Parnassus Reads

Reader and infrequent writer. I read and review books from many different genres, though my primary interest is in literary fiction. Fantasy and YA is easier to review though, so you'll see a lot of that here. 


I'm always open to suggestions for good books. 

Mainstream Sexism: The Internets Says No

I’ve got a little free wordpress blog called Parnassus Writes. It’s in it infancy, but it’s basically a space to write about all of the other things I think/see/hear that don’t fit into the book blog category. I did a recent post there about some of the larger implications of the Rod Reese Affair from a few months ago and the 2 day old David Gilmour Affair. Here’s the first paragraph, and a link to it below.


It’s obvious to say that people say stupid shit all the time, on many different platforms, in many different media, in many different ways. Having to hear people say stupid shit is part of what it means to live in society (Also, see Congress). The problem, however, with two more recent and public examples, courtesy of Rod Reese and David Gilmour, is that stupid, unaware, and wildly sexist things were said on official publishing house websites, which means they were given a modicum of credible authority. Book culture is something that I hold very dear to my heart and it pains me to see things like this coming from a community that I love. But I was heartened by the near immediate and very public response from the collective internets, a community that I am part of but don’t always love…


When Goodreads Stopped Being Good

Via that magical “news” source that is Twitter, I learned of Goodreads’s recent policy change, whereby the moderators (whoever they are) can now simply delete a user’s reviews and shelves if they are primarily about “author behavior.” Here is an excerpt:


"**Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior."


Tough luck if you wanted to save any of those review or remember whose books you weren’t going to buy. Oh, but wait, let me point something out. The policy makes reference to generic “author behavior.” As many commentators have asked, does this include positive author behavior, or only negative? The implicit answer is, of course, negative. Since becoming part of Amazon’s vast empire, Goodreads has increasingly taken the sides of authors, including authors behaving badly, and left reviewers out in the cold.


Author/reviewer friction has become more and more common, and they are getting quite a bit of press. Certain authors seem to be googling themselves more frequently in order to read bloggers’ reviews of their books. And if they find something they don’t like, some few of them seem to be unable to resist opening their internet maws, which creates a bad situation all around. In one notable case, an author actually riled up his fans on twitter and bombarded an unfortunate blogger with negative tweets, comments, & emails, creating a virtual campaign against the blogger in question.* It’s only when the authors get caught out that they offer a sideways (non)apology. And they do eventually get caught out, because on the internet, everything is public.


What could these anonymous, largely unpaid bloggers and reviewers possibly be saying to invite such vitriol? In most cases I’ve read, the blogger reviews the work poorly, and calls into question the ideologies behind the author’s work. It might be understandable that some authors would take this personally, because they are not adequately prepared for anonymous public criticism. In rare cases, bloggers have gone beyond the book and attacked the author. But these are rare cases, and in general, these reviews are not what have garnered media attention.


Media attention only happens when an author behaves very badly, very publicly. Or when a blogger who can’t handle the private email/message abuses finally speaks out. But to the author’s fans and internet trolls, these negative reviews and this calling out of bad behavior have come to be called “author bullying.” There’s even a Goodreads-specific site for labeling the “author bullies” and blacklisting them, which I will not link to here. Several of the reviewers I follow on Goodreads are listed there. And they are listed there unfairly.


Others have spoken more eloquently about the definition of bullying and how what these reviewers/bloggers are doing comes nowhere near the crime of bullying, but what do the trolls care? It’s easier to label and dismiss than it is to engage and learn. And those in power must always be protected from the nameless masses.

All of this brings me back to Goodreads and the recent policy change. It’s clear whose side Goodreads is on, and it should come as no surprise now that they are owned by Amazon, who is only interested in profits, even at the expense of authors (See any random rant by Jonathan Franzen). But Amazon/Goodreads is clearly willing to forgo its relationship with readers now, at least those readers who attempt to deflate an author’s ego or public image by calling out their bad behavior publicly. In other words, anyone who doesn’t say nice, purchase-increasing things about a given book.


I have used Goodreads since 2011, and have almost 900 books categorized on there. Some users have over 2,000 books and hundreds of reviews. Those of us who love what Goodreads offered readers, but who cannot agree with their new policies are faced with the decision of whether or not to stay. The reality is that any substitute site we choose can also delete anything at any time without warning unless the blogger/reviewer has their own domain name. This was an issue with both blogger and blogspot, and I’m sure it’s happened on wordpress’s public site. I think what has people most upset is that Goodreads has blatantly said that it will do this as well, but in a decidedly unbalanced way. Goodreads’s message is clear: reviewers, watch what you say or we’ll delete your content; authors: carry on. As one blogger recently and unfairly accused of author bullying noted, this policy creates an incredibly unfair power dynamic where authors are protected no matter what they do, even when publicly shamed for their behavior, while reviewers can simply be deleted. Authors already have far more power than the anonymous blogger; now they have policy to back them up.


Goodreads is and always has been a privately owned site. They have always had the ability and the right to do what they want. Their policy had previously been designed to create and maintain user trust. That trust has been violated and Goodreads will reap those rewards. There will be plenty of users who stay, and plenty more who will still join. But there is now bad faith and bad blood between the site and many of its top reviewers. This will cost them, but will it cost them enough to back the faceless reviewers, who the site was created for, or the profit-earning, publicity bringing authors? Can they ever even win them back after this? I think the damage has been done.


Readers want a public space in which to gather and share reviews, to talk about books and to be able to do this without someone breathing down their necks about whether what they say is acceptable or not. The draw to sites like Goodreads and BookLikes, which I have just joined, as opposed to a personal blog is the community(ies) they create. In order to both protect their content and enjoy a ready-made bookish community, book reviewers are going to need to have it both ways: create their own blogs where they own the content they produce and cannot have it deleted just because it offends an author/moderator and then post those reviews on whatever community site they like. Reviewers can have their own spaces to do what they like while still participating in a ready-made online community. Not everyone can and will want to do this. The simple fact is, unfortunately, that unless you own the domain, your content is no longer yours as soon as it is published.


The Goodreads model has been so successful, in part, because of its user interface, which is so far unmatched, in my opinion. Alternatives like BookLikes or LibraryThing might get an upsurge in users from the impending Goodreads exodus, but they just don’t have the interfaces to make the transition easy. It feels like we have no where to go. Some, probably many, of us will stay at Goodreads and fall in line. But none of us can live in the illusion that Goodreads belongs to the readers anymore; it hasn’t for a long time. Friday’s policy change has just served to make that painfully obvious.


*I have not linked to any of the recent author/reviewer interactions. Most of these people just want to move on with their blogging lives, so let them.


Among the Janeites: A Journey through the World of Jane Austen Fandom

Among the Janeites: A Journey through the World of Jane Austen Fandom - Deborah Yaffe

I was in my local bookstore browsing the new titles when I came upon this loud yellow book with a curious etching of a woman in period dress riding a horse across the cover. She’s looking back over her shoulder at her bonnet, which streams behind her in an invisible wind. She’s riding sidesaddle, and I am impressed by her ability to turn in the saddle and not fall off her horse. The cover looks fresh and modern, and it sticks out pleasantly. The cover is creamy, heavy paper stock, and the pages are deckle-edged, my most favorite detail of a book. Cut pages these days look so dull, uniform, and common, and can only be saved by excellent paper and beautiful text. Yes, I am quite snobby about the looks of my books.


Deborah Yaffe’s personal, charming, and fascinating book about the world of Jane Austen fandom is as odd and engaging as its cover. A fresh take on a little known aspect of Jane Austen’s legacy, Among the Janeites explores the lives of her devoted fans who gather together on tours through Jane Austen’s England, visiting her various homes, the places where she vacationed, and the places where movie adaptations of her work were filmed. They gather at annual conferences and Jane Austen Society of North America’s (JASNA) annual meeting, full costume Regency Ball attendance optional but hard to miss. They find each other in online communities where Jane Austen FanFic runs wild. But what makes all of these hard-core fans tic? What makes them spend a year looking for the perfect Regency dress for the annual ball, spending hundreds of dollars in the process? What would make someone spend $10 million dollars on Jane Austen’s brother’s mansion?


These are the questions Yaffe hopes to answer through her personal exploration of Jane Austen fandom (Yaffe is the one on the hunt for the prefect dress) and through the stories of other Austen fans, like the former head of Cisco Systems and creator of the make-up line Urban Decay, Sandy Lerner, who bought Chawton House and dumped over $10 million into it to restore it and turn it into The Chawton House Library, a place for scholars all over the world to come and browse the collection of rare manuscripts and first editions of early British female writers. Lerner’s modest excuse for such a wonderful project was simply that she had the means to make it happen.


Yaffe’s preparation for the JASNA Annual General Meeting (AGM) and it’s accompanying ball provides a frame-work and forward motion for the book as a whole, while allowing her to delve into whatever aspect of Austen fandom she desires. Each chapter has a mix of both, but are generally topical and frequently reference previously discussed fans. In this respect, the reader would be loosing quite a bit in skipping around. Yaffe is as much a character in this narrative as the other Janeites, and it is entertaining to read her fret over the fabric of her gown, whether or not she should just get the shiny satin gloves, and the inevitable pre-ball disasters.


Running throughout the exploration of personal, writerly, scholarly, and commercial fandom is the tension between the personal and the public, between those who became Janeites first in the seclusion of a single book read hiding in a deserted corner of the school yard, as Yaffe did, and who now have to share her with all the coffee mugs, t-shirts, and key rings, with Jane Austen twitter feeds, with neophytes who find her through Kiera Knightley’s Lizzy Bennett. Yaffe holds Colin Firth’s wet shirt in the 1995 BBC mini-series largely responsible for the public and commercial explosion of Jane Austen, which seems to have since waned a bit. Yet every time I go into the bookstore I seem to find a new Austen-related book. For many Austen fans, it is difficult to see something they have loved so fiercely and so privately splashed all over the place in the most vulgar way. Yet the commercialization of Jane Austen created a huge upswing not only in her popularity as THE female British writer, but also in scholarly interest in her work, her contemporaries, her predecessors, which can only be seen as a gain. That it has also introduced her to new and increasingly digital generations of readers should only be seen as positive as well.


This however brings up another tension in Janeites: between those who view themselves as true Janeites, those who are serious about their fandom, and those who are not true Janeites, as defined by the former. These lesser fans might just watch the movies, or prefer the zombies edition of Pride and Prejudice, or have only listened to Austen on tape. With such intense fandom, lines like these are bound to be drawn in the sand. Ultimately, they don’t matter in the larger context of loving Jane Austen. This, finally, is what Yaffe finds that motivates and binds all of Austen’s fans together. Expression of that love creates the diverse and sometimes moving, often entertaining cast of characters in Yaffe’s book. When it comes down to it, love for Austen and her characters are all that is required for membership in the Janeite community, whether it be online, at conferences, at a costume Regency ball, or in the privacy of your favorite reading chair.


If you are already a card carrying Janeite, this book should provide some entertaining history and back story for people you might already know. If you are a burgeoning Janeite, this book is a good place to start and will give you good information about where to find other such as your self (I do wish there had been footnotes & an index, etc.). Or, if you are like me, a casual reader who happens to have read Jane Austen at some point in your life, this book is an entertaining and frequently moving portrait of a cultural phenomenon and the people at its core. Highly recommended.

Claire of the Sea Light

Claire of the Sea Light - Edwidge Danticat

Claire of The Sea Light is an ensnaring, beautiful, and evocative novel by Hatian-American author Edwidge Danticat. I was immediately drawn into the narrative by the first paragraph, and did not put it down until I was done, four hours later. Claire of the Sea Light is less about the titular character and more about the intersecting lives of members of a small seaside town/village in Haiti, Ville Rose. It’s also about the legacies parents leave their children, in both presence and absence.


Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustian’s mother died the day Claire was born, a loss both her and her father have carried for years. At the open of the novel, the town’s wealthy fabric shop owner, Gaëlle, has just decided, finally, that she will take Claire and adopt her, as her father has been hoping she would for several years. He wants Claire to have a better life than what he, a poor fisherman living in a shack by the sea, can give her and this is the only way he knows how. Just when Gaëlle accepts Claire, Claire disappears. That this happens in the first chapter provides the reader with a great impetus to keep reading, even as new characters are introduced seemingly out of nowhere. What follows is a portrait of a town and its varied but connected inhabitants. We do not return to the night that Claire disappears until the final chapter, but readers who skip ahead just to find out what happens will miss out on all of the nuances of emotion and characters that lead to what happens on the beach that night. In other words, they will miss out on what makes this such a beautiful and engrossing novel.


If at at first the novel seems more like a collection of loosely related short stories, the reader should keep reading. It becomes more and more obvious that the town is a character like the others, and it is what binds them all together. However, perhaps because of this, the coalescence of characters and events is less coherent than one might like. One of the story lines I was most interested in was simply dropped, and in the end, the reader is left not knowing the fates of characters she has been invited to invest quite a bit of emotion in. But that is the purview of fiction showing lives in progress, lives that are unfinished or only just begun. Like the radio show Louise George hosts, Danticat shows us the moments where people’s lives change for the better or worse, and leaves us with the hope that everything will turn out all right for these people whose stories we have come to love.


Danticat’s writing is precise but not spare, and highly evocative. In one paragraph, she conjures Ville Rose with master strokes of description and detail. It takes other authors pages, sometimes chapters, to accomplish what Danticat does in a single paragraph. Critics have compared her style in this novel to that of a fable, but I’m not sure I agree. Her writing is timeless, as are her themes, but there is also a slow yet perpetual movement that comes across more strongly than that of the staid fables she sometimes invokes. It is the choices that these characters make that propel them forward or let them slip backward in their circumstances. While reading, I was reminded of Behn Zeitlin’s quietly amazing film Beasts of the Southern Wild because of the tenderness, frankness, and pride with which Danticat simultaneously treats and gives to her characters. Both the movie and Danticat’s novel deal with issues of pride, place, family, poverty, death, circumstance, and the legacies parents leave their children.


I have not read any of Danticat’s other work. I know it will be different in some respects, but if all of her writing is as lush and evocative as Claire of The Sea Light, I can’t wait to start reading. This is one of the best novels I have read this year and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic -

If you are looking for anything other than a WASP-y bit of comfort fantasy reading, you will not find it in this book. Contrary to the title, there’s not much thinking going on either. And that’s okay, because Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic does not purport itself to be anything other than what it is: pure, lighthearted escapist fantasy (if you’re a white female, at least). I am a white female, and I enjoyed it for being what it is. Every once in a while, I just need some light & fluffy readerly junk food and this book fit the bill quite nicely.


Real Magic is about a young woman, Nora, unhappy in love and life (having issues finishing her Ph.D in English), whoThe Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic gets spirited away by a faery queen from another world, Ilyssa. There, she is treated to wonderful and endless parties, beautiful gowns, and several suitors, who find her perfect beauty as enchanting as the world around her is enchanted. Nora adapts quickly to her new life and forgets all about her old one, until she finally sees the reality of her situation. On a gust of wind, she travels to the castle of the mysterious magician Aruendiel, who seems to pity and distain her in equal measure both for her situation and because she is a woman. Yes, outside the bright lights of Ilyssa’s parties, Nora finds herself in the generic, vaguely medieval, patriarchal world of magicians, wizards (there is a distinct difference, mind you), knights and kings. The king of this land, like all medieval kings, is planning war with other lands, while Aruendiel continues almost a one-man war with the faeries, here called the Faitoren (it takes Nora a little too long to realize that the Faitoren are the faeries/fairies from our world’s fairy tales, and that they are most definitely not nice), for various, partially-explained reasons. Once rescued from the evil Faitoren’s clutches, Nora has to figure out how to live in her new world, since it doesn’t appear that she’ll be going home any time soon. Her immediate answer is to become a servant in Aruendiel’s castle. Eventually, more than half-way through the book, Nora convinces him to take her on as his student, so that she can learn magic to defend herself and be useful.


Skirmishes with the Faitoren happen, plots are hatched and exposed, and things continue on their merry way towards a definite but open conclusion that clearly indicates a sequel. After all, Nora’s only just gotten exactly what she wanted, while realizing that she’s Elizabeth Bennett to Aruendiel’s Mr. Darcy. Pride and Prejudice provides a minor plot point and an obvious overlay to the novel, but the publishers must have decided that Austen-themed ironic titles were passé, so they resurrected the equally gimmicky “guide to…” ironic title for this fantasy-disguised romantic novel. There’s no bodice-ripping, or even kissing (only a much brooded on missed opportunity), but there’s plenty of sexism, racism and patriarchal BS. But our girl Nora is from an enlightened world, so she can call bullshit when she sees it, and even change the hearts of men by showing them their wrong-headed treatment of women. Same for black people, of whom there is only one. At least she’s a BA magician (gasp, a female one! They can exist!).


The discussion of the treatment of women and mentions of racism are really nothing more than nods by the author in an attempt to apologize for the fact that she couldn’t do much better than sticking to the status quo for contemporary, male-dominated, white fantasy, that she’s taken as her setting a very non-descript and highly unoriginal medieval England, that her characters are fairly bland, and that her plot is that of Pride & Prejudice (if she mentions it directly, she can’t be accused of plagiarism, right? (Not that this is plagiarism, just a lazy imagination)).


The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic adds nothing new to the genre and basically just remixes, a tiny bit, the status quo. If you are looking for something a bit more original, or an author that makes a little more effort with the imagination, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a nice, quiet, if a little overlong, piece of readerly comfort food, you could do worse.


Side note: Please do not let Goodreads or Amazon, or anyone else, lead you to think that this is anything like, or belongs in the same category as, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians or The Magician King, because it most definitely is NOT.

Night Film

Night Film - Marisha Pessl

There’s been quite a bit of hype and advance press for Marisha Pessl’s new novel, Night Film. Praise has been lavished on it and the author, best known for her debut novel Special Topics In Calamity Physics, which was a critical darling. Unfortunately, Night Film does not deliver on it’s promise of “breath-taking” suspense, nor was it as mind-, or especially genre-bending, as people claim it to be.


Night FilmNight Film tells the story of a dogged reporter, Scott McGrath and his obsession with cult director Stanislas Cordova, whose films became so horrific that studios dropped him and he went completely underground, never to be seen again. McGrath’s previous investigation into the director ended his career as a journalist 5 years before the story begins, though he still somehow manages to maintain a nice apartment in a good section of New York, bribe whomever he needs to whenever he needs to, and take his young daughter to FAO Schwartz as an I’m-sorry-for-being-a-shitty-dad pay off.


The novel starts with at notice that Cordova’s 24 year old daughter, Ashley, was found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in New York. It’s ruled a suicide, but the intrepid McGrath can’t believe that, especially because he thinks she was trying to send him a message by appearing like a specter to McGrath one night while he’s running at 2am in Central Park, just before her death. And here begins the central issue with this character. He believes that he somehow central to what is happening here, and he is willing to risk the safety of anyone, including his daughter to find out the “truth” of Cordova. Ashely’s death is merely the impetus to go after Cordova himself again. McGrath has convinced himself, based on testimony and “evidence” that Cordova was doing something sinister, if not downright evil, all these years.


Near the beginning of the book, McGrath picks up two sidekicks; one is a recalcitrant kid, Hopper, who met Ashley at camp for disturbed youth, the other a plucky young struggling actress, Nora, trying to make her way in the big city. Hopper clearly has his own agenda, and his big reveal is no surprise–you can see it coming almost immediately, while Nora seems to be there because Pessl decided she needed someone to try and ground McGrath, to make him sympathetic in some way. Nora doesn’t really have a function in the narrative, except to haplessly collect needed clues, and the book could have easily done without her. McGrath probably would have done fine on his own, since every one he talks to about Ashley or Cordova opens up to him like a flower to the sun, no matter how insane or reclusive they are. McGrath alone is the chosen one, the only one who gets all of the answers, however true or misleading they might appear to be.


The deeper he gets into the circumstances of Ashley’s death, the more paranoid he becomes, to the point that he actually thinks he might be the subject of a Cordova film; after all the director notoriously like to deal with “reality” in his films. That word is in quotes there because Pessl seems to want to make the distinction between reality and fiction the central theme of the novel. How much can we trust what we see, or hear, or feel?, she wants to ask. Perception is key in this novel, or at least Pessl it wants to be. Ultimately, however, all of this comes off as incredibly artificial and downright gimmicky. There’s hoodoo/voodoo, creepy dolls and strange children, abandoned houses, secretive twisted adult fantasy lands, etc. The climax of the novel has McGrath questioning his sanity, his reality, everything that has happened till then, yet it feels false. We know the entire time that neither he nor his missing companions are really in mortal, or even psychological danger. Pessl cannot get close enough to her character to fully convey McGrath’s terror or inner crisis, and nothing about him really changes afterwards. He is the same obsessed man willing to sacrifice anyone to get at what he says is the truth.


This is the biggest flaw in the novel, aside from the ending. The characters are flat and do not change or progress through out the novel. Neither Hopper nor McGrath are very sympathetic, and Nora is so flatly plucky she’s like cardboard cutout with her own sob story taped to the back. They mystery is not really a mystery either. Ashley’s suicide is never really questioned; it’s the why that drives McGrath & Hopper. Hopper gets his answer and is abruptly done with it all, as is Nora (I still have no idea why she was even involved). Then there’s the grand denouement after the climax, which offers McGrath a perfectly reasonable answer to everything that the reader has already figured out. Yet he still can’t let it go. More than anything, obsession turns out to be the real theme of the novel. And just when you decide, as the reader, that you’re not sure if the answer is really the truth, Pessl drops you in one of the biggest cop-outs I’ve seen in a while. She drives the point that the truth is elusive home in such a way that it feels like a giant fuck-you to the readers who have followed her boring, flat characters to the very end, just to make sure that what they think is going to happen really does.


With lines like ” ‘Everyone has a price.’ ‘Some people can’t be bought’, ” not even the writing, which Pessl was so vigorously praised for in her pervious novel, can save this sorry excuse for a “genre-bending,” literary thriller. Nor can all of its interactive and multimedia content, which includes an app you can download to “continue the story.” “Hidden” images (which are quite obvious) can be scanned by the app on your phone or iPad to discover additional content or clues, making it supposedly more real and engaging (the reader is a detective now too!) but really only serves to highlight it’s artificiality. Fantastic vistas are far less effective when you can see the scaffolding. And if you don’t have a smart phone, this novel is clearly not for you. This desperate bid for technological hipness leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Not only will the tech involved be obsolete as late as next year, it predetermines the book’s irrelevancy. You don’t really need all of the extra stuff to read the book and feel like you got what Pessl was trying to do. But in order to really enjoy this novel, you do need an ending that doesn’t make you feel like all of the hours you spent reading the book were a complete and total waste of time.


Good luck with that.


Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux - Boris Kachka Interested in publishing? Want an insiders take on one of the grandest American publishing houses? Looking for a gossipy rag to read on a sunny beach? Then look no further than Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art and America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Though the extraordinarily long subtitle is somewhat off-putting, the breezy, glib narrative sets the perfect tone for a sunny afternoon of wandering attention, alcoholic digressions, and juicy gossip. Kachka likes to turn a good phrase, as the title indicates, and he tries hard and frequently to do so throughout this tour of the personalities, editors, and authors that have made FSG what it is today.The two central figures of this narrative are Roger Straus, who started the company against the wishes of his parents, wealthy Jewish-Germans and central figures of “Our Crowd,” and Robert Giroux, who joined the company later in it’s life, after a decade or so at Harcourt, Brace. Straus was the magnetic personality who kept the company going on one side through wealthy connections and shrewd business deals, while Giroux brought in some of our best-known authors. The opposites-attract dynamic worked for a while before it fell apart, as it eventually had to. In Kachka’s rendering, Straus comes across as a larger-than-life personality, the kind that is magnetic but hard to live with in the long run. He was a notorious philanderer and cheapskate who rarely paid his authors the money they needed and his employees the money they deserved. Giroux, on the other hand was quiet, reserved, and worked hard to get his authors their due. Giroux was a Jesuit trained scholarship boy from Columbia, who ended up running the Columbia Review with his best friend and future poet John Berryman. His loyalty to his house and to his authors earned him their respect, and when he finally did break with Harcourt, Brace for their unwillingness to take risks with authors such as J.D. Salinger, he took the likes of T.S. Eliot with him.While these two men dominate the story of FSG, there are numerous others who hold a vital place in its history. Farrar, who started the company with Straus after being ousted from his own publishing house while recuperating in Algiers after the war; Rose Wachtel, the office supplies manager who was such a tyrant that according to one of the employees, if you wanted a new pencil you had to show her the old one to prove that you really had worn down the nub. There’s also digressions on authors and their scandals, such as the possibility that Susan Sontag slept with Straus (they were a power couple downtown in matching leather jackets, according to Kachka), or Jonathan Franzen’s public spat with Oprah, which gets more pages than it really needs (and is excerpted here, at There are almost too many people populating this little history. To help alleviate the pain of remembering who’s who, there’s a 25-page index, along with endnotes for each chapter and an extended bibliography. Together, these tally 100 or so pages.Kachka likes to sound good, yet his prose tends toward the bombastic; it starts right there in the subtitle. But who cares whether or not FSG really was the hottest house in publishing, or if it really is the most celebrated publishing house in America? Kachka is out to sell a book and to tell a good, if frequently tangential, yarn full of gossip on titans of publishing and celebrated authors alike. Just yesterday, over at New York Magazine, Kachka was pointing out the ironies of booksellers, readers, and authors bemoaning the impending death of the last brick and mortar book chain, Barnes & Noble, when it had been previously reviled as the death of independent bookstores and a bane to authors everywhere. He of course mentions the mediocre orders for his own book (only 100 copies for 600 stores), blaming Barnes & Noble for bad contract deals with his publisher, Simon & Schuster. If Hothouse had been written in this straight-forward, informative prose, I might have learned a bit more about the creation and maintenance of FSG. But then it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun, nor would it have felt like the unique treat that it is. Books like these don’t come along very often, and when they do, those with even the smallest interest in the publishing world ought to take note. Hothouse may not be the bestseller that Kachka clearly hopes it will be, but it has captured the attention of the entire book world and in that sense hits its mark perfectly.

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot -

As a former English major, I’m a big fan of books about academia, especially if it’s about other English majors. I finally picked up Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot after finding it in hard cover at a book warehouse sale for super cheap. The novel primarily follows Madeline, a college graduate writing her senior thesis on the 19th-century marriage plots of Jane Austen & co. At least that’s what the jacket says. What this novel is really about is living with someone who is manically depressed and the use of lithium to treat it in the 80s. In college, where the novel starts, Madeline has two suitors, one an introverted, sensitive The Marriage Plotboy named Mitchell and the other the grungy, intelligent but manic Leonard. Madeline only likes Mitchell when she needs him, and falls hopelessly in love with Leonard. Every now and then we get sections from the two boys’ perspectives; Leonard, as he sinks into depression and then as he experiments with Lithium doses, and Mitchell, as he treks across India and Europe the summer after graduating. Madeline chooses Leonard, for better or worse.


Mitchell is the only half-way decent character, and that’s saying something. Madeline starts as a privileged, marginally self-aware WASP, and doesn’t really change much throughout the novel. Mitchell has something like a conversion experience in India while serving Mother Theresa, and Leonard alternates between sane, manic, and depressed, but most of the time is just depressed and resentful. He’s poor and from a bad family and resents that Madeline is rich and from a good family. And it’s because of this, really, not Leonard’s disease, that they can never have a future together. That and the fact that Madeline doesn’t really understand what Leonard’s going through, even though she pretends to and fools herself into thinking that she can save him.


The so-called “plot” is not worthy of its allusion and is summed up nicely by Mitchell for a tidy ending, where everyone at least has the chance for happiness and no one ends up together (is that really a spoiler when you can see it coming from the second chapter?). But the novel is clearly supposed to be a character study, or a study on what mental illness in relationships can look like. The problem is that the characters are unable to carry the novel because they are almost wholly unsympathetic. Great fiction can feature unlikeable characters, as long as they are compelling or as long as the author can make the reader care about them or what happens to them in some way (or in some cases, only because the prose is just that amazing). That is not the case here. Madeline is shallow and frequently whiney, while Leonard is fairly flat and predictable, as are all of the secondary characters. Mitchell is the most interesting, but he is ultimately insufferable in his own way too.


The narrative is likewise insufferable. It’s bogged down by flashback after flashback that are supposed to reveal character and motivation, but are really only info dumps that become increasingly frustrating. The writing is pedestrian and frankly, boring. There is far too much extraneous information weighing it down. At one crucial point, when Madeline goes to check her mailbox for a Yale acceptance letter, Eugenides details the specific route she took for no other reason than to waste space and attempt to build anticipation. It has the opposite effect; by the time she turned left down the hallway on the right to reach the mailroom, I did not care at all what was in that mailbox. And it’s too bad too, because Madeline’s only concept of her future hinges on that one letter.


I fully admit to skipping and skimming frequently through this novel, something I rarely do. In fact, I only do it when I know that if I skip ahead, the narrative will likely be in almost the same spot, thanks to extraneous flashbacks. I really did not miss much in the 200 pages I skipped, but went back and skip-skimmed around anyway, just to be sure. The Marriage Plot is a general waste of reading time. For a real coming of age through academia and personal issues amidst privilege and opportunity, read Gloria by Keith Maillard. It’s from 2001 and may actually be out of print. It was my first academic novel, read the year before I went to college, and I loved it. I traded in my copy a long time ago, but it haunts me now and then. Just last night I came across it in a used book store and almost bought it. After thinking about how young I was when I read it, and therefore how much I probably missed, I called the bookstore up and had them put it on hold. I’m also reading the seminal academic novel, Dona Tartt’s The Secret History, in anticipation of her new novel, The Goldfinch, out this September. The two are unrelated but I’m in the mood for academic novels and figure I should read her best work before I read her next work. After a slew of disappointing reads, I’m hoping that The Secret History will lift me out of that slump.


Lexicon - Max Barry

Confession: I was an English major for a very long time. I studied literature, linguistics, French Latin, a little bit of Attic Greek, rhetoric, all of the things a good English major should study. I like clever things and clever books, especially when those books happen to be about words or English or literature (and yes, I am a Doctor Who fan). Imagine how hungrily I put Lexicon on hold at my local library. How frequently I checked the hold list to see when I would get it. How I sped to the library when that wonderful day arrived. True lovers of books will have had this experience at some point in their lives, hopefully very often. We hear of a book and look it up to see if we’d liked it. Then we discover it’s about something we love and the anticipation expands exponentially until we start the first word on the first page. Some books live up to what we want them to be; many don’t. Max Barry’s Lexicon unfortunately falls into the latter category.


Its most basic premise is the power of words. To his credit, Barry manages to make interesting a world in which words have the amazing power to make us do things we don’t want to (otherwise known as consumerism). But this world takes it several steps farther: word-like strings of sounds can turn us into drones (known cutely as proles, a shortening of proselyte) willing to carry out the most dire of orders. However, there is less interest in exploring the logical conclusions of today’s consumer marketing and more interest in making this next year’s action blockbuster that manages to make audiences feel smart while indulging love of bullets and senseless “collateral damage”. There are explosions, car chases, shoot-outs, helicopters and an entire town full of dead bodies, which forms the central mystery and plot-hinge of the novel.


The pacing was fast, except for extended flashbacks, which take place in a narrative that moves backwards as well as forwards and alternates between two main characters. When you think you’ve reached the middle, where to the two narratives meet, it’s really just an extended flashback in the forward-moving narrative. All of this got a bit confusing and a few things just didn’t seem to make sense, but were hastily wrapped up at the end fairly anti-climactic end. The plot and premise are more compelling than the characters, however. Emily is believable, but not necessarily likeable, and Eliot (or rather T.S. Eliot, an alias given to him by the mysterious organization of word wielders & persuaders; the highest among them is Yeats) was far more interesting but much less understood and had less page time. I would have rather read about his mysterious life than Emily’s rather quick coming of age, which takes her from hustling the LA streets to becoming a ruthless killer and wielder of words.


There was so much potential for this story. A secret organization of powerful people, where the highest rank is Poet? A thriller where said poets are running around killing each other and turning people into word zombies? This is right up my alley! But it could have been both more compelling and clever than it really was. Even though it’s billed as an intelligent thriller that contemplates the power of words, it was really just a flimsy, action-packed entertainer about the power of love. I am so sick of that story. I am so sick of the idea that the love two people have for each other can save the world and all of humanity along with it, that humanity’s saving grace is the ability to love. I wanted the tower of Babel, I wanted the power of the gods in language. I wanted societal-shattering intrigue and consequences. But there was none of that. It’s really nothing more than a beach read for the psuedo-literary set. The irony, of course, is that I was tantalized enough by the words describing it to pick it up in the first place.


Chanel Bonfire

Chanel Bonfire - Wendy Lawless In a sentence, this book is shallow and vapid and the prose is insipid and full of glib cliches (at one point, she compares working as a stage hand changing sets to clocking in on a slave ship and rowing for twelve hours. Really?). If you're a fan of Gossip Girl (books or show), then this is the adult version and just for you (some of the scenes read as if she's just waiting for the movie deal to come in). I do not discount or discredit the author's experiences; however, as a writer, the author completely fails to create any sort of emotional connection to the reader and even to the events she describes in the book. It'll be perfect for the beach reads set.

The Astor Orphan: A Memoir

The Astor Orphan: A Memoir - Alexandra Aldrich THe comments here still stand, but for a more nuanced review, see Parnassus ReadsThis is really more of a 2.5 star book. In a sentence, it was shallow and unconvincing. I cared little for the narrator's journey because little changed over the course of the book. It's easy to see that there's a follow up in the works, but I doubt I'll be bothered to read it. I'm not sure how much of a story she'll have to write anyway since this one spent so much time on the Family HIstory and Who's Who of Kooky Relatives and so little time on the emotional development of the narrator. I feel like I have very little idea of who Alexandra is and who she will become. In fiction, it's hard to care about a character when you don't know them (narratively speaking). When this happens in memoir or biography, which this book is, the book is a complete failure for the reader. Which is sad, because I felt that there was a genuinely good story to tell in here. Unfortunately, the author lacks the ability to really evoke the squalor she tries so hard to describe and does nothing with the people who form the background to her central drama of loss of innocence. She never connects us emotionally to the events or people around her that she seems to try and tell us are central to the formation of her identity. This is what memoir is supposed to do, and in this respect, the novel fails the reader. I've seen it mistakenly shelved in fiction; perhaps this is why. In full disclosure, I'm not in the best mood and this book really disappointed me. I just finished it, so this is kind of a knee-jerk reaction (however, I had the same thoughts at the midway point). Perhaps a more detailed review to come when I've gotten some distance and a better mood. Spoiler: That great opening chapter that really hooks the reader with the terror of the dead goats? Yeah, never find out how they got there or what happened to them. This issue pretty much describes the rest of the book as well.

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls - David Sedaris New to Sedaris's written work. This collection was funny and slightly horrifying as well in the way that only humorists can be. I would definitely recommend it.

Half World

Half World - Hiromi Goto After signing up for the Worlds Without Ends Women of Genre Fiction year long reading challenge, I had to choose who I wanted to read and what I wanted to read by them. Conveniently, the website had a list of authors and their books. I tried to choose authors I hadn’t heard of or read before. Among these was Hiromi Goto. I chose her young adult novel Half World, which tells the story of Melanie Tamaki, her ill-fated mother, and Melanie’s quest to reunite the Three Realms.Melanie hasn’t had an easy time of life. She is fat, does poorly in school, and has a drunk for a mother. For these reasons, she is frequently bullied by her peers. After running away from the torment one day, Melanie returns home to discover that her mother has seemingly abandoned her. The truth is far more sinister, and thus begins Melanie’s epic quest to Half World to save her mother from the deranged Mr. Glueskin.Half World is much like limbo, where people constantly relive the trauma of their death. Because the inhabitants of half world have relived this trauma over and over for thousands of years, when the three Realms were initially separated, many of them have become mad, twisted creatures, frequently compared to Hieronymous Bosch’s famous creatures in the Hell panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights. As it soon becomes clear, Melanie must not only save her mother, but also reunite the three Realms and restore balance to the universe.The Realm of Half World, for all its gruesomeness, sounds fascinating. Readers have already drawn apt comparisons to Neil Gaiman, Charles De Lint, and China Mievelle, so I won’t drag that out. What’s a little disappointing about Half World is that we get to see so very little of it. Melanie lands right where she needs to be (a hotel that reminded me of Sartre’s hell) and never explores the half-built mishmash of the city and its twisted inhabitants. This is a much more straight-forward hero quest novel than anything else, and as such it steams along nicely. Because Melanie always get some form of help right when she needs it, we’re never really worried for her safety. Melanie is a sympathetic character and her growth and ability to face her fears gives her some depth, possibly enough to be relatable to her intended audience. The prose is likewise straightforward, almost plain, and sometimes a little to wordy and repetitive. But the story clips along at a fast enough pace that casual readers probably won’t care too much.Unfortunately, what interested me most about this novel was not its characters, but its world, which was only barely sketched in. What we do get is quite vivid, Goto’s world building is good, if only briefly done. Goodreads has a #1 listed after the title, so perhaps the author will return to it, or the two other Realms, in future installments. I’m just not sure if I’ll be bothered to read them.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves

Phantoms on the Bookshelves - James Salter, Jacques Bonnet, Sian Reynolds Witty, if you can follow his anecdotes, instructional in some ways, but mostly just amusing for the person who truly suffers the affliction of bibliomania. Accordingly, the best part is the eight pages of bibliography at the end.

Sever (Chemical Garden Trilogy)

Sever - Lauren DeStefano

Sever, the conclusion to Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden trilogy simmers slowly and then fizzles out to a completely unsatisfying ending to what could have been a much more interesting “dystopian” trilogy. I use dystopian in quotes here, because in general, for something to be considered dystopian, it has to deal with political systems, or at the very least, power structures in society. DeStefano ditches most of this in favor of exploring weepy, sleepy, indecisive Rhine’s thought process for constantly oscillating between running away from and going back to her opulent prison, where the evil Headmaster Vaughn reigns supreme.


For reasons that never really gel with his established character, Vaughn allows Rhine to be released from the hospital after she escaped his basement of horrors and cut a tracking device out of her thigh. The still oblivious Linden and child-wife/mother Cecily inexplicably go with her and help her out, sort of. Linden takes her to his heretofore unmentioned uncle, whom he has secretly been hanging out with since his uncle’s exile from the Mansion 10 years earlier. Apparently it’s no secret to Vaughn, who shows up not long after and tries to get everyone to come back home with him. I really can’t remember how many times everyone went home and then left and then went back. The motives and or reasons for this don’t really make much sense either, given what a terrible prison we’ve previously been told it is. I also can’t remember why anything about the characters is remotely important or worth the hours it took me to read this book.


Part of the reason there’s so much going back and forth is that there’s really nothing else going on in the novel. Rhine’s journey to find first Gabriel (who gets mentioned now and again solely so that the reader won’t forget him) is constantly delayed (because of all the back and forth), and partly because this is just a lazy and sloppy excuse for a novel. The term “chemical garden” first gets mentioned more than half way through the book, and we don’t really find out what it even means until the last 50 pages, and even then it’s dealt with in a rather off-handed manner. It’s not until the last 10 or 20 pages that anything even remotely interesting happens, and even so the novel just fizzles out and dies, like all the characters who pose a problem to the novel’s attempted neat but ultimately sloppy resolution. Major spoiler alert: no one leaves the mansion and they all live happily ever after.


Oh yeah, Vaughn really wasn’t such a bad guy; he really was only trying to help, in his demented way. Oh wait, he really is an evil bastard and deserves to die. End of the only character who gave this overly long, overly angsty novel any steam. By the end of it, I didn’t care about Rhine, her brother, either of her lovers, or anyone else really, except Reed, Linden’s uncle. But he was just a necessary foil to Vaughn and is only barely sketched in.


On the whole, this a shite excuse for a teen dystopian novel, and especially a trilogy ending one. Don’t bother with it and read Marie Lu’s newest, Prodigy, instead. It’s still got plenty of angst and a love triangle, but at least decisions are made and actions are taken (in other words, there’s a plot). Plus, explosions and government collapse. Now that’s what dystopian novels are all about.


The Dinner

The Dinner - Herman Koch, Sam Garrett I saw this title on some best of 2013 list somewhere and decided to check it out from the library. I’m glad I can return it. I generally don’t read in the mystery genre, nor do I read much by Dutch authors. Koch kind of rode the Larsson train into American crime fiction, from what I understand, or pre-dated it, but barely. Yet I don’t feel like this is really a crime novel in the typical sense as it’s explained directly what happened and who did it by the middle of the novel. The only mystery is what anybody is going to do about it. This is more of a character drama, and less takes place at the eponymous dinner than one might hope. I expected, based off the jacket copy, a tightly packed satire of manners at a dinner where every word has significance or double meaning. I was expecting that, gradually, the acid behind the words would be explained, culminating in the great reveal at the end of the dinner.I guess that’s what I get for expecting to read what the jacket describes (I really should know better by now). The is a dinner, and there are cutting words and meaningful looks and glances exchanged, but it’s not quite up to The Dowager’s snuff (see Downton Abbey). Instead, through the eyes of what becomes an increasingly unsympathetic narrator (Paul), we are given to understand that something happened, something bad, that involved his son and his brother’s biological son (the brother has an adopted son as well, who will make brief appearances). The dinner was called for and arranged, to Paul’s great annoyance, by his brother, Serge and Serge’s wife Babette (for reals). This is the overarching frame for the narrative, which is broken into sections by meal course. Accordingly, the main course is when we learn exactly what that bad thing that happened was, and the apertif is the aftermath of those actions.But the bulk of the narrative is taken up with Paul’s flashbacks to different times where Serge was an asshole, where Paul was an asshole, when Paul’s life almost fell apart due to his wife Claire’s unexpected illness, when he thinks about the father that he could have, and probably should have, been. But Paul has his own issues, which he sort of talks about, hints at, somewhat reveals, yet never fully deals with. If he had, perhaps, nothing would have happened with his son. Legacy is part of the question of the book: a father’s legacy to his son, both inherited and taught. But it’s really only the reader who sees this. While Paul is certainly capable of analyzing (and explaining) the most minute facial tic of his wife or his brother, he is not very capable of analyzing his own behavior or actions.If we’re calling this a mystery or crime novel (and I’m not married to the idea that we are), the biggest reveal is Paul and Claire’s true character. It is slow and accumulative, and told through Paul’s eyes, and therefore not completely trust-worthy. Paul is not a traditional unreliable narrator, but as the novel progressed, I found myself wanting to get farther and farther away from him because I didn’t like where he was going. I suppose that that is the best thing about the novel; initially we are wholly sympathetic to Paul and his wife and their son, but over the course of dinner (narrative time), his crazy becomes increasingly more apparent. Yet his crazy is not outlandish at all, and his actions, on the one hand are somewhat understandable. On the other, they are also is if not ethically reprehensible, incredibly lazy and cowardly. Yes, I am passing judgement here; the reader is clearly invited to. Other readers might judge differently.Overall, the book was compelling; I finished it in a couple of days. It stayed with me after I finished, but it left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, and like I said, I’m glad I can take it back to the library. This is really my first foray into crime fiction from the Great North, and one day I might come back to it. But right now, I think I’ll stick to my historical fiction.

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