Satisfying Book Experiences of 2008 (Part II)

Happy New Year, everybody.  Here are a few more of my favorite book experiences to round out the year.

howls-moving-castleHowl’s Moving Castleby Diana Wynne Jones.  Howl is a hard wizard to pin down–even his castle is always on the move.  The young Sophie Hatter, an equally interesting protagonist, has to navigate her way through a maze of obstacles to find her fortune while under a spell that’s transformed her into an old woman.  Diana Wynne Jones brilliantly combines good old-fashioned storytelling with original, telling details.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.  I read these books back to back, in the same month.  Two very different experiences of course.  One is the story of an older man with an inappropriate, stalker-like attraction to a barely pubescent girl who, surprisingly, reciprocates his interest, and the other book is… oh wait….  Really, though, Nabokov’s brilliant sentences and mastery of human psychology make Lolita well worth reading and re-reading, and Twilight is a fun, fast read. 

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Satisfying Book Experiences of 2008 (Part I)

I was thinking of doing a post on my favorite books to come out in 2008, but the truth is I’ve only read maybe three or four books newly published this year, so I thought I’d steal a page from the clever Matthew Cheney and just post about some of my more satisfying book experiences in 2008, regardless of publication date. 

Best American Science Writing 2007Best American Science Writing 2007 . Last year for Christmas my parents gave me this book, and at first I was annoyed because what I’d actually wanted was Best American Short Stories 2007.  But as per usual, my parents’ wisdom–whether intentional or haphazard–led to good things.  I read every article in the book in just a few days.  The one that sticks out most in my mind was a piece by Atul Gawande about why Cesarian operations have become so common.  Before surgery and anesthesia came along, forceps were the usual way to handle an obstructed birth – and some double-blind studies still show that forceps may be safer for the mother.  The trouble is, these studies only showed how forceps performed in the hands of a highly-skilled doctor who’s very experienced in using them.  So Cesarians have become the norm, basically because it’s easier to maintain quality control on a mass-scale – and many lives have been saved as a result.  The book is chock-full of articles like this, which appeal to my science-fiction-ey nerd brain and my public-policy nerd brain at the same time.

st-lucys-home-for-girls1St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. At some point in the past year or so I saw Karen Russell read at KGB, and she totally blew me away.  This is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, period.  The stories include a minotaur traveling west on the wagon trail with a group of pioneers, an “Out-to-Sea” retirement community, and the eponymous school for girls raised by wolves.  My favorite was “Haunting Olivia,” a touching and understated story about two brothers using a special pair of goggles to search for their sister’s ghost. Russell’s stuff is usually marketed as literary – probably because she’s so damn good with the words – but her surrealist motifs, strong characters, and quirky humor will appeal to anyone who loves slipstream-ish writers like Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler.

More satisfying experiences from Ann Patchett and Etgar Keret below the fold.

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Secret Invasion: The “Wha-huh?” Moments

secret_invasion_2_p1So Marvel Comics has just wrapped up Secret Invasion,  its mega-crossover for 2008.  Shape-changing alien skrulls secretly invade earth, taking the place of many of your favorite superheroes.  You can’t trust anybody anymore.  An old but fun premise with lots of potential, especially in the hands of talented writer Brian Michael Bendis.  Sadly, it concluded with a whole bunch of Whahuh? moments.  Spoiler-filled, highly editorial discussion below the fold.

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Shiny New Masthead

The default wordpress image, while nice and vaguely science-fictional, had grown tiresome. This shiny new masthead is from a photo of a work of art made by my friend Skylar Fein, a rising star in the New Orleans art world. 

A few years ago, Skylar and I went to New Orleans together for a couple months for an informal creative retreat. I came back to the East Coast, but Skylar stayed.  A few months later, Katrina hit, and Skylar and his partner evacuated from a home they’d only just moved into. They came back to a decimated house and a city in the midst of a reconstruction.  As they tried to rebuild their lives, Skylar started making art out of wreckage he found around the city.  Like the piece above, the stuff Skylar made had a pop culture feel, but also had a political edge – several of his early pieces were profiles of U.S. presidents made out of the debris from Katrina’s wake. Some of his stuff is also fascinatingly surreal – e.g., historical tributes to gay bars of New Orleans’ past that may or may not have existed.

You can check out more of Skylar’s awesome work here.

Lester Dent’s Pulp Fiction Master Plot Formula

This past summer I went to Taos Toolbox, a two-week writing workshop in Taos, New Mexico.  Among the many great exercises we did, the inimitable Walter Jon Williams introduced us to Lester Dent’s master plot formula for writing pulp fiction short stories.  (Lester Dent is the classic pulp fiction writer who created Doc Savage.)

There are so many things I love about this formula.  First of all, the confidence:  “No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.”  The quirky and at times bossy tone of the formula gives me the same pleasure I get from reading Strunk’s Elements of Style (“Omit needless words!”) or from my grandmother’s arroz con gandules recipe (“DO NOT stir the rice too early, or everything will be RUINED.”).

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