what the cool kids are talking about


For those of you seeking a distraction from the election coverage, Slate Book Review just posted “The Funniest Living Writers Choose the Funniest Books in the World.” It’s a literary daisy chain: They asked Maria Semple, whose novel Today Will be Different hit bookstores last week, to name her three favorite funny books by living authors. Then they asked those writers to name three favorites, and so on. I got on the chain when Christopher Moore picked Bad Monkeys. My picks: Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion, Aimee Bender’s Willful Creatures, and Wilton Barnhardt’s Emma Who Saved My Life.

You can see the complete daisy chain here. The graphic is interactive: Click on individual books for reviews and purchase links.

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My friend Nisi Shawl’s amazing new novel Everfair arrives in bookstores today. It’s a steampunk novel set in an alternate history where Congolese natives and their allies use steam-powered dirigibles (“aircanoes”) to fight back against the Belgian soldiers of King Leopold. Everfair has battle scenes, lots of cool technology, and more than a little magic (there’s a character named Fwendi who projects her soul into a herd of cats in order to snoop on the bad guys), but the real heart of the story is the politicking and relationships among the various factions seeking to build a true free state in Congo: native Africans, white British socialists, African-American missionaries, Asian laborers and merchants, and a French author, spy, and bicycle enthusiast named Lisette Toutournier.

As I say, it’s amazing; I’m already picturing the BBC miniseries. If you’re a fan of Lovecraft Country you should definitely check it out.

You can read a sample of Everfair here and an essay about the origins of the story here. You can also catch Nisi on her book tour, which starts tonight with a 7 PM appearance at the U.W. University Book Store.

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P.S. Also on sale today: Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.

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Talking with Victor LaValle about Lovecraft

The same day Lovecraft Country first appeared in book stores, Tor.com Books published Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, which takes H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Horror at Red Hook” and retells it from the point of view of a black protagonist. I’d been hearing rumblings about Black Tom for several months, and for obvious reasons I was intrigued. Nor was I the only one struck by the coincidence of two such similarly themed books coming out on the same dayBill Tipper from the Barnes & Noble Review blog got in touch to ask whether Victor and I would be interested in having an online dialogue about our work. We’ve been emailing back and forth for the past few weeks, and the resulting conversation has just been posted on the B&N blog. Check it out.

You can read more about Victor LaValle and his books on his website, here.

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For the weekend: Langston Hughes’ playlist

Langston Hughes (left) and a 1954 iPod being serviced by AppleCare technicians (right)

At Wednesday night’s reading at Third Place Books, an audience member asked me about the music I listen to while I’m writing, which reminded me of something I’d come across during my research for Lovecraft Country. In the July 3, 1954 edition of The Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes devoted his weekly column to a discussion of his own musical tastes, including a list of “some of my all-time favorites” (YouTube links added where available):

AFTER HOURS — Erskine Hawkins
SO LONG — The Charioteers
RAG MOP — Lionel Hampton
WEST END BLUES — Ethel Waters
SEPTEMBER SONG — Walter Huston
BLACK NIGHT — Charles Brown
MARDI GRAS IN NEW ORLEANS — Professor Longhair
LOVE CAN HURT YOU — Juanita Hall
DEPUIS LE JOUR — Dorothy Maynor
CANTE FLAMENCO — La Niña de los Peines
SATURDAY NIGHT FISH FRY — Pearl Bailey & Jackie Mabley
EMPTY SPACE — Lyn with Jimmy Jones
TEA FOR TWO — Willie Smith Quintet
ME AND MY CHAUFFEUR — Memphis Minnie
AHI VIENE LA CONGA — Nilo Menendez

Hughes goes on to discuss other musicians and pieces he likes, offering alternative suggestions for readers who can’t get their hands on the original tracks: “If you haven’t heard Lloyd Glenn’s ‘Chica Boo’ read Dorothy Parker’s poetry… And if you’ve never heard Bessie Smith’s ‘Backwater Blues’ then study the Book of Job.”

The Chicago Defender‘s archive has been digitized, and should be available at any good research library. (I got my back issues from the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington.) Hughes’ column appears on page 11 of the paper.

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The German translation of The Mirage is now out in paperback

While I was finishing up Lovecraft Country, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag released the paperback edition of the German translation of The Mirage. I got my complimentary author’s copies in the mail yesterday, and they look great. (The cover design, by Michał Pawłowski, was also used on the Polish-language edition.)

In other news:

* Paul Constant, who used to write roughly half the content of the Seattle Stranger, has teamed up with novelist Martin McClellan to found The Seattle Review of Books.

* Ex Machina is out on DVD. If you missed it in the theater, it’s a really clever and thought-provoking A.I.-meets-Bluebeard’s-Wives story.

* It’s not as good as Ex Machina, but It Follows is an entertainingly creepy horror film that reminded me a lot of a recurring nightmare I used to have as a kid.

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Thoughts about The Hunger Games

I’d been resisting reading The Hunger Games, because the last time I tried a novel with this much hype behind it, an albino monk left my suspension of disbelief hemorrhaging uncontrollably. But with the movie coming out, Lisa and I decided to break down and buy a copy. She read it first, gave it a big thumbs up, and then after two chapters I was hooked, too.

So, short verdict: It’s a great read, deserving of the praise it’s gotten, and if you’ve been on the fence about trying it you should go ahead and take the leap.

Longer verdict: SPOILER ALERT!

I love the protagonist. Tough and competent without being superwoman, and refreshingly unsentimental. Katniss just feels right, psychologically. I especially liked the way the “love story” was handled, and the fact that even at the end, rather than do the predictable thing and fall for Peeta for real, Katniss remains, believably, in emotional limbo: “Dude, I’ve been way too busy keeping us both alive to even begin to sort out how I really feel about you. By the way, we’re not safe yet.”

The pacing was spot-on. There were no wasted scenes, and the pregame chapters were genuinely engaging, rather than just something to get through before the real fun could begin. The games themselves are an excellent addition to the dystopian future blood-sport subgenre.

I do feel that Collins ducked the nastier dilemmas afforded by her premise. For all the talk about what a “dark” story The Hunger Games is, it’s notable that the people Katniss kills are all Career Tributes—trained gladiators who chose to be in the games, and who are portrayed completely unsympathetically. Meanwhile, the innocent tributes all conveniently manage to die at the hands of third parties, or in accidents, sparing Katniss the need to take matters into her own hands.

Rue in particular felt like a wasted opportunity. She’s described, basically, as a dark-skinned version of Katniss’s little sister, and when Katniss proposed an alliance with her—kidding herself that she’d be able to maintain emotional distance—I assumed that was a set-up for a really, really agonizing choice somewhere around the novel’s climax. When Rue got killed not long afterwards, I was briefly relieved—I knew she had to die, and was glad that Katniss didn’t have to do anything truly despicable to make that happen—but of course my next thought was, Wait a minute, if you aren’t willing to follow that road to the end, why start down it at all? It was at that point I began to suspect that Katniss might escape the games without murdering anyone I cared about, which is comforting but also violates the storytelling principle that the most interesting drama is hiding in the part of the forest where you don’t want to go.

I was also mildly annoyed by the use of the Magical Medical Reset Button to cure Katniss’s deafness and other wounds when she finally got back to the Capitol. Again, there’s this question—If you don’t want your protagonist to have to deal with a permanent injury, why give her one in the first place?—but beyond that, it just felt wrong for her to come out of the games with no permanent physical scars. (Though I did like the creepy line about how the Gamemakers had been thinking about “altering” her.)

My desire for a more ruthless fictional universe aside, though, I really did enjoy the read, and I’m looking forward to getting into book two this weekend.

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