Only 150 pages, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is perfect in its balance of absurdity and seriousness. As I often find with good fiction, the further removed we are from ourselves the better a look we get at just how fucked up we can be (and sometimes how wonderful).
The book begins in Inner Horner, a country big enough to fit just one of its seven citizens at any given moment. The other six must patiently wait for their time in the homeland in the small displacement zone located in the much larger Outer Horner. The Inner Hornerites get a place to go when they can't fit into their small country; the Outer Hornerites get to feel exceedingly generous for allowing the foreigners a place to go. This all works out fine until one day, without warning, Inner Horner shrinks so only 3/4 of a resident can fit inside, meaning the remaining quarter is treading in Outer Horner. To the Outer Hornerites, this means invasion, and only Phil is prepared to take the lead and put the invading Inner Hornerites in their place.
It's important to also mention that none of the residents of this irrational world look anything alike, or anything like a human. Rather they are assembled pieces, oddly stitched together in ways that stretch the imagination. Cal, for instance, is an Inner Hornerite who is comprised solely of a tuna fish can, a belt, a blue dot, and various connecting parts. The previously mentioned Phil has the unfortunate characteristic of a brain mounted on a sliding rack. This is a precarious place for a brain, and Phil's has the tendency to slide out whenever he gets excited, causing him to spout meaningless (yet dramatic) diatribe which leaves the other Outer Hornerites very impressed with his authority.
While the book serves largely as an allegory for colonialism & nationalism, no one is safe from George Saunder's skewers. The media, politicians, and even bystander citizens all play a role in this absurdist story. Saunders is spot-on in his mockery and twistedly funny throughout.
The best part is the name of the National Drinking Song of Outer Horner: "Large, Large, Large Beloved Land (If Not the Best, Why So Very Dominant?)" I think this could work very well for the U.S., too. Now we just need someone to write it.
I've been in a reading slump and therefore haven't been updating this like I said I would. Emotional turmoil and professional stress being my main excuses, but it's probably just laziness.
I've also been busy reading my mother's book-- Finding Baby Ruth by the wonderful, talented, and loving Sara Hoffman. It's not yet published, so I can't list it on this site. It was amazing though, and I connected with the protagonist (my biological great-grandmother) in ways I don't think my mother even intended.
There was also On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this book. I imagine that if I ever do finish it I'll probably like it a lot. It's just not meant to be, I suppose, and it will be a long time before I know what exactly happened to the love-struck dystopian protagonists.
The Here and Now by Ann Brashares was my attempt to get out of the reading slump. Usually diving into something quick (aka meant for teens) is my quickest way back on the reading track. It was a fine book that did just that.
My reading schedule has been turned upside these past two weeks. Things I had been reading or had been planning to read got pushed aside for my three day trip to San Antonio for the ABA Children's Institute. I was lucky enough to receive a full ride to the conference-- dinners, hotel, conference fees, and travel expenses were all picked up by the lovely people at Source Books and a bit from Harper Collins. As a sign of my gratitude, I'm trying to get through as many picture books and early chapter books as possible so I can sell their words to the readers at my store. I also picked up The Mist by Stephen King because my brother gave it to me and one can handle so many feel-good stories before you need some tentacled monsters thrown into the mix.
An Alien In My Pocket: Science UnFair is the second in a goofy and delightful series written by Nate Ball. Those who remember the public access TV show ZOOM from their childhood will find something to love in this book. Science UnFair gives us the continued story of Zack McGee, a normal young boy... until an alien crash lands in his bedroom. Despite all the trouble the little alien causes him, there's one or two things an alien can come in handy for. Particularly making Zack's science fair project one his school will never forget. I had the pleasure of meeting Nate Ball at a boat ride/dinner with the Harper Collins sales team.
At this point I'm about 2/3 finished with Falling into Place by Amy Zhang. It's addictive and fun, as any good teen novel should be. Our narrator is the imaginary friend of the popular and cruel Liz Emerson. Of course, since Liz is in high school, the imaginary friend has since faded far into the background of Liz's mind. Especially on the day Liz tries to kill herself by running her car off the road. Through the imaginary friend's eyes, we get the thoughts and experiences of a variety of characters before and after the "accident". This is a must for fans of 13 Reasons Why and anything written by John Green.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch is filled with an infectious nastiness. Open the book and you enter the mind of Marc, a doctor with loathsome ideas that are somehow rationalized through the course of the novel. This is the danger of first person narrators; their sickness becomes your own.
The Tipping Point is an excellent book for sociology wannabes like myself. You get loads of interesting anecdotes and experiments without it every getting too complicated. This is perfect for me and I devoured the book.
The focus of The Tipping Point is social and cultural epidemics (although there's some disease epidemics thrown in, too, mostly for a reference point). How do fads come to be and why do they disappear so suddenly? There's a lot of marketing tips thrown in there, too, which I'm particularly interested in.
Overall, it's a book that gets you thinking in new ways. I feel like I approach the world a little differently after reading it and that's really the best thing we can expect from any book.
I finished The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes the other night. It's the kind of book I wanted to finish all at once, in one single day reading binge. But of course, life interferes. It's unfortunate for those around me who (even for the best purposes) interrupt my march to the end. I've learned this about myself and hopefully, in the future, I can just say "fuck off" directly, rather than moping around during whatever it is they want me to do (eat dinner, go to sleep, get out of a burning building.)
The Shining Girls is an excellent thriller novel. I wouldn't go so far as to call it horror or scifi, even though it's about a time traveling serial killer. It's a full-blooded thriller in the end, with it's three or four page chapters that pull you through the story mercilessly. I was really impressed with the time-traveling element, since it's such a risky motif to pull off. The time travel is centered around The House, something malevolent and living that bends its occupants to its will. The way Beukes winds the stories around each other gives you enough of a taste that you think you know what's coming next, but you never really do.
Highly recommended book, if you're looking for something to read over the weekend and you don't have any pesky human needs to get in your way.
This past week I've been reading If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. Yes, the capitalization in that title is correct. That's how Literary it is. (Yes, the capital L was intentional, too. That's how we seperate the literature from the Literature in the world of fancy book readin'.) I had also picked up Hyperbole and a Half, the web-comic-turned-memoir by Allie Brosh. Whether I read Brosh's book so you wouldn't find me too snooty, or if I read the Calvino book so you wouldn't find me too low-brow, I can't say. Maybe I don't even care what you think of me. So there.
Hyperbole and a Half was good. When we got a used copy in the store after multiple co-workers had been raving about it, I figured I might as well check it out. I got sucked in right away. Brosh deals with heavy topics (like her years-long struggle with depression) with a levity that would seem insulting if she wasn't talking about herself. Despite the hyperbole (ba-dum-ch), these chapters gave me an insight into depression that no memoir or article ever has. The chapters on her two stupid dogs are funny, too.
If on a winter's night a traveler is the first book by Italo Calvino I've read and the first book of Literature I've picked up in a long time. I've read some really excellent books, but none with the level of acclaim or as many confusing plot devices of which Calvino is overly fond. If on a winter's night a traveler is about the human experience with books. It's not a story, so much as it is an exploration of the different ways one can read, write, interpret, interact with, and produce novels. There is a lot of the second person "you" involved which was very off-putting at first, but after a while I gave into it and found the book a good experience overall. I really can't explain it any better than that without just directly quoting the back cover, so look it up yourself if you're interested.
I finished The Painter today by Peter Heller. It was perfect timing in my life to read this book, since I just visited Arizona last weekend. Although the book is set in southern Colorado and New Mexico, the scenery fit well. Heller's alluring and accurate descriptions of the land were right outside my window.
This is one of the most beautifully crafted books I've read in a long time. Peter Heller studied poetry at the University of Iowa, and it shows in his writing. Although this is a standard novel, it reads like poetry and soothes the mind even in the most disturbing scenes. Jim Stegner, our protagonist, is a painter and fly fisherman and possibly a deeply violent individual. Early in the novel he sets out for a day of fly fishing and comes across a horrific scene of animal abuse. Jim is provoked to take action and the result is a profound look at violence, regret, and culpability. This book will stay with me for a long time.
Look for this book on the shelves May 9th.
Three books in a week in a half and I completely forgot to update this thing. I am not a very good book blogger. But I'm trying.
First up was Escape from Camp 14, written by Blaine Harden and based on the amazing, sickening, and insane accounts of Shin Dong-Hyuk. Shin was born in one of the 20+ prison camps within North Korean borders. In many ways this is your standard Holocaust-escape story, but you can't be comforted by leaving it in the past. As I read I was continually struck by the fact that prisoners like Shin were living through these exact things as I sipped coffee and complained to myself about the snow. He was beaten, tortured, and forced to give up every shred of humanity. His escape was nothing short of miraculous. I don't believe we should fear North Korea's nuclear defense program, I believe we should be disgusted by their gross human rights atrocities. “I am evolving from being an animal. But it is going very slowly. Sometimes I cry and laugh, just to see if it feels like anything. Yet tears don’t come. Laughter doesn’t come.” -Shin Dong-Hyuk
Above just came out this month. Isla Morley crafts an intriguing story combining two of the more twisted (and popular) plots showing up on the bestseller lists today. A young girl kidnapped and living in captivity for seventeen years escapes to find the world devastated by an apocalypse only her captor saw coming. The plot is unique only in its combination of these popular plot lines. The themes of forgiveness and guilt were interesting and made the book worth reading, but overall it's not one I'll remember in a few months.
Just tonight I finished The Intern's Handbook by Shane Kuhn. It's fitting because I met the author today. I'm the event coordinator at the bookstore I work for and Kuhn is a local in our town. We'll be hosting his hometown release party in April, but you'll have to wait until then for the April 8th release date. The Intern's Handbook is about interns & assassins-- a combination that goes together better than someone who's never worked for $0/hour might realize. Our novel's anti-hero works for HR, Inc., a cover organization that hires the young and hopeless to pose as interns in the world's most prestigious companies in order to get close to their mark. The novel is funny, in a very dark way, and actually surprised me a few times. (Not to brag, but with the amount of mysteries I've read that doesn't happen often.)
I'm stepping things up with the next book. Another ARC, this one by Peter Heller (my favorite Denver author).
Serena by Ron Rash follows the establishment of the fictional Pemberton Timber Empire. I'm not usually one for historical fiction, but I'm glad I read this book. Set in the heart of the Great Depression, Rash's characters are realistic for the period but don't get bogged down by dialect. You also get a lot on the origins of National Park, which is particularly interesting coming from the perspective of loggers. The novel's titular protagonist is the real score in this book, though. Serena is a five-star villian. Her actions are deplorable, but I can't help rooting for her in some dark corner of myself.
It was slow-going at first and it took me longer to get through this one than I would've expected. Not that I would change anything about the book necessarily, but Rash has a tendency to go into extreme details with setting and details that slows the pace. His descriptions really were beautiful, though, so no real complaints.
As promised, a brief review of Under the Skin by Michel Faber. Arguably one of the most disturbing books I've ever read (included in the running are American Psycho, Blood Meridian, and that horrifying short story with the peanut by Chuck Palahniuk.) If you have a strong stomach, an appetite for thick social commentary, and crave insane narratives, read Under the Skin. So if that includes you, stop reading now because this book is better without all of the spoilers I'm about to spoil below.
If you made it this far you either have no interest in reading the book or you completely disregarded what I JUST SAID and are going ruin a really great book for yourself. Here's the run down on Under the Skin: Isserley is our young female alien protagonist who has been sent to Earth by her corporate bosses to collect unsuspecting hitchhikers to bring back to the farm. Once there, these hitchhikers are processed ("intestinally-modified" is a phrase that will haunt me for the rest of my life), fattened, and eventually killed for meat. I had a hard time reading this one on my lunch break.
This book works on many levels as allegory. The most obvious layer is the meat industry. At times this was a bit heavy handed. I like my allegories like Georges Seurat paintings-- meaningless dots up close and full pictures from a bit back. (Side note: Michel Faber is actually not a vegetarian. Don't know what to make of that.) The strongest element in this allegory is it called me on all of my crap. Faber knew exactly what excuses the reader would be making to explain why humans & cows are so different and immediately came up with a clever way to thwart that. Again, sometimes it felt like he was a bit overeager, but maybe I needed that.
There are plenty of other themes if animal rights isn't your thing. Faber also touches on class disparity, big business, sexual identity, among others. I was most intrigued by the themes of gender found in the book. Isserley, in her own way, is quite the stereotypical hardcore man-hating feminist. Betrayed by the young men who said they'd protect her on her home planet, she's become bitter and hardened toward men. Still she represents so much on a feminist scale of her own. From her gigantic fake breasts to her grandma-like face, she is a product manufactured to distract, comfort, titilate but ultimately condemn. I still don't even know exactly what Under the Skin is trying to say about gender, but I know it's a lot.
This book will stick with you. Readers beware.
I was just about ten pages away from finishing Never Let Me Go last night when my boyfriend's hunger finally dominated the situation and I stopped so we could make dinner. I hate when this happens, that delay just as you're over the cusp. At the same time, though, it came as an almost welcome break. There's a hollowness that comes with finishing a fantastic book, knowing you can never read it for the first time ever again, and prolonging the inevitable can make that bitterness a little sweeter.
Anyway, as we're making dinner (grilled cheese & tomato soup) I can't get my mind off the book. At least he knows by now what to expect from conversation when I'm interrupted from a book like that. I tell him that Never Let Me Go has to be the most depressing book I've ever read. And he says I say that about every book I read. That's not quite true, but he's not misremembering, either. I read a lot of books with depressing endings. I'll joke at work that the only books I read with happy endings are the ones where the characters start off so completely miserable that it can only go up from there (i.e. Room by Emma Donaghue). Never Let Me Go is something else, though. I won't go into too much detail because the less you know about this book going in, the better. What I can say is that this is a story about youth and potential, modern science and moral limits. And an extra special kudos goes to Ishiguro for being able to capture a female voice so well despite his extra appendage.
I did finish the book last night after the boyfriend fell asleep on the couch in a post grilled cheese bliss. I went to bed feeling pretty drained. Next up is Under the Skin by Michael Faber. Honestly I'm terrified of starting this one, mostly because it was a present from my brother who has a thing for gore-filled horror flicks. He keeps bugging me about it, though, so I'm taking the plunge today. I'll let you know how it goes.