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July 9, 2013 / The Promiscuous Reader

The Sweet Smell of Apocalypse in the Morning

I’ll admit it…I’m a sucker for dystopian fiction.  If there’s a story about a small group of brave folk banding bravely together while facing the end of the world, I’m all over it.  With the growth in popularity over the last few years of this genre, I’ve been in heaven!  Naturally, in such a crowded field, there have to be ways to set oneself apart and to that end we have robots, zombies, the moon falling out of orbit, vampires, plagues and…you get the picture.  Apparently there’s no end to the ways in which the world can, well, end.

Over the past few years I’ve read several books that could be considered part of the genre.  Here’s a rundown of a few of the top dystopian novels I’ve read.

  • Since it’s currently a blockbuster movie, I’ll start with World War Z by Max Brooks.  Now, if you’ve seen the movie don’t be surprised when you pick up the book and find a series of stories from around the world at the time of the “the zombie war” that don’t strictly follow the narrative of the movie.  Unfortunately, despite my warnings, my son, who’d seen the movie first (usually a mistake) was disappointed.

  • Another book that follows a similar structure as World War Z is Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson. Just imagine robots in place of zombies.  This one also has a structure that follows a variety of characters from around the globe.  One of my favorites was the story of the Takeo Nomura who, because of his love for his robot, ends up coming up with a workable solution to the problem.

  • These next two selections are YA series that I’ve especially enjoyed reading.  The first, the Life As We Knew It series, currently has three books that have been released with a fourth due to be released in August 2013.  The first two books tell two different versions of life immediately after the disaster and the third weaves these two narratives together when the two protagonists meet a year later. The Rot & Ruin series is another zombie series and has been a fun read-along with my zombie-obsessed middle schooler.  It follows a young boy as he matures and learns more about what being a hero really means.

  • These last two series I’ve mentioned previously on the blog.  The Strain Trilogy was co-written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.  A super vampire virus spreads through the world assisted by a wealthy, but sickly man seeking immortality.  Very dark.  The next series, The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin, is, as I told my dad, like early Stephen King (think, The Stand).  I don’t want to give too much away, because the story unfolds so carefully but I recommend it without reservation to friends interested in end of the world type stories.

Finally, in a quick search of dystopian lit online, I made some fabulous discoveries that will definitely be added to my TBR list.  First and foremost of these is Jasper Fforde’s book called Shades of Grey.  Yes, currently this title probably will get a double take or two while reading on the bus, but I so enjoyed Fforde’s Thursday Next novels that I will put up with the quizzical looks and read on.  Also on the list was Wool by Hugh Howey.  It already happens to be on my Kindle since I’d read about it in another article and it was available free through Amazon.  Now I’m doubly excited to read it.  What end of the world fare have you been reading?

June 25, 2013 / The Promiscuous Reader

On narcoliteratura, telenovelas and Coursera

raton de bibliotecaEvery now and then I notice, that quite organically, I begin to gravitate toward a specific subject or theme in my reading, viewing and listening habits.  For a month or so, I will read several books on a subject, watch television programs and listen to music on a single or several closely related subjects. As I’m reading, and I find something of interest, I’ll quickly google it, read a quick article to get some background, find a related author or historical figure, which leads me to another book to add to my TBR list and voilà the web grows.  My current thematic bender seems to be narco-history, literatura and telenovelas.

To this end, I recently finished En la boca del lobo by William Rempel (in English: At the Devil’s Table), which tells the biographical story of Jorge Salcedo, the former head of security for the Cali cartel and the man who turned DEA informant and brought the cartel down.  It was an interesting story, if a little heavy on trying to create the idea that Mr. Salcedo got unwittingly wrapped up in the cartel due to his patriotic desire to rid Colombia of Pablo Escobar.  As with any story involving the drug cartels, there are a number of fantastic nicknames, such as el Buitre, el Gordo and el Pecoso, assigned to and used by their members.  Should I ever unwittingly get wrapped up in a drug cartel, I’ve decided my nickname should be La Ratona (de biblioteca) which roughly translates to “Bookworm”.

Speaking of nicknames, I’m currently reading La Reina del Sur by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (English translation: The Queen of the South).  For me, this is a fun read because they’ve also made a telenovela based on the book, so I’ve been reading and watching my way through the story. In the past, I’ve tried to watch these narco-telenovelas (such as El Capo out of Colombia) but wasn’t able to maintain the same long-term interest as I have for more traditional telenovelas. Another book on my Kindle that has also been made into a telenovela is El Señor de los Cielos by Andrés López López. We’ll see if I find this one as captivating as La Reina del Sur.

All that being said, in one of my recent Google searches on the subject, I learned that using the term narcoliteratura can be considered reductionistic in consideration of regional literature from Mexico (more often than not), Colombia (on occasion) and other countries in which drug trafficking holds sway (it’s only a matter of time).  Several recent articles highlight this feeling of dissidence and point out that within what has been labeled by the media as narcoliteratura there are subgenres such as police procedural, biography, history as well as more literary novels, that are disregarded.  Juan Pablo Villalobos published an article on English PEN about the abuse of the term, an abuse he no doubts feels personally as his first novel, Fiesta en la madriguera, (English translation: Down the Rabbit Hole) which, while set in the world of narcotrafficking, is more appropriately described as “the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child’s wish.”  Additionally, an article published last March in El País, “Mas allá de la narcoliteratura,” highlights many of the recent novels published by Mexican authors that go beyond the oversimplified idea of narcoliteratura.  And so, I go on my own delirious journey down the rabbit hole of Google, forever adding on to my TBR list.

On a related note, I’ve been taking a class on Coursera titled, Latin American Culture.  It’s a very brief overview of the topic (6 weeks) but as it covers political, economical and social culture it necessarily touches on the influence of narcotrafficking on these three aspects of culture.  Since my area of emphasis for my BA was Latin American Studies, the video lectures and readings are an updated review of topics I studied many a moon ago.  What I find to be the most interesting aspect of participating in a Coursera class, is the thematic forum.  It is here that you can observe and participate in what is truly the benefit of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).  There are students from around the globe sharing perspectives, asking questions and learning about one anothers’ lives and countries while discussing complex issues.  We have had frank and open discussions about various aspects of culture that would otherwise be practically impossible to engage in on such a broad scale. It has been fascinating and I highly recommend the experience. Since they have courses on a wide variety of topics, there is sure to be something for everyone, narco-related or not.

June 20, 2013 / The Promiscuous Reader

Library Loot #1

photo (9)Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. 

Knowing that I was just about to finish American Gods by Neil Gaiman and desperately needing some new reading inspiration (I carefully ignored the tottering pile of books by the bed), I headed to the library to pick up a hold and to browse around a bit. It was a great day at the library!

My hold, The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, was still there (yay!) and, upon perusing the Spanish language section, I found a few interesting titles that I picked up as well.  Among them, my current read En la boca del lobo: La historia jamás contada del hombre que hizo caer al cártel de Cali by William C. Rempel.  The lengthy title tells it all; it’s the never before told story of the man who brought down the Cali cartel.  Along the same vein, I also picked up the book El sicario: Autobiografía de un asesino a sueldo edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden.  Another work of narco-non-fiction which, based on shelf space, appears to be a growing genre.  This book has a companion documentary called El Sicario: Room 164 which is available on YouTube in Spanish with French subtitles, in case you’re interested. Finally, I also checked out De mexicanos como la lotería by Guadalupe Loaeza, which is a collection of short biographies of famous Mexicans.

June 19, 2013 / The Promiscuous Reader

Mozart, Sigur Rós & Reading

Tell-The-Wolves-Im-Home1Typically, I’m a silent reader.  By that I mean, I like to read in silence (or at least as much silence as can be mustered in a house of four people and two dogs).  Occasionally, however, a book begs for music in the background.  Sometimes, it’s because the piece of music is mentioned in the book itself, but for other books it’s because the mood of the book, the writing, the setting demand it.  This past year, I’ve found myself reading two such books.

The first is the heartbreaking, excellent book by Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home.  I wish this book had been around twenty years ago, I could have used it. It tells the story of an artsy, outsider teenage girl, June Elbus, and the connections she makes as she works through her grief after her uncle dies.  The author captures so many things well, the awkwardness of being a teenager, the secrets a family holds close and how memories can feed us in our grief.  One such memory that June holds dear is listening to Mozart’s Requiem with her uncle.  So I did as well, choosing the EMI Classics recording conducted by Daniel Barenboim and listening to it on repeat as I read this stunning novel.  Bring tissue.

This past winter, I started expanding my journey into Scandinavian literature and included a couple selections from Iceland by Arnaldur Indridason.  I read the first two Reykjavik Thriller books, Jar City and Silence of the Grave.  Both were interesting by virtue of the fact that I knew next to nothing about Iceland, and it was interesting to learn a little more about the country.  Coincidentally, about the time I was reading these books I was also watching The Eagle, a Danish police series with an Icelandic protagonist.  I decided to make it a perfect trifecta and listen to some moody Icelandic music courtesy of Sigur Rós as I was reading.  Perfect winter combo.

Anyway, these two books got me thinking…what other book/music pairings would make sense?  Would I listen to Avi Avital’s Bach album while reading Corelli’s Mandolin?  What would pair well with Anna Karenina or The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle ?  Should I listen to something cheery the next time I read Lord of the Rings in a preemptive attempt to stave off the sense of dread that overtakes me?  What music do you listen to when reading?

June 17, 2013 / The Promiscuous Reader

On reading, recommendations and umlauts


Another unhappy customer…I gave him a grotesque recommendation.

One of the benefits of being a promiscuous reader is that, having read a wide variety of genres and books, I can use this knowledge to amiably  chat about a number of different topics (needless to say books are my go-to-topic for small talk) and I can recommend books to people with a broad set of interests.  This is also one of the pitfalls of being a promiscuous reader.

The problem arises when I forget that, although I enjoy reading a spy novel, followed by the latest Hilary Mantel, and then blazing through an apocalyptic vampire story at the same time as the latest Malcolm Gladwell, not everyone enjoys such varied tastes.  Some people only want to read Malcolm Gladwell (in less polite circles I may call this reader, Mr. Tall & Snooty) and others stick with crime procedurals (typically I call this reader, dad).

These two examples are fairly easy to keep sorted.  If it doesn’t have The New Yorker seal of approval, don’t even bother mentioning it to Mr. Tall & Snooty and if it doesn’t have a hard-boiled, recovered alcoholic private detective with three failed marriages my dad will take a pass.  Other readers are more difficult and so I have learned to be a little more cautious with them.  I recently realized (it took me three unread loans…I’m a slow learner) that a close friend absolutely does not like anything of the apocalyptic, vampiric, or zombierrific genres.  Okay…David Sedaris it is, then!

Happily, over the years, I have also learned the trick of “having the proper hook.”  Naturally, I learned this by first  having the improper hook.  With my dad, for example, referring to any book as Swedish, Nordic or Scandinavian instantly results in a glazed, far away look and a vigorous shaking of the head.   This is, undoubtedly, due to his experience of trying to assign English names to all of the characters in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This probably started out easily enough, Mikael was Mike, Lisbeth was Liz but once he got to Gottfried, Birger and Holger things became a little more complicated and he gave up after a very confusing 150 pages. Now, if the book has an umlaut in it my dad steers well clear.

A successful hook for my dad is, “it’s like early Stephen King”.  A couple of years ago, after I unsuccessfully recommended  Justin Cronin’s The Passage to my aforementioned, David Sedaris-loving friend, I was hunting around for someone to share it with.  I decided to loan it to my dad with the caveat that it was a broad, epic story, like The Stand, but that it came together in the end. It was a risky recommendation, considering the number of characters, lack of private investigator and coming on the heels of the disastrous Dragon Tattoo experience.  Fortunately,  he loved it, remembered more details and character names than I did and promptly pre-ordered the sequel, The Twelve.

Occasionally, an easy recommendation pops up, in which I don’t even have to think about how good the book was because the situation requires the person read it.  My recently retired colleague told me she was spending a few weeks in the south of France in an area called Languedoc.  “Languedoc?”  I cried!  “Near Caracassone?  I know just the book!”  Only, I couldn’t remember the title so after a bit of Googling I figured out it was Labyrinth by Kate Mosse.  I recalled thinking it wasn’t the best book I’d ever read, but nevermind, if I were within spitting distance of Carcassone, it would definitely be the book I’d want in hand.  I only hope she feels the same.

What book recommendations, disastrous and otherwise, have you made?


June 13, 2013 / The Promiscuous Reader

Late Hours

As I embark on another summer of luxuriating in the joys of reading and allowing myself to become so wrapped up in a fictional character’s life that I practically call it my own, I am reminded of this spare, beautiful poem by Lisel Mueller.  The title, Late Hours, is perfect for these lazy summer days of long hours of sunlight during which I am able not to worry about the alarm ringing me awake the next morning.  Naturally, I don’t remember how I even came across it, but, for me those last few lines really capture the feeling of fortune we should have to spend our days reading.

June 9, 2013 / The Promiscuous Reader

Perfect Crime

Historia de un crimen perfectSeveral months ago I downloaded the novella, Historia de un crimen perfecto by Mikel Santiago, to my Kindle.  I wish I had made a note at the time of what even steered me in that direction.  I think it may have been the free Spanish book of the week!  I read it in about a day and a half and was miffed a couple times along the way that work and other obligations were getting in the way of my reading time!

The novella tells the story of Eric Rot, a self-made power broker who admits on the very first page that he has murdered a woman.  The story goes on to develop his back story, the reasons for the crime and the unfortunate consequences as well.  I’m sure people who have read both will shake their heads in disbelief, but it reminded me a little of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, in the sense that the narrator, in the end turns out to be unreliable.

For you English readers, a translation is available under the title Memoir of a Perfect Criminal.

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