What I’ve Been Reading

Wondering where all the updates have been? Well, I’ve been reading. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. Here’s a look at the books that have been capturing my time and attention.

Kraken by China Miéville

“An everyday doomsayer in sandwich-board abruptly walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum. The sign on his front was an old-school prophecy of the end: the one bobbing on his back read FORGET IT.”

London is full of cults, religious sects, and magic-users – and they’re all preparing for the end of the world. This is the world readers are thrown into at the beginning of Kraken, the new novel from “weird fiction” auteur China Miéville. Miéville deftly juggles a large cast of characters and multiple points of view, but we see London chiefly through the eyes of Billy Harlow, curator of the Darwin Museum in England. When the star attraction of the museum – the massive nine-meter-long titular squid – goes mysteriously missing, Billy is sucked into London’s Lovecraftian underworld by the squid-worshiping Krakenists, the police’s Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit, and a cavalcade of magical and just-slightly-magical oddballs. The book meanders a bit in it’s 500+ pages, but creates a rich world – each mysterious sect provides enough fodder for entire novels. Highly recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami and other purveyors of the fantastic.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

“Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free. Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose.”

Paolo Bacigalupi’s young adult novel Ship Breaker is my favorite pirate story in recent memory – and I didn’t even realize it was a pirate story until two-thirds of the way through the book. The surprisingly prescient book takes place in a near-future American Gulf Coast, in a world where the polluted ocean has destroyed many coastal cities and fossil fuels are an artifact of the past. Teams of youths scavenge the wrecked ships of the Gulf, pulling copper and other valuable materials for their bosses. The protagonist, Nailer, is a “light crew” member who hopes to one day escape his life of hard labor and his incredibly abusive father, and the book begins with his discovery of a rich girl who might be his golden ticket. Bacigalupi keeps the action-packed book moving at a lightning pace, and is smart enough to weave the backbone of the dystopia into the novel without any clumsy or unnecessary exposition. Head-and-shoulders above the young adult post-apocolyptica that is quickly becoming a bit too crowded.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

‘To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,’ he would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angouleme or to the editor of Comics Journal. ‘You weren’t the same person when you came out as when you went in. Houdini’s first magic act, you know, back when he was just getting started. It was called ‘Metamorphosis.’ It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation.'”

It’s hard for me to come up with much new to say about Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning opus. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the story of two Jewish boys in World War II era New York that create the “legendary” comic character The Escapist, is my favorite novel. I fell in love with the book when I first read it years ago, and was happy to revisit Chabon’s imaginative world and colorful prose as a part of the Murmur book club. You can check out more from me (and the wonderful Murmur community) on the book club discussion page, and expect some aural fulfillment when we discuss the  book on the Murmur podcast in the near future.

Lost States by Michael J. Trinklein

“Today’s Maine has a split personality. The south is filled with fancy folk for whom the word summer is a verb. In the north are hardscrabble Mainers living in a still-wild country of forests and mountains. Increasingly, the two groups have little in common. So in 1998, Republican representative Henry Joy sponsored a bill to study the idea of splitting the state in two.”

I love books of maps. I love American history. I love, with few exceptions, the care that goes into the design of Quirk Books. Therefore, Lost States is a perfect storm of a book for me. In the beautiful hardcover, Trinklein dips into the many, many proposed US statehoods that never quite made the cut. Ranging from states proposed when the nation was still colonies to the proposed splits in Maine and Florida in the last few years, Lost States is a fascinating look at state sovereignty from Absaroka (situated over South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana) to Texlahoma (guess where!), from a state of Boston to the quirky proposal of Icelandic statehood. Each failed proposal gets a concise, one-page history from Trinklein, along with a map or two of where the citizens of, say, Shasta would be living. Great infotainment all around, and the book jacket unfolds into a nifty map of the dozens of states in the collection. If you need any more convincing, check out this interactive map with some states from the book, as well as a Flickr page with a whole mess of maps.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

“That’s right: I am never going to die, caro diario. Never, never, never, never. And you can go to hell for doubting me.”

Gary Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is a sometimes entertaining but ultimately disappointing romp in a satirical and technology-flooded near future. Our main character, Lenny Abramov, is a middle-aged schlub who works in Post-Human Services for the Staatling-Wapachung corporation; essentially, Lenny sells medical life extension treatments to the aging super-wealthy. Like the late-thirties men in most literary novels, Lenny falls for a much younger girl with a troubled family history. In Shteyngart’s imagined future America, people have become even more technology-obsessed, books are a relic that hardly even exists, and the United States’ economy is on the decline while the East is ascending. There are some clever ideas in here (people’s worth is determined by their credit ranking, military checkpoints command that everyone deny their existence and imply consent), but it’s mostly comedy that tries to be too clever by half and isn’t terribly interesting satire. Everything is a bit too on-the-nose – People don’t read anymore! Asian economies are dwarfing the US! People share way too much information online and are vapid and self-obsessed! – and falls flat. Throw in the fact a one dimensional supporting cast and a storytelling-through-diary convention that outstays it’s welcome, and you end up with a book that was interesting in concept but disappointing in execution.

Wednesday Comics from DC Comics

During the summer of 2009, DC Comics put out twelve issues of Wednesday Comics, a weekly anthology of newsprint comics that mimicked the Sunday comic pages of a newspaper. Each issue was 15 pages, and each page held a different story by a different team of creators. This summer, Wednesday Comics collects all fifteen of the stories into a single oversized hardcover. This book is gorgeous. The stories worked on newspaper, but on high quality white paper stock the art just jumps off the page. The stories also read much better in this collected edition, and some that didn’t necessarily stand out week-to-week are much better when read all at once. I don’t want to spoil too much of the book, but the folks behind Wednesday Comics did a nice job mixing classic and contemporary storytelling, art styles and characters. The only strike against this book – and it’s hardly that – is that it’s so damn big. At about 11″ x 18″, there isn’t a shelf in my house big enough to store the book on. Thankfully, that just gives me an excuse to drool over it even more often.

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