed limited edition copy of this book--Atwood is my idol, and I could listen to her talk about her life, thoughts, and philosophies indefinitely.

Final verdict: 4.5/5 stars
Atwood's doodles in the inside cover.

March looks to be a busy reading month, with two highly anticipated YA sequels coming out: Lauren Oliver's Pandemonium (sequel to Delirium) and Rachel Hawkins' Spell Bound (the final book in her Hex Hall series). I received Pandemonium last Tuesday and finished it Sunday night, although I'm waiting until the next reading update to review it. Also on my reading list for the month is Northanger Abbey and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which I started reading tonight, so I'll be back with my impressions of all four books at the end of the month.

Until then, happy reading, everyone!

**Disclaimer: Since I started writing this post, you know, a week ago, I have discovered there are so many interesting-looking literary novels and short story collections coming out this month that I may just have to change back to my previous reading resolution. For those of you looking to read a new release this month, these look promising: Arcadia by Lauren Groff (author of The Monsters of Templeton), Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman, Carry the One by Carol Anshaw, and Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung. If you're looking for a new non-fiction read, I'm really looking forward to this one: Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.


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