Riding a wave of economic and cultural development after World War I, 1927 was a remarkable year for the United States. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were locked in a home run race, Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, Al Capone had a strangle hold on Chicago, Prohibition was in full swing, Henry Ford was changing the face of transportation, Sacco and Vanzetti were awaiting execution, and much more.
Why I picked it up: I had read Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which was captivating, funny, and true. When I realized that all these events in this book occurred in ONE wonderful year, I was sure he could keep me reading.
Why I finished it: Bill Bryson weaves these stories together loosely, in chronological order, a seamless, funny, touching, and suspenseful narrative by frequently switching between personalities and locations. My husband and I were on a long road trip, and Bryson’s style was perfect for me to read aloud while my husband drove. The miles flew by. We might have been on the road in 2014, but our minds and hearts were in 1927.
It's perfect for: My friend, Marybeth, who teaches U.S. history. She (and her students) would love the way Bryson crafts the story in the style of a novel by including all sorts of quirky characters and events. His tidbits about the strange behaviors of Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, and the insights into Lindbergh's personal life, really make history come alive.
@bookblrb: 1927 was a remarkable year, from Ruth's and Gehrig’s home run race to Charles Lindberg’s solo flight and more.
Mendelsund takes us, the readers, on a journey through how we experience reading. He starts with a couple of classic characters: Lily Briscoe, from Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. He states that we experience reading as a sequence of pictures in our minds, and explores how our absorption in reading deludes us into thinking we have an accurate picture of what people and places look like. Lily paints a picture that we imagine, but never actually see; its description is only alluded to by another character. Mendelsund challenges us to describe Anna Karenina, but notes that there is very little description of her beyond a few key phrases that mention her curly hair and her slender hands. We don't know (or care) what color her eyes are, or how her nose is shaped, or how tall she is, but we fill in the details as we go along. In the end, we may think we have clear pictures of our favorite characters and what they experience, but we do not. Our images are blurred.
Why I picked it up: The phenomenology of reading? I'm sold.
Why I finished it: Mendelsund is a graphic artist, and he illustrates our inability to imagine coherently with numerous examples from classic literature. For instance, he shows several possible images of Anna Karenina, and later of Ahab from Moby-Dick. Which one is correct? How would we know? The discussion left me wondering how I imagine various characters in any novel I read, as well as the places and the tools (especially in fantasy and science fiction, where the tools are completely imaginary). He shows how we fail to imagine clearly even when we are presented with a huge amount of detail because there is always more to create in our minds than what the author can give us.
Readalikes: This book made me want to reread one of my favorite books, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin. As a kid, I imagined all the characters were white like me, and that the archipelago looked a lot like the San Juan Islands -- I “saw” a book that reflected my experiences. LeGuin has written and spoken about how she created most of the characters with brown skin as a subtle challenge to the white-centered worlds of fantasy and science fiction prevalent in the 1960s. I want to reread her novel, and this time I’m going try to experience the world as she describes it.
@bookblrb: A journey through how we experience reading, particularly how we see characters and places.
Lapsewood, a minor functionary in a giant afterworld bureaucracy, is just trying to keep up with paperwork on the dead. He is transferred to a different department where, despite his affinity for and ability with documentation, he is assigned to track down a missing ghost. He bungles his way through the task and uncovers a much larger problem: a spectral disease called Black Rot is taking over the houses of recently exorcised ghosts, allowing evil spirits to enter from the afterlife.
He needs the help of Tanner (the ghost of a street rat) and a boy whose work in a funeral home has given him the ability to see and talk to spirits. If they can't stop the Black Rot, something horrible will come from the void.
Why I picked it up: I liked the conceit that the afterworld is like the bureaucracy in India during the Raj. Lapsewood is saddled with paperwork, rules, and permits, but somehow still ends up solving problems.
Why I finished it: Jones does a masterful job of making us care about his characters, all of which have their own enthralling stories. The London pickpockets, thieves, murderers, and ghosts have lives so rich you can almost smell the coal fires and garbage in the streets. Lapsewood teams up with an irrepressible, gregarious French Marquis to try to escape from a vault meant to contain spirits. The Marquis assures Lapsewood he is up for any danger by saying, "...rest assured that when it comes to adventure and escapades, you have seen but a few colors of those in my palette. Lead on, sir. You are my Moses. I am your Israelites."
Readalikes: One of my favorite series of the past year, Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood and Co. (The Screaming Staircase and The Whispering Skull). These books take place in a Dickensian London of sooty streets and urchins running amok, and lend a matter-of-fact British sensibility and sense of humor to dealings with the paranormal. And because only children can see ghosts, Lockwood and Co. is staffed by preteens who solve paranormal issues.
@bookblrb: An afterworld bureaucrat must track down a missing ghost and stop a spectral disease.
In the first grade, all citizens are immunized. One in 1,000 syringes randomly contains a nanocapsule that will kill the child who receives it at a predetermined time, on a predetermined date, when they are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. This is done to inspire everyone to live as well as they can, to make them value life and be socially productive. Social miscreants, including those who disagree with the National Welfare program, are also injected with the capsule.
Fujimoto’s new job is to deliver ikigami (a death paper) to each of those who received the capsule twenty-four hours before they will die. There is no way to change the recipient’s fate. Some who are about to die try to get revenge for past injustices, like a boy who was bullied when he was a student and another who refuses to let his politician mother use his death to get elected. Others try to give meaning to their deaths, like a musician who finally performs the song he should have sung long ago and a young man who needs to arrange a subterfuge to donate his cornea to his sister.
Publisher’s Rating: M for Mature.
Why I picked it up: The letter on the back cover of each volume, from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, explains the program. It’s a great pitch for the series.
Why I finished it: As Fujimoto learns more about the program and acclimates to his job, his doubts about it grow. (These bits are usually at the beginning and end of the longer stories that focus on the ikigami recipients and how they deal with their impending deaths.) Vocally disagreeing with the program will result in his execution, but he even goes as far as to discuss his feelings with his boss, though in very neutral terms. It’s clear that this will all lead up to some kind of action in later volumes, and it’s the reason I’m going to continue reading the series.
Readalikes: The Hit by Melvin Burgess, in which young people take a drug called Death that makes them euphoric for a week before killing them. It not only raises philosophical questions about what it means to be alive, it also takes place in an oppressive society that recalls the one in Ikigami.
@bookblrb: Via a random process, 1 in 1000 people are randomly killed at a predetermined date between ages 18 and 24.
Domingo Martinez chronicles a painful time in his past leading including his fiancée’s car accident, her subsequent time in coma, his little brother's drug addiction and the problems it caused. He draws closer to his estranged family in Texas as he lurches from crisis to crisis, drinking too much and barely able to function. Being named a finalist for the National Book Award pulled him out of his funk, as did a new relationship with the woman who would eventually become his wife.
Why I picked it up: Martinez was a National Book Award finalist for his first book,The Boy Kings of Texas, plus he has appeared on NPR's All Things Considered and This American Life, two of my favorite radio shows.
Why I finished it: In the middle of telling about horrible, soul-changing accidents and disappointments, Martinez still has a sardonic, sarcastic wit. While his fiancée is still in the hospital, he is caring for her dog, Cleo. When the dog disappears through an open door, he frantically searches for it for several hours, until the dog shows up, panting, at the door. Martinez is angry but doesn’t want to beat the dog, so he puts a fake mustache on Cleo, takes humiliating pictures of her, and then posts them to Facebook, saying, "See if she does THAT again."
It's perfect for: My friend Shannon, who became a widow at a young age and has two daughters. She could certainly understand the level of Martinez's despair as people close to him struggle with possibly fatal injuries. But, this book isn't about horror or despair, instead it’s a hopeful book about coming out the other side stronger, with relationships that can withstand anything. Shannon will like that.
@bookblrb: After a painful time, an author draws closer to his estranged family and the woman who will become his wife.
Perpetual bridesmaid and near-professional wedding guest Jen Doll chronicles the many weddings she attended during her twenties and thirties. From beach destination weddings to low-key events around the corner in Brooklyn, they are equally festive and joyful. Doll, however, struggles to figure out a) why she’s never half of the happy couple, and b) why she feels compelled to apologize for or justify her single status. It’s a mostly clear-eyed celebration of coupling and its associated rituals, with enough “oh no she di’nt” moments to make you thankful Doll is not on your guest list. (Almost sleeping with a married man? Check. Briefly puking in the bushes in full view of other guests, then returning to the party to rally and hook up with a high school nemesis? Check.)
Why I picked it up: I’m in the in-between stage of wedding life: my contemporaries who were likely to get married already have, and our kids aren’t old enough to get hitched themselves. Though I adore weddings, I’ve never been part of a clutch of girlfriends on constant bridesmaid duty, so the promise of an insider’s guide to wedding shenanigans held great appeal.
Why I finished it: The narrative starts out with typical youthful enthusiasm, as twentysomethings get drunk, hook up, and regret it in the morning. About halfway through, the author hits “Rock Bottom” (as the chapter is aptly named), with post-wedding behavior that make the girls of Drunk J. Crew look like debutantes. I kept reading, waiting for Doll to have some kind of come-to-Jesus moment of maturity in the years and weddings that followed. Surely a woman well into her thirties would stop getting trashed at formal social events and making bad decisions . . .
It's perfect for: My former colleague, Addie, who, like the author, has served bridesmaid and guest duties dozens of times but has never walked the aisle herself. I’d be curious how her experiences stack up against Jen’s. Did she ever have to send formal letters of apology for her behavior to the bride’s and groom’s families?
@bookblrb: A perpetual bridesmaid struggles to figure out why she’s never half of the happy couple.
Megg (a green-skinned witch), Mogg (a cat), and Owl (an owl) spend most of their days sitting around their apartment, getting high. Owl is the awkward, annoying third wheel to Megg and Mogg’s romantic relationship. He occasionally realizes how empty their lives are and tries to better himself by doing something crazy, like getting a job, but Megg and Mogg always sabotage Owl. Once in a while Werewolf Jones comes by to liven up the party by doing something dangerous or of questionable taste. Penises appear throughout.
Why I picked it up: I’ve been waiting for it since earlier this year, when I read I this smaller collection of comics about the same characters.
Why I finished it: It’s the cruelest kind of laugh-out-loud funny. I was talking to Karl at Seattle’s Comic Stop about how inexplicably great and funny this book is. It’s impossible to sum it up by talking about its parts. There’s a sadness that pervades the whole book, and, as I think Karl pointed out, there’s really no one to root for, but it builds a world of hilarious, odd, and sometimes downright mean moments that makes these characters feel real enough to be wholly entertaining.
It's perfect for: Author Ben Snakepit. His autobiographical comics frequently involve getting high, and I have a sense that he’ll laugh at a few of the books weirdest moments, like when Werewolf Jones takes a cheese grater to his balls to liven up a party that ends with a Horrible Feet Contest.
@bookblrb: A witch and her lover (a cat) sit around, get high, and keep their housemate (an owl) from bettering himself.
As author Chaubin makes clear in the introductory essay to this coffee table book of architectural photography, in the last two or three decades of the Soviet Union, some architects working on high-profile projects that enjoyed considerable political patronage were allowed or encouraged to embrace the spectacular instead of easily built cubic buildings. The effect many went for recalls a naïve, George Jetson-ish version of the Space Age.
This trilingual (English, French, German) volume provides background on both the usual constraints imposed on Soviet architects, the internal and external pressures on them to incorporate saucer shapes in their designs, and on ideas such as contextualism, which allowed local forms and motifs in the far-flung Soviet Empire to influence the forms and decorations on the then-newest constructions.
Why I picked it up: The incredible cover picture showing a Black Sea sunbathing scene. Just behind the seawall, there’s a huge, round structure supported by of vast concrete pillars. It turns out the story of the building is even more incredible than the picture. It's not a research facility, it’s a residential health spa with a suspended indoor salt water pool!
Why I finished it: I live in a city where some of the most revered civic and domestic buildings are Modern style and about a century old. My undergraduate college's Brutalist main library is its most distinctive structure. I've added otherwise gratuitous hills to group bike rides to show off streets with distinctive and well-heeled residential architecture. And yet, given the marvels of concrete, stucco, rebar, and framing I live and work around, I was still amazed and awed at the range of wild styles in this book, including: a “crashed flying saucer” used for office space in Kiev, a yurt-shaped anti-seismic concert hall in Dushanbe, a vast and mirrored solar condenser in Uzbekistan, monster-headed playground slides, a theater that could stand in for the mansion in an H.P. Lovecraft-fueled nightmare (complete with an openwork tower later demolished because it attracted suicidal people), and concrete flames encircling a crematorium.
It's perfect for: Anyone who's been to Comic-Con in San Diego and wondered how much further than the Convention Center architects could go if they were really unleashed.
@bookblrb: A coffee table book featuring photographs of space age architecture from the last decades of the Soviet Union.