Sticking the landing

Published June 28, 2015, at 9:26am

Martin McClellan review Neal Stephenson's Seveneves.

Even Neal Stephenson has to acknowledge that "Neal Stephenson has trouble ending his novels" is a popular opinion. Does Seveneves end well? Is it even worth getting to the end?

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The governor of my native state of Maine, Paul LePage, is unequivocally an imbecile. He's combative and unempathetic and ignorant and proud of it. He says terrible things on a very regular basis. But his most recent gaffe, as explained in the Portland Press Herald, is particularly troubling:

Gov. Paul LePage’s joke about shooting a political cartoonist is falling flat. The governor was laughing when he made the remark after the teenage son of Bangor Daily News cartoonist George Danby asked what LePage thought of his father’s satirical cartoons.

So let's restate this for proper context: a few months after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Governor LePage made a joke about shooting a political the cartoonist's teenage son. It should be noted that LePage (who is called "LePlague" by many Mainers) has also "joked" about blowing up a newspaper and punching a political columnist. I suppose it's too much to expect a subliterate man to understand the significance of using violent language, but someone on the governor's staff really must pull him aside and have a little talk about the fact that words have meaning. Use grunts and extravagant hand gestures, if necessary!

If you ever wanted to learn what the process of recording an audio book is like, Judy Oldfield Wilson's interview with Kathleen Wilhoite about the recording of the audio version of Where'd You Go, Bernadette is fascinating stuff. Bernadette was Wilhoite's first book recording experience — she was enlisted by Bernadette author Maria Semple for the job — and by all accounts, she nailed it.

Is it presumptuous to say that book covers are on the whole better now — more attractive, more informative, less clichéd — than at any other time in history? I believe that to be true, but I'm probably setting myself up for some epic arguments in the near future. Still, this retrospective on the life and work of H. Lawrence Hoffman inspires no small amount of nostalgia for the boom days of paperback books. Nobody is making anything quite like Hoffman's covers anymore, and that's kind of a shame. They're a little gaudy, sure, but they're great fun. I especially like the cover for FOG.

Design Milk published a photo-heavy tour of the Press Hotel, a new boutique hotel constructed from the old Portland Press Herald newspaper building in Portland, Maine. It's a little too precious — my heart hurts to see perfectly good typewriters used as decoration — but on the whole it's a gorgeous, writerly space. Maybe they'll offer a writer-in-residence program? Those writing desks look particularly welcoming.

Lunch date: Butterflies in November

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? Butterflies in November, an Icelandic novel written by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and translated into English by Brian FitzGibbon.

Where’d you go? Queen Bee Cafe on Madison Ave.

What’d you eat? The BLT crumpet sandwich with fruit cup ($7.95) and a pot of Earl Grey ($2.75).

How was the food? Delicious! For the past billion years or so, Seattle has had exactly one excellent crumpet shop (that’s The Crumpet Shop in the Pike Place Market, for the uninitiated). I thought one great crumpet shop was enough for one city. I stand corrected: Queen Bee’s crumpets are baked fresh daily and they’re delightful — airy yet substantial, chewy but not too chewy, just the right texture. The produce in my BLT was fresh and delicious, the bacon was righteous, and the sandwich was accompanied with a cup of fresh berries; for eight bucks, I’d call that a steal. Queen Bee’s ambiance is a little overproduced — it looks slick, like a chain restaurant — but it’s got a lot of comfy seating and the employees are super-friendly. I plan on spending a lot of time there from now on, eating crumpets and drinking tea and reading books and otherwise being downright civilized.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

After a day of being dumped—twice—and accidentally killing a goose, a young woman yearns for a tropical vacation far from the chaos of her life. Instead, her plans are wrecked by her best friend’s four-year-old deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when the boy chooses the winning numbers for a lottery ticket, the two of them set off on a road trip across Iceland with a glove compartment stuffed full of their jackpot earnings. Along the way, they encounter black sand beaches, cucumber farms, lava fields, flocks of sheep, an Estonian choir, a falconer, a hitchhiker, and both of her exes desperate for another chance. What begins as a spontaneous adventure will unexpectedly and profoundly change the way she views her past and charts her future.

Is there a representative quote? “He’s home. I linger on the frozen lawn before entering, looking in at the light of my own home, and shilly-shally by the redcurrant bush with the goose in my hands, wondering whether he can see it on me, whether he’s noticed. From here I can see him wandering from room to room for no apparent reason, shifting random objects and alternately flicking light switches on and off. I move from window to window around the illuminated home, as if it were a doll’s house with no façade, trying to piece together the fragments of my husband’s life.”

Will you two end up in bed together? Yes, although I’ll admit to a little bit of discomfort. The protagonist of Butterflies in November is at first an almost ridiculously passive character. She lets everyone walk over her, do whatever they want with her, say whatever they dare to her. Too-passive main characters are a pet peeve of mine, and one of the most common problems plaguing literary novels. But based on the publisher’s description, I expect the passivity to decline after the first fifty or so pages of Butterflies. At least, I hope that’s the case.

Anyway, the writing is fantastic. Since I don’t speak Icelandic I can’t say for certain, but FitzGibbon seems to do a good job of capturing the cadence of Ólafsdóttir’s prose; the language is at once searingly human and alien-like. The protagonist’s is a voice that sticks with you, even as her actions infuriate you. The opening few chapters of Butterflies are a bumpy ride, but they promise something more meaningful just around the next bend.

The case against Ayn Rand

Published June 22, 2015, at 5:09pm

Paul Constant review Darryl Cunningham's The Age of Selfishness.

If you only read one comic book takedown of Ayn Rand's philosophy, Paul Constant writes, it should be The Age of Selfishness.

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Traveling light

Published June 21, 2015, at 11:06pm

Paul Constant review Phil Hogan's A Pleasure and a Calling, Arkady Strugatsky, and Boris Strugatsky's Definitely Maybe, Sebastian Faulks's Devil May Care, William Davies's The Happiness Industry, Patton Oswalt's Silver Screen Fiend, Adam Roberts's Jack Glass, John Green's Paper Towns, Joe Hill's Horns, Kerry-Anne Mendoza's Austerity, and Åsne Seierstad's One of Us.

When he gets ready to go on vacation, Paul Constant crams his backpack full of as many heavy books as possible. There's a reason for this, and it's not masochism.

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