I've been watching The Making Of The Mob: New York, which is a series of half-documentary, half-reenactment episodes about the rise of organized crime in America in the early 20th century, and one of the people they spoke to caught my eye: Rich Cohen, author of "Tough Jews". I thought that sounded like an amazing book, so I snagged a digital copy. I'm trying to track what I read a little better, hence: a review!

Tough Jews by Rich Cohen )

I'm a nut for this kind of true crime, so I found the book really enjoyable. I'd take some portions with a grain of salt, perhaps, but I think it makes a great story and a compelling account of the outsiders to outsiders -- people of the criminal underworld who lived, and thrived, even further out on the fringes than the Italian immigrants who came to dominate New York organized crime. Well worth a read if you're into 20th century history or crime history, or American Jewish culture for that matter.
Last week I finished Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, and I need someone who has read it to explain it to me.

I followed most of it. The initial plot's not that hard to grasp -- a writer, following the breakup of an intense long-term relationship, takes a new job as writer-in-residence at his alma mater. He meets a man studying artificial intelligence, and they make a bet with some fellow faculty that in ten months they can produce a thinking machine who can successfully pass a Turing test. In this case both the machine and a graduate student chosen by them will write a paper on a specific prompt of one person's choosing, and that person will choose which paper is human and which paper is AI.

Spoilers for Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers )

Final Verdict: A really entertaining, readable, well-crafted book with one massive incomprehensible part of it that I can't get my head around. Well worth a read, though, especially if it allows someone to explain to me what the hell.
I swore I posted this book review, but apparently I just wrote it on my tablet and forgot about it.

But if I did post this before, you guys, I'm sorry, I'm posting it twice because I have actually stopped remembering things.

ANYWAY, I finished reading The Burglary by Betty Medsger, which took me a long time.

It's not that it was a tedious book, but it was detailed, and it was surprisingly long considering the subject matter. I'm not sure how long it is in reality, since I was reading the ebook and my ebook reader thinks everything is THOUSANDS OF PAGES long, but it felt long. I'd say the author was padding the book a bit, but all of the information was historically interesting and certainly relevant. It's just a bit beyond the scope of the event it chronicled, which was the robbery of an FBI office in the seventies that revolutionized the way American culture viewed the FBI.

The Burglary by Betty Medsger )
So, somewhere, at some point, I read an article about this book called A Way Of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien. And something in that article drove me to get the book from the library, but by god, I don't know why or how.

A Way Of Life, Like Any Other is a sort of California-themed Catcher In The Rye, though apparently O'Brien is fictionalizing his own childhood, so I suppose it could be called a Catcher-esque autobiography. It follows our unnamed narrator from childhood through to his final year of high school, as the child of two fading Golden Age Hollywood stars. It was written in 1977 but covers mainly the late forties and fifties, though there's no real date touchstones other than McCarthyism and the precursors to the sexual revolution.

A Way Of Life, Like Any Other )

Final Verdict: The book is a rather bland depiction of mid-century life among the noveau riche of Hollywood. There's nothing much to recommend it; every character enters as reasonably likeable and departs as essentially terrible.
So, I got totally sidetracked from all other reading last week by Longbourn by Jo Baker.

Longbourn is a novel based on Pride and Prejudice, set in a Bennet household that is at once similar and radically different: it is the story of the staff who run the house at Longbourn. At first it seems as though it's going to be about the way the events of Pride and Prejudice impact the staff, but it ends up being very different: the story of scullion Polly, housemaid Sarah, cook and housekeeper Mrs. Hill, the butler Mr. Hill, and the new groom, James, as well as various servants of other households, nearly independent of the events of P&P.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker )

Final Verdict: There's not a whole lot I can say without spoiling the major arc of the book, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable book with a strong, well-drawn cast of characters. The last quarter of the book (and especially the last few pages) feels a bit rushed, but it was still a really great read.
The last book I finished in 2013 was "The Watchers Out Of Time", an anthology of short fiction. It's composed of fragments written by HP Lovecraft, polished and completed into full stories by his protege, August Derleth.

Lovecraft is a bit of a touchy topic these days, in part because the Cthulu mythos is so popular despite very few people having read much Lovecraft, and in part because Lovecraft's racism has been highlighted (not undeservedly) in the past few years. I picked up an archive of all of his work from somewhere, and I've found that the longer you read it, the less irksome his prose becomes. Either that or Derleth did some appropriate pruning -- the first Lovecraft stuff I read was all HP.

...so I removed the cover of the coffin, and reverently turned skull and bones over so that the skeleton of my great-grandfather lay in its rightful position. -- The Peabody Heritage

The Watchers Out Of Time by HP Lovecraft and August Derleth )

Final Verdict: Welp, HP Lovecraft talks too much, and he's kinda racist, but on the other hand he tells a really great story. The Watchers Out Of Time is actually the least memorable story of the entire book, but the book as a whole is worth a read.
So, in my adding-up of all the books I'd read this year, I left a few out because I hadn't reviewed them yet. I forget how much easier it is to review a book I've read in digital, because I can copy and paste all the quotes instead of laboriously typing them out.

I'm not even sure where I found Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe, but I'm glad I picked it up, because it's awesome. It's a densely detailed but still eminently readable book, and it filled in a lot of gaps for me, as well as giving me new areas of comic book history to pursue.

...Namor hurls a pilot from a biplane and "dives into the ocean again -- on his way to further adventures in his crusade against the white men!" Unredeemingly violent and willfully unassimilated, the sneering Sub-Mariner was the reverse negative of the alien-as-immigrant-hero Superman. --p. 20

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe )
It's the end of the year, which means compilation time. Why do I make so many lists? Nobody knows. The best answer is probably "Why not?"

I can't actually find last year's "books I have read" roundup to see if the numbers have dropped, but I suspect they have. Being fair to me it was a really hard year, and also some of these books are super fucking long. Stolen Treasure is almost literally a Russian novel, and Alif the Unseen could be used as a blunt instrument to beat people with.

Books I Read This Year )

So, seventeen completed, eight incompleted. Assuming I read a quarter of each unfinished book, that's nineteen books in 52 weeks or about a book every three weeks. Not too bad.
I finished The Bond Woman's Narrative about a month ago, but it's taken a while to get back on my feet enough to review it. I'm unhappy about the delay, because it is an awesome book.

I became aware of it because of an article about how the author of the book had finally been traced, or at least they thought so; this was big news because the book purported to have been written by an escaped slave in the mid-19th century.

If indeed Hannah Crafts turned out to be black, this would be the first novel written by a female fugitive slave, and perhaps the first novel written by any black woman at all. -- Introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr., XXI

Spoilers for The Bond Woman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts )

Final Verdict: I can't recommend The Bond Woman's Narrative highly enough, particularly for people who are interested in African-American history but also for lovers of literature and aspiring writers. I enjoyed every minute of it.
SOMETIMES I FAIL TO READ BOOKS.

I make the attempt! But for whatever reason, I can't get through them. And it's kind of ludicrous, because of what I do manage to get through.

Recently [livejournal.com profile] jonaht recommended a book to me called Heads In Beds, about the hospitality industry. And it really is quite interesting reading when it's about the hospitality industry, though a) it makes me think all humans are disgusting and b) it makes me glad I rarely stay in hotels. But it's really an autobiography of one man's journey through the hospitality industry -- and that wouldn't be a problem except he's kind of a bro. He's a little douchey, a little bro-y, and there came a point where I just couldn't go on. (Also I think he's kind of racist.) But it was a good recommendation because normally, authorial issues aside, that kind of book is right up my street.

The other book I have recently been unable to finish fills me with more regret. I think I found it on a list of "trashy beach reads with real literary value"; it's called The Lord Won't Mind by Gordon Merrick, the first volume in what's called the Peter-Charlie trilogy. The Lord Won't Mind is a really important piece of literature, actually, one of the first major works of literature to portray gay relationships as both positive and unlikely to end in death.

When I was describing it to someone the other day I said, "You know how when you were in your early teens you heard about how scandalous Lady Chatterly's Lover was, so you went and found it in the library and it turned out to be super tame? This is the book you were looking for." It is chockablock full of nearly continuous gay sex, to which I have no objection though it did make reading it on the bus somewhat awkward. There are little kids around, yo, and sometimes they try to read what I'm reading, I don't pretend to understand why.

But yes. The Lord Won't Mind actually is really important and at least according to many reviews on many sites it was a huge touchstone for queer kids in the seventies and remains so for queer kids without access to much other queer media. And I get that, and it's very well written, so I respect this book.

But man, Charlie is an asshole. He's a racist, rapey, partner-beating asshole. I'm told that by the end of the book he's learning about what an asshole he is, and that's good, but I didn't have the fortitude to keep reading about a sweet, desperately naive kid getting entangled with this giant asshole.

Apparently, you guys, I have a problem with assholes in books.

I did manage to finish Andrew Caldwell's "Their Last Suppers", which is a book about the last meals of famous historical figures. (And, for some reason, John Candy. Not that he's not awesome, but...he's not exactly Napoleon or Alexander the Great.) I have to admit I wasn't that impressed with this one either; the historical blurbs that precede the menus aren't as much about the food of the era, as I'd hoped they would be, but rather are sort of high-school level historical essays on the people in question. The recipes themselves are often rather shoddily assembled, with poor cooking instructions which frequently ignore how to plate or consume the more unusual dishes. There were also three women, out of 21 profiles, which seemed a bit sketch.

So it has not been a banner week for books. But I've got another little stack of books waiting for me to read, and a lot of travel coming up, so we shall see.
I received River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit for my birthday in September, and I have to admit at first I thought it was a book about horse racing because there's a dude on a horse on the cover. But the image is actually one of the famous motion study images captured by Muybridge to settle the question, in the early 20th century, of whether a horse at trot has all four legs off the ground at any one point.

Those who paid fifteen dollars for the six cards could hold in their hand the canter, the gallop, the walk, could hold a handful of time, live as snakes, caged in the grid. --p. 195

River of Shadows is about much more than Muybridge's motion capture studies, however. It's something of a biography, but it's more that it uses the biography of Muybridge to discuss the ways in which technology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries irrevocably changed the way we interact with time, distance, and visual perception.

River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit )

Final Verdict: I really enjoyed River of Shadows; I think it's a beautifully written as well as a strongly-researched book, and the combination of the two is pretty rare. I think Solnit really nailed it, enough that despite not liking A Paradise Built In Hell I'd like to go back and look at some of other other works.
[livejournal.com profile] droolfangrrl recommended, long enough ago that I don't remember why, an autobiography to me: The Way The Future Was by Frederik Pohl. A day after I started reading it, Pohl died, which did rather spoil the ending.

Don't look at me like that, having read his autobiography I'm pretty sure he'd find that joke hilarious.

The Way The Future Was )

Final Verdict: Thoroughly enjoyable, funny, and not a little educational. I'm not sure it's a book one would want to go out and buy, because I think it's a sort of one-read kind of book, but I wouldn't feel my money was wasted if I did buy it.
A few months ago I was talking about something -- I believe about how I was pretty much over the cheap use of death in fiction as shorthand for meaningful prose -- when [personal profile] tealin recommended No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman to me. A few days before it arrived by order at the library, R randomly said to me, "I've been spending a lot of time in the school's library lately. Have you heard of this book, No More Dead Dogs? Best title ever, right?"

So I LOLed and told him I was about to read it. Later on I texted him: "No More Dead Dogs funny and charming, best book I've read in a while."

No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman )

Final Verdict: A really enjoyable fast read -- one of the few books in a long time where I haven't wanted to stop reading when I got off the train and had to go to work. :D
So, I saw this print interview somewhere with a woman named Jaymie Simmon, who is the author of a book called The God Gene. This is a fiction book, and I feel compelled to point this out because there is also a nonfiction book called The God Gene, which is about how our genetics dispose us to believe in god(s), and that gene is also mentioned in this book, meaning in this book there are two actual God Genes...

Anyway the point is, I read this book, and I did not realise when I started reading it that it belongs to one of these rather new "Christian Fiction" genres. I'm pretty sure Christian Suspense? maybe Christian Thriller. Either way, it was Christian Boring.

The God Gene by Jaymie Simmons )

Final Verdict: The upshot is, don't read this book, it's dreadful, and even if you finish it you will not be satisfied.
BOOK REVIEW TIME.

So, I have to tag a review onto this one, because I didn't really have that much to say about it but I try to review every book I read, if only so I can total them up at the end of the year.

The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall was recommended to me by Gorgas on Tumblr, at least I'm pretty sure it was tumblr. And it's a perfectly decent book about the history of the circus. It's not badly written, it's consistent, and it tells as complete a story as it can of the circus arts. I just...I couldn't summon up that much enthusiasm for circuses. Nothing against them or the book, but I found it so hard to keep plowing through.

So I didn't finish it, but if you do want a book about the history of the circus, The Ordinary Acrobat is a great place to start.

Onward!

I'm not sure where I found Exercises In Style by Raymond Queneau, I think in a Publisher's Weekly article; at any rate, most of the books on my reading list are now 'high demand' books at the library so this was the first one that showed up of the four I ordered. I have the Barbara Wright translation from the French, which seems standard.

The concept of Exercises in Style is fun -- Quineau takes a simple narrative and retells it in 99 different styles. It's one of those ideas that I have to explore mainly because I want to know how he did it -- much the same way I had to seek out fanfiction when I first heard about it so that I could work out how people actually achieved it. It's an interesting read, and certainly it's a swift one; the retold narrative is quite short and there's a lot of resultant whitespace between retellings.

The basic plot is this: the narrator observes a young man getting on the S-bus at midday; the young man has an extraordinarily long neck and is wearing a hat with a cord around the crown instead of a ribbon. The young man complains that the man next to him is deliberately jostling him, then bolts for a seat when he finds one. Later, the narrator sees the same young man being given advice about the buttons on his coat by a friend.

In a bleak, urban desert, I saw it again that selfsame day, drinking the cup of humiliation offered by a lowly button. --p. 24, "Metaphorically"

In the end he took to his heels, the milksop, before I could make up my mind to tread on his dogs to teach him a lesson. I could also have told him, just to annoy him, that he needed another button on his overcoat which was cut too low at the lapels.-- p. 42, "Another Subjectivity"

And heard his foppish friend telling him with dispassion:
"The opening of your coat is not the latest fashion."

--p. 75, "Alexandrines"

Because it's a translation, and a tricky one at that, not all of the retellings come through perhaps as vibrantly as they did in the original French. Some are wonderful and interesting, but others feel a bit like filler. Animism is one of my favourites because it has such a delightfully body-horror-esque moment. It's written from the point of view of the hat:

He expressed his ire by the inermediary of a human voice which was attached to him by a mass of flesh structurally disposed round a sort of bony sphere perforated by a few holes, which was situated below him... -- p. 48, "Animism"

Others, like the pig-latin retelling, just don't seem to bring much new to the table -- playing with the linguistics used to tell the story doesn't interest me as much as playing with the style in which the story is told. I also really liked Spectral, which tells the narrative as a ghost story:

We, gamekeeper of the Monceau Plain, have the honour to report the inexplicable and malignant presence in the neighborhood of the oriental gate of the Park, property of his Royal Highness Monsieur Philippe, the invested Duke of Orleans, this sixteenth day of May one thousand seven hundred and eighty three, of a felt hat of an unwonted shape... --p. 98, "Spectral"

There are a couple of versions that had to be totally redone, like the "Cockney" version standing in for the original French "Vulgaire", and the "French Tourist" version for the original "English Tourist". Some of the stories, like those, are a bit classist/nationalistic, but the books was written in 1947 and despite those moments holds up pretty well.

Final Verdict: It's a fun read, and I think especially for writers it's a good book to explore, but I feel like the book was stitched together a bit loosely. It would have been a tighter, more entrancing read with fewer retellings and a stronger throughline. Fifty stories with thematic retellings packed together with thought to order, rather than ninety-nine stories with both linguistic and thematic retellings scattered together, would have made for a much deeper impact.
I have been reading a lot lately but falling behind on my reviewing of same...

I finished Terry Pratchett's "Dodger" about two weeks ago and just haven't gotten round to reviewing it. SO HERE IT IS.

Pratchett has written a lot of books, most of them set in the Discworld universe, though he does occasionally step outside of it. He's got a talent that transfers well to other genres, as long as those genres don't take themselves too seriously. Dodger is Pratchett's vision of Victorian London -- a lot like Ankh-Morpork, but with recognizable characters from history, like Charles Dickens, and from fiction, like Sweeney Todd. The story is told from the point of view of a young man named Dodger, a tosher (sewer-scavenger) who rescues a woman from thugs and then finds out she's German royalty, running from her husband. What follows are a series of unlikely but awesome events that catapult Dodger from obscurity and poverty into the halls of nobility and justice.

It's hard for me to dislike a Pratchett book. There are a few early in his career, but those I generally attribute to a lack of polish and don't think much about. So when I say I really enjoyed the book, it's kind of expected. But I did; I thought Dodger was a very compelling character, and I loved his mentor Solomon. I thought Simplicity (Dodger's lady in distress) was a little bit flat, but the supporting cast were very well written. And Pratchett's startlingly compassionate treatment of Sweeney Todd compelled me to Wikipedia to double-check that he was indeed fictional.

I had bookmarked some quotes in the epub file, but apparently they were lost in some kind of minor literary catastrophe, so all I have to offer you is that it's a really funny book that I bookmarked in A LOT. :D
It struck me today that I never reviewed The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Part of the reason I forgot about it is that I didn't really stop reading it so much as just kind of peter out.

I think the problem is that The Night Circus is a rather tedious book based around a truly fantastic idea. The concept of the book is that an entertainer around the turn of the last century decides to create the most magical, mysterious circus in the world, the Night Circus. What he doesn't realise is that among the contortionists and lion-tamers and acrobats, he has hired two people who work real magic: the circus manager and the circus magician. The manager and the magician are locked in a competition forced upon them, the manager by his guardian and the magician by her biological father.

Spoilers. )

Final Verdict: Well, for what it's worth, I didn't finish the book. It had some enjoyable moments, and the one character I liked was engaging enough that I was pissed when bad things happened to him, but I didn't care enough to keep reading, which...well. Maybe it's just not to my taste. I think the book's worth picking up in a library to see if you like it, because I have different tastes from a lot of people, but I just couldn't finish it.
As with many of the books that I have in digital format on my "traveling" laptop, I don't know where Calico Joe by John Grisham came from. But I read it. Because, as the great Edmund Hilary said, it was there.

The thing about my experience of reading Calico Joe is that somehow I mixed up the author. I know who John Grisham is, I've read other books by him, but with the file open and the author not evident I managed to get it into my head that this book had been written by Stephen King -- I think I mixed it up with The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Which did lend a delightful air of anticipation to the story. I kept waiting for some monsters to show up.

Despite the fact that the monsters never did show up, Calico Joe was a pretty interesting read. It's told from the point of view of a man named Paul Tracey, the son of Warren Tracey, who in this fictional world was a pro baseball player for the Mets. And the rest of the summary is a bit of a spoiler, so I'll put it behind a cut.

Calico Joe, by John Grisham )

Final Verdict: Calico Joe is a book meant for baseball fans and it's a book very much about men and their relationships to each other. The exploration of Paul and Warren's life, and of the way baseball has been played in the past, was less subtle than it could have been. But I have to admit I kept turning the pages and I never got bored with it, which is kind of rare for me. So -- flawed, but if you're in the mood for a sports-oriented tragedy, or if you like baseball history, it's a reasonably good read.
I am SO CLOSE to closing out my reading list. Or at least, I THOUGHT I WAS.

Turns out that the library is having trouble procuring for me the last half-dozen books on the list, but when I opened my netbook the last time I traveled, I was reminded that I have a "to read" file of digital books. Without an e-reader I find digital books rather difficult, but I've been slowly plowing through them with my netbook on the train in the mornings.

As I wrote along, in long-hand at first, a whole army of little E’s gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon. But gradually as they saw me writing on and on, without even noticing them, they grew uneasy; and, with excited whisperings amongst themselves, began hopping up and riding on my pen....
-- Introduction (with e)

I'm not sure where I picked up Gadsby from, but I had a PDF of it which came from somewhere. Gadsby is a book written entirely without the use of the letter E, which was a sterner proposition in the days before digital thesauri and "search document". Imagine being able to search a document and not find a single letter E. The technique is known as lipogram, and has been employed by other writers as well, including the French writer Georges Perec, who was apparently inspired by Gadsby.

I tried to write a version of this review without the letter E and failed miserably. I need to go back and see how Wright compensated for not being able to use -ed.

It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary "fill-ins" as "romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road."...it is an account of up-and-doing activity, a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today...
--ch. 1

Gadsby, by Ernest Vincent Wright )

Final Verdict: For people who are fond of novelty books or of books that play with prose, it's a fun read; there's not much depth to the story but the feat itself is well worth applauding. And because the prose is so fun, I'll leave you with Wright's description of the local county fair:

Ah! It was a fair, I’ll say! What mobs on that first day! And what a din!! Bands playing, ballyhoos shouting, popcorn a-popping, “hot dogs’ a-sizzling, ducks squawking, cows lowing, pigs grunting, an occasional baby squalling; and amidst it all, a choking cloud of dust, a hot Autumn wind, panting, fanning matrons, cussing husbands; all working toward that big oval track at which all had a flimsy possibility of winning a million or two (or a dollar or two!). Oh, you County Fairs! You bloom in your canvas glory, annually. You draw vast crowds; you show high quality farm stock, gigantic pumpkins, thousands of poultry, including our “Thanksgiving National Bird”. You fill coops with fancy squabs, fat rabbits, and day-old chicks. You show many forms of incubators, churns, farming apparatus, pumps, plows, lighting plants for small farms, windmills, “bug” poisons, and poultry foods. And you always add a big balloon, which you anchor, so that kids may soar aloft until a windlass pulls it down. You fill us with food that would kill a wild goat, but you still last! And may you always do so; for, within your flapping, bulging canvas walls, city man rubs against town man, rich and poor girls bump, snobs attain no right of way, and a proud, happy boy or girl shows a “First Class” satin ribbon which a lovingly brought-up calf or poultry brood has won.
-ch.14
So actually before I read Murder City I read this book called The Conjurer's Bird, by Martin Davies, which was recommended to me like a million years ago by [livejournal.com profile] koken23. It was long enough ago that I'm...I'm not really sure why it was recommended to me; I thought it was magical realism so I may have slightly spoiled my reading experience by continually waiting for the magic to show up.

Anyway, it's a decent book, if you ignore the fact that the plot makes no sense. And I mean that, I'm not being sarcastic, the plot makes no sense and the book's kind of enjoyable anyway. I guess? I don't know.

Spoilers for The Conjurer's Bird, by Martin Davies )

Final Verdict: It was an enjoyable book, I suppose, but kind of forgettable. I suspect I enjoyed it more because I saw what it could've been than because I liked what it was. Normally I don't get too bothered by plot holes, but this one felt like the entire action was predicated on one, which does tend to set my teeth a bit on edge.

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