My last post (Where have I been? What have I read?) apologised for a couple weeks of silence and promised regular posts in the future. Next thing you know, three months have passed. In other, happier news, I’ve finished my MA thesis – which also explains what I’ve been doing for the last three months.
I’ve also been doing some reading for fun, if not exactly a lot of it. But here are some highlights of my summer reading – in tiny, one-sentence reviews. (And this time I really do promise this signals a return to my old book-reviewing ways.)
Dave Eggers’ books are always a wild ride – a little strange, a little whimsical, and always oddly familiar. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is all of the above – with the added bonus of the longest title I think I’ve ever seen on a novel. The wildest and best thing about it is that it’s written entirely in dialogue: no tags, no “he said, she said,” no description, no exposition other than what the characters say to each other. And it’s so masterfully done that I was 75 pages into the book before I figured it out.
But back to that wickedly long title, which I’m sure gave more than one cover designer a heart attack. What do you do with all those words on a cover?
Answer: keep things clean and simple.
Margaret Mead has long been a hero of mine: cultural anthropologist, adventurer, and all-around fierce role model.
It’s no surprise, then, that Lily King’s Euphoria was on my radar pretty early on in 2014 – and quickly became one of my favourite books of the year.
This fictional account of a female cultural anthropologist is roughly based on Mead’s life and work – with all the drama and dedication that entails. Three anthropologists meet by chance in the New Guinea jungle in the 1930s, sparking competitive instincts in a series of subtle battles for power, for love, for professional and scholarly standing.
And with a lush jungle serving as the book’s background setting, the covers are likewise colourful, vibrant, and lively.
Tuesday means it’s time for a list, and this Tuesday is all about the past: historical fiction!
Anyone who knows me (or reads my review guidelines) will know that historical fiction isn’t my favourite genre by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I tend to avoid it completely if I can.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and in this case there’s one weird little niche of historical fiction that I apparently can’t get enough of: art world novels. And here are more of them than you think (although I have snuck in few that are questionably historical. As ever, click a cover to hop over to the Goodreads page.
At the heart of Station Eleven sits a great idea: when a fatal virus sweeps the world and kills 99% of the population, those who survive still want to watch Shakespeare.
Mandel structures the novel beautifully, alternating between the pre-virus and post-virus world. The timeline juxtaposes past and present, skipping around between half a dozen viewpoints and slowly revealing connections between them. I usually hate multiple viewpoints, but Mandel’s construction is deft: because we rarely return to the same character, the book almost feels like a series of interconnected short stories. Everything clicks together without being contrived.
This novella is a strange one – but also completely endearing.
Rothfuss has two big bestsellers to his name: The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. The novels follow the journey of Kvothe, a sharp-witted, good-hearted bard / mage / warrior / student. Think magical trials, school rivalries, political intrigue, and the ever-present threat of ancient evil forces. All in all, a highly entertaining world to live in for a while.
It either sounds like a great joke or a terrible time: two girls, two eggs, a platoon of nesting dolls, and Baba Yaga. Layer the mixture onto a foundation of literary talent, and there you have it: Gregory Maguire’s latest novel.
Maguire is best known for Wicked, a novel that later turned into the hit (and perhaps better-known) musical. I read Wicked years and years ago and don’t honestly remember much about it – except that it was really, really strange and oddly sad. It’s a book I recommend, but sparingly. Maguire’s Oz is a place that has little to do with Dorothy, flirting with themes of intersexuality and familial dysfunction.
I expected the new book, Egg and Spoon, to give the same treatment to classic Russian fairy tales – spice them up with a touch of discomfort and make it impossible to look away. Instead, Maguire delivers something closer to a YA novel. If the Incredible Journey and The Prince and the Pauper had a love child which grew up reading only Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, it would be this book.
“I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked “termenvox.” He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox – the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.”
If that’s not a great first paragraph, I don’t know what is.
Meet Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors, last year’s Giller Prize winner. This gorgeous novel follows the star-crossed, apprehensive adventures of Lev Termen, a soviet engineer who invents a musical instrument – the theremin – almost by accident. Partially due to the theremin’s growing popularity, and partially due to the Soviet government’s interest in spying on America, Leon Termen finds himself on a whirlwind tour of New York’s 1930s music scene.
The novel documents a crossroads between science and music, electricity and sound, culture and experimentation. Even the title is a pun: “conductors,” after all, could refer to electrical components or orchestra maestros.
This is fertile ground for beautiful covers.