Friday, September 28, 2012

Am I My Brother's Keeper?: Books about Family

The Western literary canon is full of heartwarming family tales: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Great Expectations, Flowers in the Attic. I could go on. Tolstoy was clearly onto something when he noted that happy families don't sell copy.*

If compulsive sharing in the age of Facebook, Dr. Phil, and Twitter has inured you to the beauty of well-told family saga, then I recommend three novels: East of Eden, Kristin Lavransdatter and Nobody's Fool. Each is guaranteed to remind you of why we were commanded to be fruitful and multiply and why we then promptly began murdering our family members. 

1. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
East of Eden is very much rooted in the Cain and Abel story. It follows two generations of brothers (Adam and Charles; Cal and Aron) in Connecticut and California. The book has been criticized for being heavy handed in its symbolism and too much invested in achieving 'great American novel' status.
Fair enough. The C and A names do rather bludgeon the Cain and Abel parallel home, and East of Eden does have its 'look at me! I am a beautiful writer!' moments.
However, East of Eden is also the work in which Steinbeck created his most fully developed characters and convincingly explored his real interests: the impossibility of absolute knowledge, the irrationality of love, and the murderous consequences of love's absence.

2. Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset (Tina Nunnally, trans.)**
Kristin Lavransdatter is set in fourteenth century Norway. Kristin is a passionate and independent young woman who defies her parents to make a life with medieval bad boy, Erlend Nikulausson. The saga continues through marriage to Erlend, raising their seven sons, and Erlend's rise and fall from power. The backdrop to Kristin's story is the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of medieval Norway - of which I knew nothing before beginning this book and found utterly fascinating. 

I think we can all agree that her inclusion on ReadState is a far more powerful recommendation, but if you're into this sort of thing, Undset did win the Nobel Prize in 1928 "principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages."

Nobody's Fool, Richard Russo
Sixty year old Sully is broke and broken. His elderly landlady's banker son wants him evicted; his horribly damaged knee keeps him from steady work; his ex-wife seems headed for a nervous breakdown; his son seems headed for a marriage breakdown, and Sully's own memories of his abusive father haunt him.
And Nobody's Fool is extraordinarily funny.
Nobody's Fool doesn't have black hatted villains or white horsed knights. There are no neat solutions to the problems that plague Sully, his family, or his depressed, post-industrial upstate New York home. But Sully is not unhappy and nor are his friends. 
Nobody's Fool precisely captures the normal dysfunction of real life and the everyday joys that balance it all out.

*I'm paraphrasing. 

**Those of you who pay attention to such things may have noted my penchant for tomes. I read quickly and so am not turned off by books that weigh more than my car, but for those of you for whom poundage is an issue, I might recommend purchasing Kristin Lavransdatter in its three separate volumes (The Wreath, the Wife, the Cross) rather than in the single, thousand plus page version that I favor. That having been said, Nunnally's translation is modern and elegant and I have been told that earlier translations are neither of those things. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wednesday Poem: 9.26.12

It is T.S. Eliot's birthday today.

T.S. Eliot
As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her
teeth were only accidental stars with a talent
for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps,
inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally
in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by
the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter
with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading
a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: "If the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden,
if the lady and gentleman wish to take their
tea in the garden ..." I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Me, Myself, and You: Autobiography and Biography Selections

The rise of social media has made autobiographers of us all. I have an app on my phone, Timehop Abe, that sends me an email with my Facebook post from 'this day one year ago.' Do I really need to know that on September 25, 2011 I was playing 'taxi driver' with my four year old?* I do not. But, is it pleasant to be reminded of some tiny snippet of my life that I might otherwise have forgotten? It is.

I like being let behind the curtain - even if it is the curtain of my own faulty memory - and I think this is why I love to read autobiographies and biographies. I know that Tina Fey's father once angrily stormed out of a Pathmark store over a carpet shampoo misunderstanding (Bossypants, Tina Fey) and though I cannot imagine how that piece of knowledge will ever help me in any situation, ever,** I am nonetheless oddly pleased to know it. 

All reading is, in some sense, a journey to see the Wizard. We can't live a thousand lives, so we read that we might experience something beyond our quotidian existences. Fiction provides this extra-animacy, but non-fiction, particularly auto/biography, is arguably more powerful in this regard because the people behind the curtain really exist. If Oz is tangible, what is to stop us from leaving our books behind and becoming 'great and powerful'.  It seems to me that this is the great allure and great promise of the auto/biography.

I've chosen these three titles because I think they are particularly good at lifting the curtain. 

1. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Women loved him; J. Edgar Hoover feared him; he devised a way to destroy the world, and he worked to protect the world from his own creation. J. Robert Oppenheimer's complexities demand a confident, articulate, brilliant biography: Bird and Sherwin deliver. 
American Prometheus walks us through Oppenheimer's life from birth to death; his work on the Manhattan Project appears more than halfway through Bird and Sherwin's biography. This ought to indicate just how profoundly interesting Oppenheimer is: the man who built the atomic bomb has a life which makes that accomplishment merely a midpoint. 

2. Giving up the Ghost: A Memoir, Hilary Mantel
Mantel is the author of Wolf Hall which won, among other awards, the 2009 Booker Prize. So, yes, she is a very talented writer. But, memoirs are slippery things: can we trust our own memories? Can we be trusted to provide the whole truth, or does any recitation of the past merely offer our side of things?  
Mantel admits all of these challenges at the outset, which makes her chronicle of her life (difficult childhood full of abusive nuns; law school; marriage; stints in Africa and Saudi Arabia; debilitating disease; world famous novelist) much more satisfying than a memoir which pretends to be the final word on things:

I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done. I will just go for it, I think to myself, I'll hold out my hands and say, c'est moi, get used to it. I'll trust the reader. This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours.

3. Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution, Gao Yuan
Gao Yuan was in middle school when the Cultural Revolution began. Mao Zedong, however, had empowered young people to destroy the 'ox ghosts and snake spirits' of China's past in order to bring about a new socialist utopia. Students at Yuan's school, therefore, searched for signs of ‘revisionism’ among school authorities. Teachers and administrators who were unpopular or unorthodox were first accused and later forced to make self-criticism. Humiliation, torture, imprisonment and even death were all acceptable means to an ideal end. Yuan makes clear how much of the Cultural Revolution was a matter of personal 'score settling' and how quickly power corrupted its wielders; in a sort of Chinese version of Lord of the Flies, Yuan and his classmates soon turn on each other. 

*Excerpts from that encounter: 'So, I hear you're a fan of dolphins.' 'Gretchen! You have the controls!' You know, typical cab driver banter
**barring a situation where Don Fey leaves me in a Pathmark in which case knowing that he will return would be very helpful to my psyche.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sweating the Small Print: Books About Sport

I'm sure you've all seen the recent studies demonstrating a link between exercise and intellect. Yep, according to excitingly named studies like "Cognition Following Acute Aerobic Exercise" (Univ. of Illinois), your brain's executive function capabilities improve measurably even after just thirty minutes of moderate exercise.

Good news: we can build bigger, better brains!
Bad news: that hamster in your kid's room pounding it out on the wheel - he's hiding a shiv under the wood shavings and he's got your credit card.

The thing about these studies is, if exercise does indeed make us smarter, why are professional athletes not curing cancer or lending Hillary a hand with the whole Middle East thing?

More importantly for our purposes, why are professional athletes not writing better books?

The following three books about sport are wonderful counterweights to the Green Bay 3-4 defensive line (combined weight 1,017 lbs) of sports writing dross.

1. It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium: Football and the Game of Life, John Ed Bradley
John Ed Bradley grew up the son of a high school football coach in Opelousas, Louisiana and played football at LSU from 1975-1979. Football was not just a game Bradley played; it was a way of life. Leaving football behind after graduating college was wrenching for him, and Bradley is extraordinarily good on what it means for an athlete to walk away from his sport.

2. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Robert Coover
Where to begin? The Universal Baseball Association is an extraordinary act of imagination. John Waugh is a lonely, middle-aged accountant who devises a dice game that approximates the probabilities of baseball. All well and good. But then Waugh conjures up an entire alternate reality in which his game takes place: there is a ballpark, fully imagined players, death, sex, lies, but the only videotape is inside Waugh's head.
Will the game be saved by the arrival of promising rookie, Damon Rutherford or will Evil triumph over Good in Waugh's ex nihilo Creation? 
Waugh does indeed become a baseball God (J. Henry Waugh = JHWH. Any Bible scholars out there? Pretty nifty, right?) but his creatures overtake him.

3. Veeck - As in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck, Bill Veeck with Ed Linn
Things you need to know: 
Bill Veeck was a major league baseball team owner from, roughly, 1940-1980.
He signed the second African-American player in baseball history and thus integrated the American League.
He lost his leg in WWII and used his wooden prothesis as an ashtray.
His one unfulfilled ambition was to "start a game with an entire team of midgets, and let them go a couple of times around the batting order, walking endlessly."

Oh, sorry, I assumed that would be all you needed to IMMEDIATELY go get a copy of this book. 

Veeck - As in Wreck is a love letter to baseball, an anti-authoritarian rant, and a history of sports marketing. Oh, and it was rumored for a time that Veeck - As in Wreck would be made into a movie with Veeck family friend and fellow Chicagoan Bill Murray as Bill Veeck. BILL MURRAY, people. Seriously. Go get the book.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Baby It's Malarial with a Chance of Cannibalism Outside: Books to Make You Rethink Passport Renewal

I blame Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness kind of eliminated the romantic view of travel for me. Was it the oppressive fog? The rotting hippo meat? The horror, the horror?
Probably all of the above.

In any case, Conrad's novel was my first experience of the fictional or non-fictional travelogue that serves only to convince the reader that one's backyard ought to be the extent of one's travels.

Other outstanding selections in this genre include:

1. The Mosquito Coast, Paul Theroux
Allie Fox is a genius, a Harvard dropout,  and a self-taught engineer and inventor. He is also a rabid atheist, back-to-the-land counterculturist and rejector of the McDonaldization of America. In order to protect his family from the evils of modern American society, Fox packs them up and moves them to the jungles of Honduras. 

Fox's older son, Charlie, is the novel's narrator and his simultaneous admiration, resentment and fear of his father make for a satisfyingly complex perspective on Allie Fox's self-imposed mission of Creation. 

Allie Fox is challenged by his inability to find a truly Edenic wilderness in which to build his new world, and Charlie is faced with his father's increasingly desperate attempts to bring nature, his family, and the indigenous tribes to heel. 

2. The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition, Susan Solomon
In November 1911, Scott and his team set out to reach the South Pole. They trekked nine hundred miles across Antarctica without the benefit of neoprene, wireless communication, or motorized equipment. They dragged their own sleds, sheltered in sleeping bags so poorly insulated and water-proofed that they were essentially ice coffins, and suffered from frostbite, snow blindness and horrific sunburns. Capt. Lawrence Oates, certain that his own miserable physical condition after months of back-breaking travel was slowing down the team, announced: "I am just going outside and may be some time" and then walked away into a blizzard to die.

Solomon's account of the Scott expedition seeks to address the misconceptions about Scott as a bumbling incompetent. In so doing, she presents a very intimate version of the famous mission, one that focuses on the personalities and relationships of Oates, Bowers, Wilson, Evans and Scott. This is not a Bob Costas Olympics special, though, and Solomon does present, in truly fascinating detail, the failures of equipment, viciousness of environment, and meteorological disasters that overwhelmed Scott and his men. 

3. Deliverance, James Dickey
Yes, the movie "Deliverance" was based on James Dickey's book.  
No, the infamous "squeal like a pig" line does not appear in the book.
Yes, you should read the book anyway.
No, I do not want to go on a camping trip in Georgia with you. 

The movie does overshadow the book, and Dickey's own life tended to overshadow all his work ("I am crazy about being drunk," he once said, "I like it like Patton liked war.") But Deliverance is legitimately good; Dickey captures the voices of his very distinct characters, and his descriptions, particularly of the river and music, are sharp and telling.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I Lvov You: In Praise of Adam Zagajewski

Walt Whitman has an eponymous rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike. Adam Mickiewicz, a nineteenth century poet, has an imposing bronze statue in the center of Krakow.
I'm not saying the Polish value poetry more than Americans do, but...

Adam Zagajewski is a Polish poet. He was born in Lvov in 1945, but as Penelope Gilliatt writes in her book, To Wit, Poland "is an excellent country, but badly located." Zagajewski's family was expelled from Lvov by Ukrainian forces and he has spent much of his life in France, Germany, and the United States.

Unsurprisingly, then, exile and foreignness occupy much of Zagajewski's work. His poems, though, do not follow in the lachrymose school of exile poetry, but are instead marked by curiosity, generosity of spirit, and openness. He celebrates others and even his own sense of displacement in a divided world. This is from "Luxembourg Gardens," in the collection Unseen Hand:

Foreignness is splendid, a cold pleasure.
Yellow lights illuminate the windows on the Seine
(there’s the real mystery: the life of others).

The reviewer Joachim T. Baer noted that Zagajewski’s themes “are the night, dreams, history and time, infinity and eternity, silence and death,” but such deeply profound motifs are balanced by a lightness of touch, an appreciation for the concrete detail and a total absence of self-pity or absorption.

Just because it's so good:  

Tierra del Fuego
Adam Zagajewski (Clare Cavanagh, trans.)
You who see our homes at night
and the frail walls of our conscience,   
you who hear our conversations   
droning on like sewing machines   
—save me, tear me from sleep,   
from amnesia.

Why is childhood—oh, tinfoil treasures,

oh, the rustling of lead, lovely and foreboding—   
our only origin, our only longing?
Why is manhood, which takes the place of ripeness,   
an endless highway,
Sahara yellow?

After all, you know there are days   
when even thirst runs dry   
and prayer’s lips harden.

Sometimes the sun’s coin dims   
and life shrinks so small
that you could tuck it
in the blue gloves of the Gypsy   
who predicts the future
for seven generations back

and then in some other little town   
in the south a charlatan
decides to destroy you,
me, and himself.

You who see the whites of our eyes,   
you who hide like a bullfinch
in the rowans,
like a falcon
in the clouds’ warm stockings

—open the boxes full of song,
open the blood that pulses in aortas   
of animals and stones,
light lanterns in black gardens.

Nameless, unseen, silent,   
save me from anesthesia,   
take me to Tierra del Fuego,   
take me where the rivers
flow straight up, horizontal rivers   
flowing up and down.

Zagajewski has published several collections, but I favor Mysticism for Beginners (1997) and Unseen Hand (2011). Clare Cavanagh is a beautiful translator.

Wednesday Poem: 9.19.12

Ignatz Oasis

by Monica Youn

When you have left me
the sky drains of color

like the skin
of a tightening fist.

The sun commences
its gold prowl

batting at tinsel streamers
on the electric fan.

Crouching I hide
in the coolness I stole

from the brass rods 
of your bed.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Aboriginal Sin: Loving Peter Carey Too Much

The name Peter Carey elicits in me a reaction akin to that of Augustus Gloop at the Wonka Factory chocolate river. I just can't get enough, and I will not share with Charlie Bucket.

Carey has authored seventeen novels and one collection of stories. They are all wonderful - each one a literary golden ticket (done with the Wonka references? Yeah, me too.) 

But I play favorites: The True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda

The True History of the Kelly Gang isn't a historical novel; it's a fully imagined act of historical impersonation. It purports to be the confession of the outlaw Ned Kelly, the Australian contemporary of Jesse James. Carey's novel is a thoroughly researched portrait, but it's also a corrective to the usual portrayal of Kelly as a thief and murderer. The Ned Kelly of this account is a freedom fighter -  a defiant, anti-colonial, Irish-Australian Robin Hood.
The form and style of the novel is striking. Carey creates a barely grammatical, ragged apologia for Kelly to have written while on the run. Somehow, though, the untidy, unpunctuated narrative develops into an almost poetic instrument. 

I feel I cannot leave Ned Kelly behind without commenting on the little known Tony Richardson biopic of the outlaw starring none other than...

Oscar and Lucinda could be compared to Tristam Shandy in its embrace of chance as the real force behind the universe. Or, rather, Oscar and Lucinda could be compared to TS if I had read more than the first chapter of Tristam Shandy. Instead, I shall rely on an equally erudite comparison: "Sliding Doors", a film starring my husband, John Hannah*. Gwyneth Paltrow is in it too, I guess. Whatevs. 

The premise of JOHN HANNAH's "Sliding Doors" is that the smallest decision, made differently, completely alters one's existence. Gwyneth is on time for her train one morning and her life proceeds one way; Gwyneth misses her train and her life proceeds to involve making out with John Hannah and then being shot with a BB gun by me**. 

Oscar, the English son of a mid-19th century fundamentalist Christian pastor and Lucinda, an Australian proto-feminist glassworks owner, are, for much of Carey's novel, separated by thousands of miles. Chance - ultimately, a penny thrown for heads or tails - will bring the two together. The entire novel, though, is suffused with the way in which randomness, happenstance, work to bring about a life. Oscar first introduces himself to us by asserting: "In order that I exist, two gamblers - one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet." Lucinda's life path is "as complex as a stainless steel pachinko ball," and Oscar's journey towards Lucinda begins with throwing lots to determine that he must reject his father's faith. 

Did I mention that the book involves the Plymouth Brethren, a man named Wardley-Fish who wears a “loud hound’s-tooth jacket with a handkerchief like a fistful of daffodils rammed into a rumpled vase," and an epic journey through New South Wales? 

Yeah. It's that good.  
  *John Hannah is not, technically, my husband. 
** I did not shoot Gwyneth Paltrow with a BB gun. More's the pity.

I've Perestroika-ed Gold!: Adventures in Russian Literature

True story: I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward on my honeymoon. Top that, nerds.

A high school European History class included reading assignments from Dostoevsky (man as a piano key - anyone? anyone?) and this segued into a summer reading suggestion: Anna Karenina.
OMG peeps. Outside my window, it was July in the suburbs of New York. In my feverish teenage brain, it was winter in St. Petersburg and I was the third wheel with Kitty and Levin, Anna and Vronsky.

The sweeping Russian epic novel became my new best friend. War and Peace? On it. Did I comprehend any of what Tolstoy wished to get across about the 'great man' theory of history? Absolutely not. But, as the baby Jeebus is my witness, I would have walked to Moscow if it had meant saving Prince Andrei from his post-war disillusionment. 

All happy families may be alike, but I refuse to accept that happy readers are anything less than unique.We've all had that 'transported' sensation. We've all been so caught up in a book that we're surprised to discover it's 1994 in American suburbia and not 1812 in a French dungeon, but WHAT transports us? WHAT so envelops us that we lose track of time and place? For whatever reason (vodka?) the great Russian novels affect me in this way far more than other books. But, let's be honest, I share a love for these books with many people. So, we cannot just say that we readers are distinguishable by our 'top 10' lists. I think our continental drift into reading islands is a matter of sehnsucht (as usual, the Germans have a word for this otherwise indescribable sensation). 

Sehnsucht is a longing for some far-off place, but not a real country which we can identify. It's a longing for a missing someone, but not a particular individual we can name. We feel that the place or person we yearn for is very familiar, maybe even the place or the person we're meant for, but it/he/she is always just out of reach. The longing is insanely intense and punctuated by an almost unconscious sadness at the object's unattainability.

This is what I mean:
 Do you remember the description of Raskolnikov's garret?  
"His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storied house and was more like a cupboard than a room. It was about six paces in length. It had a poverty-stricken appearance with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls..."

I do remember that description because that peeling yellow wall paper was what hauled me out of myself and conveyed me to S. Place near K. Bridge. I do not mean that I imagined myself in Raskolnikov's garret. I mean that I was suddenly stabbed by a yearning for this place as if it were not only real, but known to me. It wasn't like I was there; I had been there and the claustrophobic description made me physically shrink as if ducking my head against the low-pitched ceiling.

Once I discovered my love for Mother Russia, I was a goner. Tolstoy led to Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky led to Solzhenitsyn and Solzhenitsyn led to non-fiction Russian history. Non-fiction Russian history led to lonely prom nights. 

But, hey, lonely prom nights led to helpful reading suggestions such as these: 
Bright side!

1. Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman
2. Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum
3. Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Blogs about Books are Elitist: Reading in an Election Year

It is election season and I live in a 'battleground' state. Thus, I suffer hourly calls from pollsters, campaign workers, and research groups. It is enough to make me want to hurl my phone into the mighty Colorado River (note: it is mandatory that any reference to a major river in the United States be modified by 'mighty.' See: everything ever written about Huckleberry Finn. Ever.) It is in the spirit of healthy disengagement from presidential politics that I offer you my favorite fictional and non-fictional works on campaigns, candidates and our great democracy. Turn off your phones and get readin' (political bonus points for use of 'man of the people' pronunciation).

1. The Last Hurrah, Edwin O'Connor
The title refers to the final campaign of Mayor Frank Skeffington (read: James Michael Curley) in an unnamed city (read: Boston). Skeffington is the old-school, political machine candidate. He's fiercely 'local' in his politics and deeply corrupt. He is also funny, smart and charismatic. His opponent is a good looking, polite, entirely mediocre young man. The title rather eliminates the possibility of a surprise ending, and Skeffington's inevitable defeat ought to be seen as a triumph over cronyism and ward politics. But O'Connor allows for a much more nuanced understanding of democratic political life.

2. All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
Perhaps you are the last political idealist in the United States. Perhaps you believe that public servants are just that. Don't read All the King's Men. Warren's tour de force is a fictional account of the infamous career of Huey Long, longtime governor of Louisiana. Long genuinely believed in universal health care, education, and employment. He used blackmail, extortion and bribery in his efforts to achieve these goals. 
All the King's Men's is frighteningly precise and extraordinarily inventive. This, for instance, is a description of a football game: "The band blaring, the roaring of the seas, the screams like agony, the silence, the one woman-scream, silver and soprano spangling the silence like the cry of a lost soul." 

3.  The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro
I grew up in New York. I consider myself a fairly well-informed human being. I had no freakin' idea who Robert Moses was or how utterly he transformed New York over his nearly fifty year career.

An unelected official, Moses exercised so much power that he almost single-handedly pushed through development projects that displaced hundreds of thousands of residents of New York City. Arguably, he preferred automobiles to people, contributed to the ruin of the South Bronx and Coney Island, caused the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, and precipitated the decline of public transport through disinvestment and neglect. He also made the city viable for the 21st century by building an infrastructure that most people wanted and that has endured. What have you been up to recently?

Robert Moses' story is fascinating and Caro's work is insanely well-researched. The downside of Caro's commitment to thoroughness is, well, his thoroughness. There are points in this thousand plus page biography when you are going to want to cry 'Uncle!' But, these moments are few and far between because Caro is an elegant writer and his subject demands the word count.

Is that Dune in your pocket or are you just happy to see no one?

Science Fiction and Fantasy are not the genres one admits to reading on the first date. And, admittedly, I am as dismissive of sci-fi and fantasy books as the next girl with literary pretensions and an active social life. 
But, and I do hope you'll all still respect me in the morning, I count these science fiction and/or fantasy books among my favorite all-time reads (cue the sound of hotness leaving the room). 

1. Tigana, Guy Gavriel Key
The Peninsula of Palm has been conquered by two powerful sorcerers (yes, sorcerers. Now shut up and keep reading): Brandin, the King of Ygrath, and Alberico, a warlord from the empire of Barbadior. The two sorcerers conquered the peninsula simultaneously but independently, and divided it in an uneasy balance of power. The plot focuses on a band of rebels from the province of Tigana who wish to restore freedom to their homeland. 

So, yes, Tigana is about evil sorcerers and imaginary lands. It is also about the nature of time, the importance of language, and what it means to be truly free.

2. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
I actually did not even know this book was classified as science fiction until I lost my own copy and had to borrow it from the library.

The Blind Assassin begins with Iris who tells us of the day when her sister Laura drove off a bridge. Action then shifts to Laura's story of clandestine meetings with a lover who writes pulpy science fiction and entertains her with a story of a blind assassin and a sacrificial virgin on the planet Zycron. This story within a story gains added meta-ness when it is revealed that Laura authored a novel entitled The Blind Assassin. We return then to Iris who, now an old woman, recalls her early years and the events leading to Laura's death.

It's a freaking Russian nested doll of a novel and it is brilliant. When I read books with multiple narrators I often find myself wishing that I might excise whole characters in order to skip to the narrative(s) that most capture my attention. Atwood manages to create five equally compelling, intricate, articulate stories AND she does it while exploding notions of traditional narrative. 

3. Darconville's Cat, Alexander Theroux
Technically I am cheating a bit here. Is Darconville's Cat really a sci-fi or fantasy novel? Probably not. The core narrative - a love affair gone wrong between college professor Alaric Darconville and college student Isabel Rawsthorne - is very much earth bound. However, once things go south for Alaric and Isabel, the reader enters bizarro world. Is there a Satanic, deeply misogynistic eunuch named Crucifer who lives, hidden, in an attic at Harvard? Yes, there is. 

Darconville's Cat is also a bit bizarro world in its structure. Whole chapters are devoted to lists (a catalogue of Crucifer's tomes on the evils of women, for instance); other chapters include a diary, a formal oration, a blank verse play, and an abecedary.

In short, Darconville's Cat is to reading what a heaping spoonful of wasabi is to the palate. It's going to light you up, and your literary tastes will never be the same.

PS: I would include George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series in this list, but the HBO thing has kind of stolen my thunder. Damn you, Peter Dinklage! 

You seem nice. But I've got fifty pages left.

So here is the plan: I read. I write. You read.

I read a lot. I read because I want to learn, because a friend gave me a book, because I really liked the cover. I read because I recognize the author's name, because the book won the Man Booker Prize and I feel I ought to read it, because it is about the British aristocracy, British colonies, or has the word 'manse' somewhere between its covers.
I read without attention to genre or critical opinion. In the last few months I have devoured the entirety of the George R.R. Martin oeuvre and Kristin Lavransdatter. Reader, I married them both. I don't think the ceremonies are recognized in most states (possibly Nevada. Awaiting word), but my love for them is real.

I read because I cannot help myself. Left alone at a breakfast table, I read the cereal box. I break into a cold sweat when I scan my bookshelf and discover I have read everything on it. I own a TV, but cannot remember the last time I turned it on. The magnetized strip on my library card has worn out twice and I revel in the confirmation of social limitedness that such a fact reveals.

I mean, truly, are you as interesting as Jemubhai Patel, a Cambridge-educated judge who has retired from serving Nepal because it is "too messy for justice"? (The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai)
Have you ever been drugged and placed in an asylum under a false name? (The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins)?
Are you a downtrodden worker at the Harvest Fertilizer Plant in provincial China with dreams of becoming an artist? (In the Pond, Ha Jin)
If you have ever been called the 'modern personification of evil' (Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore), please do be in touch because I imagine your blog gets a lot of traffic and I could use the link.

Surely you see why I'd rather hang out with these folks. It's nothing personal.