Tuesday, November 29, 2011

GUEST POST: China Mieville's Embassytown, by Tracy

Tracy is one of the smartest people I know.  Really.  She has a degree in biochem and recently began practicing law.  She can do math AND she is a wonderful writer.  She is a dear, nerdy friend and I was thrilled when she asked to write a guest post.

I recently had the opportunity to meet China Miéville at a book reading/signing for his new book, and I was so excited I put orange juice instead of milk in my coffee that morning.  So I asked Meaghan if I could guest blog, to try to explain what it is about Mr. Miéville's writing that could drive me to sabotage my own coffee (though, as a tea drinking Brit, I have not ruled out the possibility his books contain anti-coffee subliminal messages).

China Mieville is an antidote to the familiar.  A Miéville novel tells a story that has not been told before.  It will not be another new twist on an old plot, not entertaining in the way it is entertaining to come across a musician on an often traveled street.  The first few steps may seem familiar—a detective with a murder to solve, a scientist with a missing specimen, the arrival of a spaceship—and then: nothing.  A clean slate.  A world so other the only points of reference are the words on the page.

Embassytown, Miéville's most recent release, contains the memoirs of Avice, a human colonist born on a distant planet, who as a child becomes a figure of speech, a simile, in the native Ariekei's unique language.  A self proclaimed floaker, she nevertheless tries to save the Ariekei, and the humans, after an outsider's use of the Ariekei language upsets the biological balance of the planet.

Kraken takes place in a London populated by dissident gods, where crime overlaps with faith, on the eve of an apocalypse.  When confronted with the protagonist's disbelief, another character puts the protagonist, and the reader, in their place.  “I know, I know.  Mad beliefs like that, eh?  Must be some metaphor, right?  Must mean something else?  What an awfully arrogant thing.  What if faiths are exactly what they are?  And mean exactly what they say?”  

The City and the City is a murder mystery spanning two cities which share a border unlike any other, where every stray step or wayward glance is prosecuted by an all-seeing power with unquestioned and indeterminate authority.

Often Miéville's words themselves are other, an obvious necessity to describe new concepts and ideas.  Grosstopically describes geographic proximity across invisible yet impassable boarders.  Space without time is named the immer (a German word for “always” which dovetails with English in ways that make any language lover swoon). Floaking well... you get the idea.  Acute attention is required to understand the story, and it is like using an old muscle, but it is also like undoing what has been done, traveling back to a time in childhood when the intoxicating newness of every story stretched the membrane of reality ever thinner and made the world proportionally bigger with every word. 

I will let you decide how Miéville's words are like a drug and how they are not like a drug, but  any of these three books will give you something which is exhilarating and mind altering and addicting in all the best ways.

In my copy of
Kraken, Mr. Miéville inscribed “Honored to have ruined your coffee.”  Whether his words drove me to general distraction, or he employed a more directed manipulation of language, I am grateful to Mr. Miéville for showing me that at thirty years old I can still experience the pure enchantment of discovery, even at the expense of my everyday routine.

Tracy with author China Mieville

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops

As someone who grew up on episodes of Cheers and lived in a colonial-era tavern and inn, I suppose I might have been somewhat predisposed to be enamored by the subject.  But if you stop to consider, I think most people are.  The gathering of community is something we all need and create.  

This is a fascinating social history of our relatively young country.  And with all we have been though as a nation, one thing that has been a constant is the bar -- even when they were banned.  Not just as a place to imbibe, but a place to gather.  Revolutions and crimes alike have been planned in them.  The Salem Witch Trials just may have been started because of one. 

The Green Dragon Tavern, the cradle of the Boston Tea Party
Sismondo brings into focus the history of America's founding, growing pains and social reforms through the lens of the community tavern.  She reminds us that a pioneer town was likely to have tavern before it had a church or courthouse.  The bar was pressed into many civic uses, but it was also the hub of the people.  It was a place to get warm, to see friends, to hear the news and to grumble about life.  

The book traces, in relatively chronological order, the evolution of the bar as meeting place from the Puritans to Colonialists, early temperance movements in the literary sphere,  political machines, speakeasies, the repeal of Prohibition, dessert cocktails and more.  

It's quite stunning, actually, to look at ourselves as a nation, in the mirror of a backbar.


Many thanks to the folks at Oxford University Press for the review copy.

America Walks into a Bar
A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops
Christine Sismondo
ISBN13: 9780199734955
ISBN10: 019973495X
Hardback, 336 pages

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


An Autobiography

As much as I love biographies, I'm often hesitant about autobiographies.  Everyone has an interesting story -- that doesn't meant they know how to tell it.  There is no doubt Dame Agatha Christie knew how to tell a story.  Hundreds of them.  But her best may be her own.

She begins at the beginning (sort of) and tells a roughly chronological series of events.  In fact, her fanciful meanderings are part of what makes the book so endearing.  Her descriptions of late Victorian / early Edwardian society are not only priceless anthropologically, but an absolute joy to read.  The tone is light and joyful, as a small child might tell her grandmother about the fairies at the bottom of the garden.  Indeed, her young life was rather ethereal.  One of those English upbringings that one wonders if it actually ever existed.  Imagination was encouraged to run rampant and adventure was to be met head-on. 

Her observations on life itself, too, are absolute gems.  One could extract an entire philosophy from her thoughts.   While recalling her studies in Paris, she muses, "It seems to me that teaching can only be satisfactory if it awakens some response in you.  Mere information is no good, it gives you nothing more than you had before."  Or her recollections of Christmas as a child.  "After the pleasurable inertia of Christmas afternoon - pleasurable, that is, for the elders: the younger ones read books, looked at their presents, ate more chocolates and so on -- there was a terrific tea with a great idea Christmas cake as well as everything else, and finally a supper of cold turkey and hot mince pies.  About nine o'clock there was the Christmas tree, with more presents hanging on it.  A splendid day, and one to be remembered till next year, when Christmas came again."  These and other memories of dances, parties, traveling to Egypt with her husband archaeologist and trips with grandchildren are an entirely enjoyable read.  In fact, one doesn't need to be a fan of Agatha Christie or even mysteries to enjoy it.  

My review copy does not include the audio disc of Agatha's actual voice dictating her memoir.  I can only imagine it, too, is nostalgic and lovely.

In honor of this reissue from HarperCollins, we have teamed up to host a giveaway in honor of Dame Christie.  

I've got a great little prize pack:  A copy of Cards on the Table, a delightful little Hercule Poirot murder mystery surrounding a game of bridge in a strange scenario; a pack of Agatha Christie bookmarks; and a black and red Agatha Christie totebag.  (This image is not to scale -- obviously.)

So, do you want to win?  Leave a comment below with your NAME, EMAIL (at) DOT COM, and why you think you would be a good detective.  This giveaway is open to anyone with a US mailing address.  Have your comment posted before Friday, November 18, 2011 at 10:00 p.m. EST to be entered.  Winning entry will be chosen by Random.org.  

A huge thanks to Danielle at HarperCollins for the great gifts and the review copy of An Autobiography


ISBN: 9780062073594
ISBN10: 0062073591
Imprint: Harper 
On Sale: 11/22/2011
Format: Hardcover
Trimsize: 6 x 9
Pages: 544; $29.99; Ages: 18 and Up