Review: ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ revealed

Posted in Blog by - Jul 31, 2018

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Secret History of Wonder Woman can’t be judged by its cover. Adorned with a vintage-style illustration of its subject discarding her civilian togs to reveal her superheroine bustier underneath, it could be mistaken for a lighthearted pop culture book, or even a graphic novel.

Instead, Jill Lepore’s book is a meticulous and scholarly history of not only the most iconic female character in comic bookdom, but also of American feminism, the invention of the polygraph, the development of psychology as an academic discipline, and more.

But just because …

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Beware the monster bear: ‘Borne’ by Jeff VanderMeer

Posted in Blog by - Nov 04, 2017

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jeff VanderMeer is a poet of the postapocalypse. His Southern Reach trilogy (its first book, Annihilation, is becoming a movie starring Natalie Portman, helmed by “Ex Machina” director Alex Garland; its third, Acceptance, is reviewed by me here) is set in a wilderness where nature has turned monstrous and malevolent. His latest novel is an urban counterpart.

The ravaged cityscape of Borne makes Mad Max’s Fury Road look like the tonier blocks of Park Avenue. Buildings have been reduced to rubble, food and potable water are scarce, a poisoned river suppurates with pollution, …

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Review: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Posted in Blog by - Aug 18, 2017

There is drama in Wallace Stegner‘s Crossing to Safety, but it’s the drama of everyday life: career successes and disappointments; courtships and births and illnesses; a hiking trip gone awry. There’s little sex, or even suspense; because the novel is mostly flashback, we know most of what will happen to the protagonists from the get-go. Instead there are lyrical descriptions of nature and scholarly ruminations on poetry.

So why is a leisurely paced novel about the decades-long relationship between two academic couples so compelling? Paradoxically, it’s the book’s particularity that makes it so relatable. All the characters are drawn vividly, but …

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Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer

Posted in Blog by - Jul 18, 2017

The Pacific Northwest seems to exert a natural gravity on iconoclastic novelists. Ken Kesey lived most of his life in Oregon and wrote what is arguably the iconic Oregon novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. Tom Robbins spent the majority of his adult life in Seattle. Richard Brautigan, born in Tacoma, would wind up in Eugene, Oregon, where a public sculpture of Kesey stands today. “Oregon is the citadel of the spirit,” Kesey once wrote.

(Which is a nice way of saying what I found unavoidable in the three years I lived outside Portland: Oregonians typically take pride in dogged anti-authoritarianism.)

New York …

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Review: Willnot by James Sallis

Posted in Blog by - Jun 06, 2017

I am the opposite of a mystery fan. I have read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon end to end, and the main things that interested me were the relationship between Holmes and Watson and the tiny flashes of humanity in Holmes that seemed to occur only once every dozen stories or so. I tried some Agatha Christie and hated it, despite grudging admiration for the tortuous ingenuity of And Then There Were None. I once picked up a Maigret novel by Georges Simenon and all I got out of it was the moody Parisian atmosphere.

The trouble with mysteries and me …

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Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Posted in Blog by - Jun 01, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When it came out in the middle of the feverish 2016 presidential campaign, J. D. Vance‘s Hillbilly Elegy was cannily marketed as insight into the mysterious mind of the Trump voter. That’s not wholly untrue, but its subtitle is a better description: “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” To me the book is at heart a raw and honest look at a childhood that was, to employ a non-clinical term, a shit show.

Vance’s story hit me close to home. …

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Review: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Posted in Blog by - Apr 21, 2017

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s no mean feat, pulling off a taut psychological murder mystery while confined to the tight box of fictional 19th-century documents, yet Graeme Macrae Burnet does it.

His antihero is 17-year-old Roderick Macrae, who has the soul of a poet and the misfortune to have been born in a literal dead end, a woebegone coastal farming village. Clearly Burnet has done thorough research; his finely detailed setting is more the star of his story than poor Roddy or any of his supporting cast of flat but colorful Dickensian characters.

The storytelling is …

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Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Posted in Blog by - Apr 11, 2017

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writing about the album In Between by The Feelies, Rick Moody posits that rock ’n’ roll is in late middle age, its focus turned reflective and retrospective. I think much the same can be said of science fiction. Much as rock ’n’ roll has been supplanted by dance pop as the dominant popular music genre, SF has been pushed aside by fantasy. Roll over, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, et al.; hail, hail, J.K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin.

In Stories of Your Life and Others, a collection …

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Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Posted in Blog by - Mar 22, 2017

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am unembarrassed to join the chorus of praise for this complex yet lucid novel, which presents us with two fractured families linked by betrayal and tragedy and makes us forgive their sins. Surefooted as a mountain goat, Patchett leaps to and fro across 50 years of nonlinear narrative, carrying us along on prose as clear and bracing as an alpine spring.

In its strongest chapter, the novel carries us to a Buddhist retreat in Switzerland that evokes The Magic Mountain unmistakably. But while it conveys the nuance and detail of literature, Commonwealth …

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My Top 10 Albums of 2016

Posted in Blog by - Dec 31, 2016

None of these 10 albums is just a collection of songs: Each one tells a story, and each story is a chapter of 2016. That’s why I’ve listed them not in order of preference or alphabetically, but chronologically.


They have symmetries too, patterns I am still discovering. There are the valedictions, of course: David Bowie and Leonard Cohen (even the titles of their final albums, Blackstar and You Want It Darker, echo each other) and Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. There are reunions: A Tribe Called Quest and Underworld. There are pairs of art rockers (Bowie and Jenny Hval), …

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