Sunday, October 24, 2010

talking nerdy

 Today I got this major bug up my butt that I absolutely had to have a copy of Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel to take with me on my trip to Seattle.  So off we go to my local B&N to look for one. While I'm standing there becoming upset because they didn't have even one copy, I struck up a conversation with a man who was considering buying Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.  He was saying how aside from the Larsson series he'd read one other book from a Scandinavian author & he couldn't remember the title, but then described the story. As it turns out, it was Henning Mankell's Man From Beijing, and so I felt like I had to introduce him to the Wallander series. Then I checked my iphone to see if the Larsson book was coming out in paper any time soon, and I thought we were finished with our little chat.  But no! He told me I couldn't leave because he felt he had to give me something.  This started a long and wonderful discussion of books translated from Spanish to English, and I was so impressed because the first title he gave me was Red April, by Santiago Roncagliolo, and I had just received that book in the mail this week!  Then he went through a long list of authors (Mario Vargas Llosa, Jose Saramago, yada yada) but all of the books he mentioned I'd already read (or they're on my shelf to be read).  But still he said "don't go...I want to give you something."  So finally he comes up with author Laura Restrepo, whose books I'd never read (and which are also NOT carried at the local B&N).  Then it was time to go.
 What a cool conversation! I love when I find someone who shares my tastes in books and also enjoys talking about them, even when it's someone I'd never met before. I may try this again some time!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I'll read you in my dreams...

Has this ever happened to anyone but me? I was laying in bed reading The Singer's Gun and must have dozed off, but I don't think my brain was ready to give up the book.  I dreamed dialogue, plotline and could even see the characters doing their thing -- all within a very short span of time, and it all made sense in the context of the novel.  Next thing I know, I'm awake -- so I started reading again and of course, it wasn't the same as I had dreamed it.  I think if this happens again, I'm going to try to write it all down. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

*Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, by Colin Dickey

Unbridled Books
308 pp

Each one of these people has something in common beyond the fact that they're famous (okay, and that they're dead): the composers Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart; Spanish artist Francisco Goya; and philosophers Emanuel Swedenborg and Thomas Browne, and Rene Descartes have all at some point in time had their skulls stolen.  Not only were they taken, but they were moved around Europe, often under shrouds of mystery that would not be cleared up in any short order.  Cranioklepty examines why and how these thefts occurred, offering a brief history of skull theft as well as a look at cranioscopy (what we could today call phrenology) and its uses, tracing how it went from a "dubious scientific theory to a worldwide cultural phenomenon," even so far as to be used in literature: it made its appearance into works by George Eliot (who used it in her early works such as Scenes of Clerical Life) who used her subject's skull to "access...that inner consciousness." The Bronte sisters used it, and so did Charles Dickens.

Cranioklepty is an accessible book for those who are interested in the history of science and for those readers who want something a bit different in their nonfiction reading.  The author shows that in some cases, skulls were kept based on the idea that genius could be measured; in other cases, skulls were relics to be venerated.  The idea is not new; in the middle ages, many religious pilgrimages were based on the trek to worship these relics, which were held at churches and became objects of awe and reverence. The holding of these relics often resulted in competition among churches for congregants or pilgrims, and there was an entire illicit trade of bones or skulls purportedly belonging to saints, as well as relic theft.  But in later times, as the author notes, scientists used skull measurement (craniometry) to prove theories of intelligence capabilities based on race, which were completely bogus, but which only added to the imperial mindset of the superiority of Europeans over other races. There's much more to this book -- these are the highlights. Cranioklepty is well written and is an interesting addition to the history of not only science, but cultural and intellectual history as well.

I liked Cranioklepty, and I'd recommend this book, largely to people who have an interest in the history of science and pseudosciences. At times it does get a bit draggy, and sometimes you're in the middle of a story about one skull and it switches to something else, so it's easy to become a bit confused.  Overall, however, it is quite interesting. It's obvious he's done a lot of research, and I was quite happy to see that he used two of my favorite books as part of his work: Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair and Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones.  There's also a bibliography at the back so that geeky people like myself have an opportunity to read more.  I hope he writes another one like this!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

*A Geography of Secrets, by Frederick Reuss

Unbridled Books
September, 2010
288 pages

 “Secrets don’t keep, they putrefy.”

Two men know very well the truth of this statement.  The first is Noel Leonard, whose job at the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center has him plotting precise points for the bombing of terrorist targets. When something goes wrong, and innocent children are killed at a school in Pakistan, he becomes weighted down with guilt.  But he has no one to turn to because of the levels of  secrecy involved,  and it begins to take a toll, not just on Noel, but on his life. Up until now he’s always been able to separate work from home, but at a time in his life when he needs to tell someone, he's sworn to secrecy and silence. The other person in this book who kept secrets is a man who spent a lifetime uprooting his family in service to the government, ostensibly as a diplomat in the Foreign Service.  His son, who narrates his story in first person,  is a “geographic information scientist,” whose father had kept his share of secrets --  his father’s life and career are so shrouded in mystery that he knows very little about him.   When he hears an enigmatic remark from an acquaintance of his father, he knows he needs to try to unearth what has been kept from him.  He also wants to discover exactly how far the burden of these secrets might take him, and in the process, hope to locate himself.  But it’s not going to be easy:  he is denied access to info about his dad even though he’s applied through the Freedom of Information Act -- and he is left to sort through what bits of information he manages to obtain piecemeal.

Geography of Secrets speaks about finding connections and finding oneself.  Aside from the two protagonists’ stories, the author uses the device of beginning each section with geographic coordinates to maintain this theme running throughout.  The culture of government secrecy is also examined, as are blame and responsibility – not just on a personal level, but at the very top  as well:
 It takes surprisingly little time for things to drift down to these lower depths. The bigger the catastrophe, the more leadenly it falls as the larger vertebrates swimming overhead voraciously consume responsibility while spitting out little pebbles of blame.

The book is very well written and there is definitely a well-established sense of place, especially as the reader moves through the city of Washington, DC.  I found myself heading to the internet to look up the places Reuss mentions there that were landmarks of the Cold War era.  But it is not, I repeat, not a thriller, as I have seen it described in a few places -- it's a very intelligent piece of writing that looks at the burden of secrets and imposed silence on innocent people.  It's also a look at what lengths people can go to just to share that burden. And although I found both of the main characters quite believable,  I also found the narrator’s story a bit more intriguing than that of Noel’s, probably because of the gradual uncovering of his father's secrets which were revealed layer by layer.  I will confess to being a bit disappointed at the rather vague ending, but overall, I definitely liked A Geography of Secrets and would recommend it.

*Panopticon, by David Bajo

 Unbridled Books
 October 2010
 345 pp

First, my thanks to Rachel at Unbridled Books for sending me an ARC of this book. 

 Now, I'm just a reader, not a critic, but David Bajo’s new novel Panopticon is thought provoking and intense. Set in San Diego and the border area between California and Mexico, it begins as reporters Aaron Klinsman, Oscar Medem and Rita Valdez are given their final assignments. The newspaper where they work is about to go to press for the last time, and their boss, Gina, has assigned them to cases, as the blurb notes, that turn out to be "suprisingly personal."  Klinsman has been assigned three subjects in places he's been before -- coverage of a Luchador event, surveillance in public parks, and a beat call at the old San Ysidro motel, where Klinsman expects a crime scene and doesn't find one. As he examines the room, he notices a number of oddities, including  the outline of a woman on the bed, black tape everywhere, covered mirrors, and a bag of lightbulbs. Wondering why his editor would send him there, he begins to try to piece together what may have happened in that room, and he brings Rita to the room for a fresh perspective. Rita and Oscar are also working on their assignments, and as the three get further into their stories, they come to realize that someone is out there watching them, but for what purpose?

One of the most prevalent themes in this book is that we are living in an age of  (in the author's own words)  "digital omniscience."  The title of Bajo's book is an interesting choice: the word "panopticon" literally means "all-seeing."  In the late 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceptualized a structure (prison, poorhouse, facilities for quarantine, etc.)  that would offer authorities the opportunity to monitor the inmates of the place without being seen by those they are watching.  The idea (in a very brief nutshell here) was that the authorities were up in a tower in the center of the complex, behind blinds so they could not be observed. The inmates would not know when they were being observed, only that they could possibly be under the gaze of the authorities at all time.  The idea was that believing they were under surveillance at all times, those being observed would regulate their own behaviors.  Eventually the idea was that there didn't need to be anyone in the tower at all -- as Michel Foucault noted in his most excellent book Discipline and Punishthe idea was to  "induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power" (201). The panopticon, however, has moved away from a physical structure, and today we are all living in it.  The fact is that we're all being observed by someone at some time, but believe erroneously that we can somehow elude the gaze and guard those parts of ourselves that are private, only letting others see what we want them to see or know what we want them to know.  Panopticon is filled with imagery that makes this point, for example, towels draped over mirrors, darkness, and masks all are methods used to keep prying eyes away. Yet, especially with the Internet, there are always traces left somewhere, and as technology becomes more sophisticated, as Klinsman, Rita and Oscar discover,  it is becoming much easier to watch others -- and there is always someone who wants to discover what it is we don't necessarily want others to see or to know.  From the obvious surveillance cameras to cell phone cameras to small video cameras and even our webcams, it's not only possible, but it's happening.  But I also believe that Bajo is saying here (toward the end, which I will not divulge) that panopticism can, in some cases, be put to good use, a positive application of what Foucault calls "coercion" (222). 

I really liked this book. The subject matter is something I've been interested in for eons and the author managed to keep it real, rather than making up a bunch of pseudo-scientific-techno crap, a place other authors (whose books I no longer read) have often gone.  I liked the characters, and the sense of place  was very well established.   As I got further into the story, and figured out what was going on, I couldn't put the book down because I had to know the why of it all, so I can say that there is an element of tension in the novel that will keep you reading.  Panopticon is one of those books where even if the critics hate it, I wouldn't care.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oh my! Howard Jacobson wins the Booker Prize for The Finkler Question!!

I just got the word -- the winner of this year's Man Booker Prize is Howard Jacobson for The Finkler QuestionThis year's judges have deemed it so.  The bookies' odds-on favorite to win was Tom McCarthy's C, and I personally view the Jacobson win as a major upset.  Then again, if you've read my posts about the prize this year, I found it inexcusable that the judges left Skippy Dies off the shortlist, so who knows what they were thinking.  In truth, this might possibly have been the most lackluster year for Booker prize entries that I can remember.  But having said that, Finkler Question was a very readable book -- definitely not my favorite of the bunch but still quite good. 

Here's hoping next year brings some less than "meh" titles and judges to the table. And even though I'm a relative nobody, congratulations to Howard Jacobson on his win.

Friday, October 1, 2010

October: In the spotlight -- books from independent publishers

I thought that October might be a good time to focus on books from indie presses.  I don't have anything against the big publishing houses (my last two months of reading will confirm that!), but I seem to have acquired a lot of indie-press books here lately and want to give the independent publishers their due. So this month, the majority of the books I read will come from these smaller publishing establishments. A large majority of my indie-press reads this month are from Unbridled Books,  and I'll be adding in other publishers as I go. 

The best-laid plans for this month are (maybe not in this order):

Unbridled Books
Panopticon, by David Bajo
A Geography of Secrets, by Frederick Reuss
Cranioklepty -- and the Search for Genius, by Colin Dickey
The Singer's Gun, by Emily St. John Mandel

 The Report, by Jessica Francis Kane 

 Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo 
(and quite possibly a couple more, since I have a shelf filled with their crime fiction)

The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud 

and I'll make the rest up as I go along. This will be a great reading month!