Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Too much reading...

Meanwhile, my dog is wondering
when she will get outside for a walk...
I'm taking a little break from blogging because I've got new challenges keeping me busy. Still reading -- more than usual, in fact, because I'm on a book jury -- plus I'm learning a new language (Slovak). I encourage visitors to my blog to explore some of my older posts; there are nearly 600 of them. I don't plan to be away for long.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi's fabulous first novel has garnered so much acclaim, not to mention awards -- the Nebula, the Hugo, the Locus -- that my own praise is late to the party. If you haven't yet read The Windup Girl, consider listening to the audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis (Brilliance; 19.5 hours).

It's set in Thailand in the future. The worldbuilding is strong -- Earth is a post-petroleum dystopia where a handful of global bioengineering corporations control food production. Calories are precious measurements of energy. The windup girl of the title is Emiko, a manufactured human being discarded by her Japanese owner when he left Bangkok. Emiko somehow captures the hard heart of Anderson Lake, an undercover corporate agent who is looking for sources of untainted genetic food stock in Thailand. There are other well-developed characters (all but one are adults), the plot is absorbing, and the pace is that of a literary thriller.

Readalikes: The City and the City by China Mieville; River of Gods by Ian McDonald; Neuromancer by William Gibson; Fairyland by Paul McCauley.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie by Lauren Redniss

Marie Curie was born in Poland in 1867, won the Nobel Prize twice, and became the first female professor at the Sorbonne in 650 years. Her story is absolutely remarkable. Opening with an apology to Marie Curie, who stated, "There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life," Lauren Redniss goes on to explore both in graphic novel format. Marie's husband, Pierre Curie, figures prominently in all this, of course. They were passionate about each other as well as dedicated to their research.

The atomic bomb is probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the significance of the groundbreaking work done by the Curies, but there are many others. Redniss intersperses examples throughout. Page 70 describes Pierre's experiments with strapping radium against his own skin; the facing page recounts the experiences of a 14-year-old American who received radiation treatments for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2001.

Redniss' cyanotype prints feature simple line drawings that take up whole pages. Many of them have the colouring of blueprints, giving an x-ray effect, others glow in yellow, orange and red. Phosphorescent pigment is used on the cover, so this book literally glows in the dark. (I discovered this by having it on a bookshelf near my bed.) Check out the striking artwork on Redniss's website (scrolling to the bottom to get to the link to the interior pages).

Saturday, February 4, 2012

World and Town by Gish Jen

Themes of home, community and religion are gracefully explored in Gish Jen's latest novel, World and Town. Hattie Kong's father, a descendant of Confucius, and her mother, American missionary in China, sent Hattie on her own to live in the USA when she was 16. She is now in her late 60s, mourning the deaths of her husband and her best friend, and living with three dogs in a small town in New England. When a family of Cambodian refugees moves in next door, Hattie takes them under her wing. Other people in town weave their lives into a multi-strand narrative that is rich and satisfying.

Janet Song narrated the audiobook (Blackstone: 16 hours) at a sedate pace and pronounced the occasional Chinese words with tonal inflections. The e-audio MP3 file that I downloaded through my library's Overdrive database had a couple of glitches, unfortunately, including a repeated section 54 minutes long.

This was one of those books that held synchronicities with other things I was reading at about the same time.
1. Hattie is pestered by superstitious relatives who believe that her parents' burial spot is the cause of the bad luck that has befallen their families. Under Heaven opens with a man gaining luck through his pious work in burying the dead. Interment location is also part of the plot in Beauty Plus Pity.
2. The first chapter in World and Town is titled "I'll But Lie and Bleed Awhile." In Taking My Life, Jane Rule recounts fainting while reciting this same passage in class.
3. Kevin Chong's disaffected protagonist (Malcolm) in Beauty Plus Pity and Paul Yee's Ray in Money Boy, both had similarities to the oldest son in Gish Jen's Cambodian family, all of them struggling to find their place in society.
4. The bureaucratic hassles and personal misfortunes in China that Hattie hears about from her relatives echo the troubles faced by protagonists in The Blue Dragon.

Do many of you read different books simultaneously?

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

Rosalinda Achmetowna's tale begins in 1978, in a Soviet city that is 27 hours away from Moscow by train, when Rosa learns that her only daughter is pregnant. Sulfia is her mother's oposite. "Sulfia was as gentle as a flower. If someone spat on her she took it for fresh rain and stretched out her petals to soak it up."

Rosa does not say this as a compliment. She has more affection for her new granddaughter, Aminat. So much so that she considers Aminat hers, and not Sulfia's.

Rosa is the most indomitable woman I've ever encountered in fiction. Her capacity for meddling seems to have no limits. She's an unreliable narrator, but with such a great voice:

"I didn't look anything like a grandmother at all. I looked good. I was pretty and young looking. You could see that I had vitality and was intelligent. I often had to mask my expression to keep other people from reading my thoughts and stealing my ideas."

Too impatient to sit through a lesson familiarizing her with the parts of a car at her first driving lesson, Rose wrestles with the instructor. "I got the key, put it in the ignition, stepped on the pedal, and yanked the gearshift. The car must have been in need of repairs, because it moved in a series of jumps before coughing and stalling."

Author Alina Bronsky takes readers on an unpredictable ride through the years, following the lives of Rosa, Sulfia and Aminat. Like Aminat, Bronsky moved from Russia to Germany in late childhood. The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine has been translated to English from German. Dig in!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Blue Dragon by Robert Lepage, Marie Michaud and Fred Jourdain

The lives of three people intersect in contemporary China, offering each other unexpected solutions to their separate troubles. 50-year-old Pierre Lamontagne, originally from Quebec, owns an art gallery in Shanghai. Xiao Ling is his lover as well as an artist. Claire Foret attended art school with Pierre and reconnects with him while briefly in China to adopt a child.

Fred Jourdain's coloured ink brushwork varies from classic elegance to modern vibrancy. View this stunning art at Jourdain's website here. It evokes both the setting and the shifting moods of the story, which was adapted from Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud's trilingual stage play, Le Dragon bleu. Some Mandarin dialogue is included in the graphic novel (with translation by Min Sun).

The prologue is a brief lesson in Chinese calligraphy, starting with the character for one, a horizontal stroke that resurfaces in a crucial plot point. Other calligraphy characters also relate to the story: an abandoned child; a desperate woman; "the rushing waters of a great river as it divides into three gorges like a single story with three possible endings." And The Blue Dragon does indeed have three alternate endings, so you can take your pick. It's a jaw-dropping masterpiece.