2012

20 books
  • Smoking Typewriters

    John McMillian

    For the past couple years, I’ve been pretty focused on fiction, so I determinedly picked this history of the 1960s underground press off my to-read list in an attempt to seek a bit of balance, plus the alternative media angle still had my curiosity piqued two years after I first flagged it for later reading. I felt an ominous suspicion near the beginning when McMillian disclaims that he “tried to present the New Left accurately, as a largely white, broad-based, and male-dominated movement, while nevertheless recognizing the crucial influence of the civil rights movement and the important contributions of women.” It made me worried enough that the recognitions that popped up were more than I expected. Based on its size...more

  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

    Robin Sloan

    I imagine this quirky novel would be a talking point for people interested in the “digital humanities,” as it pits dusty, old books and their creaky scholars against shiny, electronic devices and their optimistic geeks. That’s definitely both exaggeration and simplification as there are characters that walk the analog-digital line, but then it’s also a lighthearted narrative in which many of the characters are archetypal.

    Set amidst a hyperrealistic San Francisco, the bookstore of the title appears to a young, unemployed web designer who is eager for any work and takes the night shift. He soon realizes the store also functions as a library for a collection of mysterious books that seem to written in code. And, because it...more

  • Wild

    Cheryl Strayed

    Like many people, I first came across Cheryl Strayed through her column Dear Sugar on the Rumpus, though her identity was still a secret at that point. Sugar’s advice is so unsparingly raw, honest, and compassionate — I think I read all the entries the first time I came across one of them. One day at a bookstore when I couldn’t find Wild on the shelf, I skimmed through Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of the Sugar letters in book form, only to find skimming through that everything was too familiar for the fresh read I was looking for at the time.

    Strayed’s decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail came after several tough years centered around the death of...more

  • Americus

    MK Reed & Jonathan Hill

    I found this story centered around a fight to ban a series of fantasy books about witches to be rather black-and-white — and not just because it’s a graphic novel that is drawn that way. The characters are all clearly set into one camp or another, and there is no one in between. There is little sympathy to be found for those on the pro-ban camp, and the extent of their outrage is difficult to understand, especially as none of them admit to reading an entire book. But it’s not hard to be enamored of the various “good” characters, from the bookworm hero Neil to his kind, single mom to the defiant librarian, though they get a more nuanced portrayal. The Apatha...more

  • Giving up the Ghost

    Eric Nuzum

    The story behind this book is a bit more interesting that its execution. In his adolescence, Eric Nuzum was haunted by a recurring dream of a girl in a blue dress screaming at him in gibberish, which lead him to numb himself with various substances and fear what may be lurking behind closed doors. Another girl, Laura, in his waking life was crucial in him managing to overcome this downward spiral. But she died tragically, leaving him with a slightly more tangible ghost to contend with. Twenty years later, he revisits these events and physically visits some of the most haunted sites in the US to try to determine if ghosts really exist.

    It’s unclear if his only problem...more

  • Wildwood

    Colin Meloy & Carson Ellis

    I first heard about Wildwood through a Design Sponge post focusing on Carson Ellis’s beautiful illustrations about a year ago. It suddenly popped into my head again recently and turned out to be a good countertwist after finishing the Lydia Davis stories. Many themes in this story are common to young adult literature: the stubbornly brave children; the secret, magical world existing in parallel to the one they live in; the impossibly hopeless parents — except in this one it’s typical, Portland-hipster parents.

    Protagonist Prue watches her baby brother get snatched by a murder of crows and taken over the Willamette River to the Impassable Wilderness or Wildwood — Portland’s Forest Park, reenvisioned as an isolated, magical world that “Outsiders”...more

  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

    Lydia Davis

    I read the first two books in this collection not quite two years ago. Now maybe wasn’t the best time to revisit this, as I felt pretty distracted until the end when I was able to find some focus again. But then reading one of Davis’s books is more of an effort than you would expect, partially because her stories vary from the incredibly short to involved. The incredibly short ones seem like they would be the easiest, but sometimes the linguistic riffing takes some time to untangle. Even the involved stories don’t follow any kind of traditional narrative and don’t necessarily sweep you up in the usual way.

    Two of my favorite longer stories from the last...more

  • The Flight of Gemma Hardy

    Margot Livesey

    I’m not sure why exactly I rescued this book from a free pile, but I’d guess it was due to its Jane Eyre roots and my appreciation of Wide Sargasso Sea. I was really convinced I had never read Jane Eyre, but according to what I wrote about Jean Rhys’s book, I did, at some point. Apparently my memories of it are even hazier now, to the point of obscurity.

    Set in mid-20th-century Scotland, and, as noted, based on the storyline of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, The Flight of Gemma Harding is entertaining enough. I got through it in a week, despite its length nearing in on 500 pages. But the story is very tidy, and the pace rumbles on...more

  • Swimming Studies

    Leanne Shapton

    The best adjective I’ve seen so far to describe this book is “pointillistic,” as it was described in The New York Times review. Invariably “quietly” will qualify other descriptors, which rightfully suggests it’s a tricky book to recommend to others, especially if you don’t know how it fits in with their usual reading choices. I recently found myself in conversation with someone who revealed her history of competitive swimming and I asked if she’d read this book, then obviously failed to capture its interest potential in one sentence. But we continued talking about swimming and as someone else joined the conversation, the new person immediately asked, “Oh, have you read Swimming Studies?” Between the two of us, we were able...more

  • The False Friend

    Myla Goldberg

    I was surprised that I hadn’t heard much about this novel from the writer of one of my favorites, Bee Season, which maybe someone else would have considered a really bad sign. But I enjoyed her second novel, Wickett’s Remedy, and have a fond memory of attending a reading for that book where she talked in detail about the research she did at the NYPL to learn about the 1918 influenza pandemic. Her appreciation of the pneumatic tubes in the library was especially endearing.

    The False Friend starts out on a good, mysterious note. A woman suddenly has a revelation about a terrible event that happened twenty years ago, which involved the disappearance of her best...more

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