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michaelhartford

michaelhartford

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Shelter Half
Carol Bly
The Bee-Loud Glade
Steve Himmer

The Magicians: A Novel

The Magicians - Lev Grossman Lev Grossman’s The Magicians offers a fantasy world cribbed heavily (and quite openly) from the Harry Potter and Narnia books: schools for magicians, portals to magical realms, a gang of school chums who face danger and adventure together. But Grossman’s world is more emotionally and morally fraught that Narnia and Hogwarts: the characters are a little older than the child adventurers in the source books, and are navigating the realms of love, sex, loyalty, and responsibility at the same time that they’re learning to cast magical spells and travel to the mystical world of Fillory.Full review here

Hull Zero Three

Hull Zero Three - Greg Bear Full review here ... Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three is science fiction at its best: it is shaped by big ideas, is filled with technical puzzles, and asks questions about the future of humankind as well as the future of humanity (by "humankind" I mean the trajectory of DNA that includes our species; by "humanity," the moral and emotional components that have been carried along with that DNA for the last 50,000 years or so). It may be a little thin in characterization--like medieval and Renaissance allegory (and this book has definite echoes of "A Pilgrim's Progress"), its characters carry its ideas more than their own personalities. But Bear manages to keep the story interesting by allowing it unfold slowly, with much confusion and misinformation along the way.

The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest - Ursula K. Le Guin Reading Le Guin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” in 2010, it’s hard not to draw the parallels with James Cameron’s “Avatar”: an exploitative colonial force of humans encounters a technologically primitive but psychologically advanced people on a paradisiacal world, and the encounter forces the peaceful natives to take up arms against the invaders. Le Guin’s Athsheans differ from Cameron’s Na’vi in more than appearance, though (the Na’vi are tall, blue, and lithe; the Athseans are short, green, and hairy): they don’t require a savior from the human world to goad them to action, and remain thoroughly alien to the end.full review

The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans

The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans - Mark Jacobson As a “Holocaust detective story,” The Lampshade has few actual clues. Jacobson has a DNA profile made at the lab that identified the meager remains of many 9/11 victims, which shows that the lampshade is likely to be human, though the age and degradation of the material makes an absolute determination impossible. There’s little opportunity for a Sherlock Holmes to deduce the lampshade’s origins with much clarity.But the heart of “The Lampshade” is less the quest for the lampshade’s origins, than it is an investigation of the tangled stories of racism and injustice in Germany and the United States. The book starts with Goethe, whose favorite walking site would become the location of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and with Robert Johnson at the crossroads in Clarksville, Mississippi, where the man who gives the lampshade to Jacobson spent years trying to get fitting recognition paid to the area’s rich musical legacy. Throughout the book, Jacobson illuminates connections between lynchings, neo-Nazi marches, grave robbing, medical cadavers, Mardi Gras krewes, and care for the dead. He discovers that Holocaust deniers are more open to the lampshade’s possible Holocaust connections than are the Holocaust museums in Washington, DC, and Jerusalem, and that Buchenwald itself, tainted for half a century by East Germany’s Cold War interpretation of the camp and struggling to overcome the heroic anti-fascist myths of the Communist era, isn’t particularly interested in a homecoming.full review here

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe - Charles Yu Though I enjoyed the book very much, I found that its style kept me just on the verge of hurling it across the room. This novel suffers from a style that I’ve encountered in a few recent books, in which repetitive descriptions are stitched together with commas into long strings. It’s a sort of elegant variation on steroids. Used sparingly, this trope can enhance a passage: it can convey an uncertainty on the part of the narrator, who struggles to find just the right words, and provide just a touch of uncertainty when the pile of descriptors contradict each other. But used constantly, it feels cluttered and rough, and in desperate need of an editor.full review

Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the Land - Tony Judt Judt tells the history of Anglo-American political economy from the Great Depression to the present, as the story of the rise and fall of Keynesianism and social democracy. In his version, social democracy–in which a regulated market is guided by broad political consensus to provide material comfort for the majority of citizens, while also subsidizing culture (he devotes quite a bit of space to entities like the BBC, PBS, and public-private initiatives to support the arts)–was done in by its success. Over-confident planning created a drab and fettered world for too many–the council flats and public housing of the working class, the conformist suburbs of the middle class–and in the rebellion against conformity, the baby of the public good was tossed out with the dreary bathwater. The ideology of individualism, with the radical economics of the Austrian and Chicago theorists, threw the whole social democratic project into question; and with the fall of Communism, of which social democrats were far too uncritical, it became almost impossible to make a convincing case for the government’s role in building a just society.full review

The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves

The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves - Andrew Ward A complex portrait of slavery arises from the accounts Ward gathers. We hear the voices of field slaves, who are viciously worked on the plantations; slaves from the manor houses who have internalized the mores and habits of aristocracy; and urban slaves who have a strange and attenuated sort of liberty. The “Peculiar Institution” appears to be a sort of distributed totalitarianism, with its subjects kept in ignorance of the world around them, and great variation from owner to owner, and from year to year, in how the slaves’ daily lives are managed.full review

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle - Chris Hedges Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion is in part an angry screed, in part a Jeremiad lament, and (in small) part a vision of a better America. With a mixture of raw anger and sharp analysis, he covers a wide range of topics–professional wrestling, brutal pornography, the military-industrial-educational complex, the cozy relationship between journalism and power–and finds very little hope in the American landscape. All these topics are linked by the thesis that power in America is wielded less by elected government than by profit-seeking corporations, and that American culture has embraced a collection of illusions to mask this silent coup.Full review here

Apparition & Late Fictions: A Novella and Stories

Apparition & Late Fictions: A Novella and Stories - Thomas Lynch These four elegiacal stories and one novella are about death, regret, death, loneliness, and death. Set largely in rural Michigan, and peopled by characters who have suffered loss or care for those who have, they have a slow and solemn pace. Lynch tends toward the long line, the slow and stately sentence, amplifying the adagio tempo.Full review here

Every Man Dies Alone

Every Man Dies Alone - Hans Fallada What makes Every Man Dies Alone more terrible than Orwell and Kafka, though, is that it isn’t wholly a work of fiction. The novel is based on the case of a German couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who dropped anti-Nazi postcards around Berlin for two years and were executed in 1943. Hans Fallada survived internment in a Nazi asylum, and the novel demonstrates his intimate knowledge of Nazi police and prisons, as well as the network of petty informants and tattlers who helped keep the regime in power. It’s a surprisingly non-ideological novel: the Quangels, who lost their son in the war and are driven to their desperate act of resistance by grief, are not motivated by political or social goals loftier than common decency. And few of the Nazis they encounter and evade are true believers, either: they tend to be thugs or petty potentates driven by power, or decent men who have made painful compromises from which they cannot now escape. Fallada brings the broad sweep of history down to an intimate scale, and offers complex characters who are making their way in brutal circumstances.full review

In The Year Of The Long Division: Stories

In The Year Of The Long Division: Stories - Dawn Raffel The stories in In the Year of Long Division show the ultimate end of the minimalist impulse: prose becomes poetry, external description subordinated to an internal dialogue, scenes sketched so lightly they become feathery suggestion. It is perhaps no surprise that Raffel calls out her thanks to Gordon Lish at the beginning of her acknowledgements: this is the short story shorn of traditional plot and character as was only hinted at in Raymond Carver’s work.Full Review

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work - Alain de Botton Equally insightful and exasperating, with a significant dose of aristocratic condescension.Full review here

Voices from the Moon

Voices from the Moon - Andre Dubus I have a theory–thoroughly untested, and probably wrong–that you can identify a novel written by a master of the short story by its use of the close third-person point of view. Where novelist-novelists might choose a more omniscient voice, flitting from consciousness to consciousness, or a point of view limited to the exterior, seeing only what the camera’s eye can pick out, the story-novelist settles into a character’s head and stays a while, letting their thoughts color whole chapters. Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter comes to mind as such a novel, with its strong interior portraits of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale; and Andre Dubus’ Voices From the Moon is another.Full review

Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes

Pieces for the Left Hand - J. Robert Lennon Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert LennonThe 100 anecdotes collected in Pieces for the Left Hand are loosely held together by a setting (a small upstate New York town and its environs) and a narrative consciousness (an unemployed man who muses on these tales as he takes a daily walk). All are very brief--none more than three pages--and most have a gnomic or aphoristic quality. They touch on themes of mistaken identity, the pitfalls of memory, and unanticipated consequences, often refusing to come to a clear resolution.Full Review

Troll's Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales

Troll's Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales - Garth Nix, Michael Cadnum, Nancy Farmer, Jane Yolen, Ellen Datlow, Catherynne M. Valente, Ellen Kushner, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kelly Link, Terri Windling, Midori Snyder, Wendy Froud, Joseph Stanton, Neil Gaiman, Delia Sherman, Peter S. Beagle, Holly Black Troll’s Eye View is a collection of stories revisiting well-known fairy tales–Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Molly and the Giants–often from the villain’s point of view. It’s a mixed bag of stories: some are slightly skewed re-tellings, some are realistic stories informed by the themes and structures of fairy tales, and some are new tales that add meat to the well-gnawed bones. Some of the stories work well, others don’t quite gel, but in the main, this is a solid little collection.Full review

Demons in the Spring

Demons in the Spring - Joe Meno Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring is filled with wonders: a woman with a city growing inside her chest, an aquarium in decline, a world plunged into darkness by an absent moon, palaces made of ice. There's a touch of the absurd, and the surreal, with a melancholy haze over many of the stories, but the overall tone is of playfulness and amazement. It is informed by the logic of dreams, even in the more realistic stories; surrender to the dreams, and you'll be swept into a world spinning just a little out of phase with our own.Full review