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26 April 2010

#17 All The Way Home by David Giffels

This title was featured in the "Great Reads" blog from Columbus Metropolitan Library. I picked it up because of the recommendation and to read a firsthand account of home renovation. I've found that I enjoy journalistic nonfiction, and this looked like a good break from the F&SF stuff I generally read.

Akron, OH saw a boom early in the 20th century fueled by rubber and tire production. Goodrich, Firestone, Goodyear, and others all operated out of Akron. When the automobile industry took off, the executives of the rubber companies all got quite wealthy and many built fabulous homes around Akron.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Globalization has killed the rubber wealth in Akron, and their legacies are crumbling. Giffels career as a writer is becoming more established, as is his family: the birth of his first child means the home they live in is quickly becoming too small. The house on N. Portage Path is full of opportunity: plenty of bedrooms, plenty of yard, and and plenty of opportunity for David to flex his crafting muscles as he renovates the house. You see, the house is crumbling. Wildlife has settled in the upper floors, squirrels and raccoons freely coming and going through the holes in the roof. Water has laid waste to the walls, dripping into collection pans that line the floor. The garage is a deathtrap, spitting bricks from its walls and threatening to topple at the slightest provocation. But, the beauty and elegance once inherent in the house is undeniable. Six fireplaces, a billiards room in the basement. A main staircase, and a back staircase for the help. Servants quarters, and the Giffels are hooked.Upon securing ownership (which came with its own trials) the Giffels budget out the cost of renovations. A quirky contractor brings in a slew of characters (including Rod Stewart as an electrician and a rock-band drywall crew) who make the place habitable for humans. Friend and family all turn up to lend support, and slowly, painstakingly David wrests a home from the wreckage.

I expected a little bit more human interaction from this book. It's subtitled "Building a Family in a Falling-Down House", but would more accurately read "There's This House I'm Fixing, and Oh Yeah I'm a Daddy." Giffels spends much of his book on self-discovery through house renovations. The book includes three interludes written by Mrs. Giffels (about 10 pages out of 312), and these help add a little perspective. Her words give a little insight into David, humanizing him more than he does himself. However, there's very little actual depiction of family life. Their son plays a bit-part throughout, but extended adult family has a much larger role in the narrative than does the immediate family. I was hoping for a more detailed account of how to manage the balance of family and work and hobby renovations, but such did not exist in this book. For one, the project of renovating the house was absurd. This was more than the average "handyman's special" that needs a bit of updating; this was a full-out rebuilding of an effectively condemned building. There can be no balance in a hobby like that, not when it's your home. The project eats your life, leaving nothing for family or recreation. The stress of making the home livable pushes on every member of the family, and with no end in sight from the book, it leaves a reader on a resigned, almost negative note. I'd recommend this title as an example of what you might get into renovating houses, but not as a piece of literature or great writing.

23 April 2010

#16 The Apocalypse Reader, Justin Taylor (Editor)

Remember a couple posts ago when I mentioned this idea about stories and the apocalypse and stuff? That idea prompted me to read this book, too. As an anthology, I was thinking that it'd be a great place to find new writers, new ideas, new stories, established greats (Poe! Gaimen! Le Guin! Hawthorne!) and so much more. It didn't exactly live up to this potential. Sure, there were authors I'd never heard of published next to classic authors and a whole book full of apocalyptic tales of all varieties, but it landed off-mark for me. There's a class of fantasy that dives way of the deep end of weird, wandering around in nonsensical realms with all the logic of a Dali painting but none of the artistry; that's how I felt about most of this book.

The stories that stood out were mainly the ones by authors whose names I knew. Neil Gaimen had a characteristically quirky piece; Nathaniel Hawthornes' story was thought-provoking but then proceeded to define all the thoughts for you; Lovecrafts' was typically cryptic and evil-in-the-shadows type. One of my favorite stories was the first part of "Apoca Ca Lyp Se: A Dip Tych" by Joyce Carol Oates. The format broke the story into two voices but one speaker. Brian Evensons' "An Accounting" was enjoyable, well-crafted and twistedly amusing, though kinda without depth. "Miss Kansas On Judgment Day" by Kelly Link was imaginative and fairly well written. I actually enjoyed Grace Auilars' "The Escape - A Tale of 1755", the story of a clandestine religion and a miraculous escape. Similar in appeal, "The Rapid Advance of Sorrow" by Theodora Goss was intriguing, well-written, a complete story among fragments.

A couple of the stories I haven't mentioned were just bad, but most were simply forgettable. Lucy Corin wrote "Sixteen Small Apocalypses", and that's exactly what they were. They weren't great. Dennis Cooper wrote "The Ash Gray Proclamation" which frankly I found pointless, confusing, driven by shock and completely unappealing. Too many stories in the collection relied on content rather than writing, and most of the content was unnecessarily sexual. Though if you took out the sex you'd be left without content, so maybe it was necessary? Either way, I didn't enjoy those. In sum, there are a few gems included in this collection, but I imagine that with a bit of searching, you could find those either on their own or in a better collection than this.

#15 The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

This book wasn't at all what I expected it to be. See, I own Michael Pollans' Omnivore's Dilemma, I've read Barbara Kingsolvers' Animal Vegetable Miracle and I tried to read Carlo Petrinis' Slow Food Nation but found it too dry and manifesto-ish. So when I saw this title come across my desk, I didn't look that hard at it before checking it out, and thought I'd find a somewhat preachy land-lovers account of how modern society, food technology, and agribusiness have destroyed America's food culture and how to resist that. Instead, I got a history lesson and a sampling of recipes and essays regarding food in the United States written just prior to WWII. Pretty cool! Unfortunately, it' doesn't really lent itself to a review.
Kurlansky gained access to unpublished WPA files and luckily for me, he defined what the WPA was at the beginning of the book. The project was to profile how people ate in the U.S.A. To this end, writers collected recipes, conducted interviews, reported on events, and wrote stories about food. Local traditions such as clam bakes and barbeques were captured. Disputes like how to correctly make a mint julep were aired. Even some oddities, for example possum pie, made their way into the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but might recommend it more as reference than as actual reading material.

#14 Darkness and Dawn by Andre Norton

There's an idea that's been rattling around in the back of my head for years now, an idea relating to stories and the apocalypse and new civilizations and whatnot. Periodically, this idea rears up and tries to make me act on it. When this happens, I usually find books on a certain topic or of a certain genre, read them, and call it "research". That's why I read this book.

Darkness and Dawn is made up of two different stories, previously published as Star Man's Son and No Night Without Stars. They are different stories, set perhaps in different worlds, and don't really have much in common aside from a post-apocalyptic theme. The first story is about Fors of a mountain clan, an outcast because of his mutant white hair. With no future in his tribe, Fors strikes out to the wilderness in the footsteps of his father. A great explorer who died at the hands of the Beast Things, his father left Fors with the hope of discovering unknown cities and remnants of the times before the Great Blowup. Avoiding the dangers of the wilderness, Fors does indeed find an unexplored city, where he saves the life of a young explorer from a southern civilization. Traveling together, the two young men make wonderful discoveries, face horrific danger, and ultimately forge peace between peoples of their world.
The second story tells of Sander, an apprentice smith who leaves his people to discover the secrets of metal that were lost in the Dark Time. In a seaside village that fell victim to raiders, Sander encounters Fanyi, who also seeks lost knowledge, but her quest is for the sake of power and revenge. Sander and Fanyi are mysteriously guided or pulled across a deserted landscape until they come to a place that preserved the technologies of the Before People. Here, the two realize that technology and power aren't necessarily the best path to accomplishing their goals.

These stories reiterated for me why I've generally disregarded the works of Andre Norton. I understand that she may be regarded as a ground-breaker and a pioneer in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but her writing simply doesn't do it for me. I find it wordy, weak, and disjointed. There's not enough story-telling and too much writing.
Aside from the writing, the stories are interesting. Norton fits into the category of authors whose stories make me want to know what happens, even if the writing isn't strong enough to pull me along. Of these two, Star Man's Son is the better story. It's more plausible and better developed. It has a very elementary structure and is not something that I would class as adult literature, but once I was a couple chapters in, I wanted to know how it ended. No Night Without Stars left me wanting to quit, but I persevered so that I could say I finished the book. It's your call; I probably wouldn't recommend this title to anyone, but I wouldn't tell you not to read it, either.

14 April 2010

#13 Acacia by David Anthony Durham

This post is actually about two different books, the first two books in the Acacia trilogy. I spent a couple weeks seeing book two, The Other Lands, on display as a new book in my library, along with all the other new fantasy books. I browse through them regularly, but I actually checked this one out thinking it was a different book! I try not to start a series until I know it's finished but Acacia slipped in past my notice and now I'm stuck waiting for the finale to be released.

Book One
The story opens on the balmy island of Acacia, where life is calm and happy for the royal Akaran family. The four children, Aliver, Corinne, Mena, and Dariel know nothing of the business their father conducts to keep his empire functioning. Indeed, he has refused to share with them the dark secret of the land: the pervasive drug, Mist, which keeps the population tractable. It is provided by a powerful, strange and unknown group in exchange for a tribute of child slaves collected from their families under cover of darknetss. All this King Leodan hides from his children and heirs. Trouble brews, however, as turmoil rises in the north; rumours of strage armies and whispers of betrayal among the Meinish peoples, long repressed by the Akarans. The four royal children know nothing of this and live blissfully until the sudden death of their father at the hands of a Meinish assassin. They are rushed into hiding, to be separated and raised in the world, hidden from those who wish harm on them. Prince Aliver becomes a man among the tribes of Talay, earning great respect as a hunter and warrior. Princess Mena washes ashore on the islands of the Vumu, where she is regarded as the human aspect of the Eagle Goddess. Price Dariel finds his way among the pirates and raiders of the western ocean. Princess Corinne, betrayed by her guardian, is sold to Hanish Mein and kept captive in his court, watching her childhood world fall into, as she sees it, barbarism. Seduced by Hanish Mein, she learns the ways of his court, falling for him until she learns of his dark plans for her and her siblings, who continue to evade Meinish hunters. Years pass, and hope gathers around Prince Aliver when he is grown. He undertakes a quest to find the Santoth, sorcerers who established the throne for is family 22 generations prior, but who disappeared years ago. With their aid, Aliver raises an army to challenge the Mein. His free siblings gather to him, each bringing their own abilities. Disaster is loosed when Aliver is slain in single combat and is avenged by the tainted magic of the Santoth, In the chaos, Corinne stages a coup and installs herself on the throne of the Acacian Empire, wrests control of the Known World for herself and forces peace upon the land.

Book Two shows Corinne dragged down in the daily business of running an empire. She has been forced to continue the oppressive distribution of Mist and collection of Tribute. Her son, the child of her seducer and oppressor, Hanish Mein, is doted on by his mother and her younger siblings. Mena hunts for creatures unleashed by the Santoth, and Dariel attempts to sooth and heal the land and people through acts of charity and goodwill. Corinne studies the ancient magic of the Santoth, jealously guarding the knowledge of her power, but maintains an uneasy balance of peace over the Known World. This balance is upset when the Lothan Aklun abruptly invite Corinne to a meeting with their other customers, the Auldek, who accepted the tribute provided for the Mist. Prince Dariel travels as her emissary, only to learn that the Lothan Aklun have been betrayed and slaughtered by a separate trading faction. The Auldek overcome this faction, but Dariel is carried away by strange beings, oddly human but altered; some have tusks, others fangs or claws, and all are decorated with tattoos. These are the Tribute, sold to the Auldek by the Lothan Aklun. By unknown magics, the Lothan Aklun can transfer the soul of one person into another, extending the receivers life. The Auldek have lived thus for hundreds of years but the price of the exchange was every future generation of Auldek, for though immortal, the race was rendered completely barren. With the demise of the Lothan Aklun, the Auldek see a possibility for redemtion in the lands ruled by Corinne, lands where children are bred normally, are born and grow and die as the Auldek have not for years. An invasion is planned, and the only chance for warning or action is Prince Dariel and the altered Tribute children.

Wow, that's an exhausting summary! Perhaps if I'd written this review when I'd finished the book rather than waiting a month, I could've summed it up better. On the other hand, perhaps if Durham wrote a somewhat more cohesive story, the summary wouldn't be so involved. Don't get me wrong, I love a well-told epic as much or more as any other, and Durham's has the scope and breadth and life and vibrancy of the best of them. However, it's also clunky and plodding, where others simply glide and flow, gently pulling the reader deeper and deeper into the story. The first book is foundation, page after page of descriptions and rising action that create the world for the reader but also makes him impatient and eager to GET TO THE POINT! The point seems to be the assassination and the following war, but no, that's really just the starting point of the story that Durham actually wants to tell. He would've done better to discard the trilogy and write three (or perhaps four) novels in this world. There are three stories in these two books. First, you have the conflict between Leodan Akaran and the Meinish people, their uprising and seizure of the Known World. Second, you have the development and reunion of the Akaran children and their rise to power, culminating in Aliver's death and Corinne's wresting of the throne from Hanish Mein. Third, you have the story of the Auldek and the children of the Tribute. A fourth novel could bring everything together, the conclusion of the epic which is, I assume, forthcoming. If Durham had broken his tale this way I believe that each segment would be better developed, and the dragging plot of book one would be alleviated. But I didn't write the book, so we're stuck with Durham's organization of his story.
The writing is decent, I'd rank it 7 or 8 out of 10. My main complaint is that Durham doesn't immerse the language in the world. There are anachronisms, and phrases written so that they don't fit what they're saying. Durham wrote too much for his audience, providing them easy access to his world but confusing the scope of his world in doing so. Once he gets into the meat of the story, his characters are likable and sympathetic if a little stupid and obvious at times. Acacia makes a fun new epic that puts a new shine on the formulaic fantasy, but doesn't really stand out on its own.