• Otter Views: A Reader’s Dozen

    Monday served up another warm, clear September afternoon, the latest in a string of afternoons as flawless as sapphires on a necklace.

    The soft slant of autumnal light invited outdoor activity: a hike through the pines, a surf session, a bike ride along the coast. But I’m in the middle of an interesting book right now, so I went right home and turned to page 219.

    If you share this affliction, the following recaps are for you. In no particular order, here are a few titles that amused, engaged or troubled me over the past year. (I’d add the one I’m reading now, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, but I don’t know how it turns out.)

    Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson. As a tight end for the Denver Broncos and others, Bay Area native Jackson played six seasons in the National Football League, twice the average NFL career. His witty, mordant memoir explores from a player’s perspective both the lure of the game and the many punishments it metes out. He rarely starred on the field, but Jackson is a stellar raconteur and gadfly.

    Wool by Hugh Howey. This started life as a series of stories posted on-line. Then it morphed into a novel, and now Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”) has bought the movie rights. Fans of speculative fiction should enjoy this ripping yarn of life deep underground after earth’s atmosphere turns toxic. Howey’s protagonist is a fearless lady mechanic. Will Sigourney Weaver get the part?

    The Circle by Dave Eggers. In this cautionary moral fable, San Francisco writer Dave Eggers follows one young woman’s rise through a Silicon Valley social media empire not unlike Apple or Google. He poses a timely question: what will happen when all is seen, recorded and archived? When everyone willingly “friends” Big Brother? Also recommended is Eggers’ latest novel, Your Fathers, Where Are They? set in the abandoned barracks at Fort Ord.

    The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I’m not a big romance reader, but this one snared me. The narrator is a very earnest genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who sets out to find a wife. The only hitch: dating candidates must first fill out a 36-page questionnaire. Rosie, of course, meets none of his requirements. Two other amusing titles along similar lines are Gabrielle Zevin’s sweet The Storied Life of A.J. Fikery and Jonathan Tropper’s ribald This Is Where I Leave You, now out as a film.

    The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. The lyric “John Brown’s body lies a moulderin’ in the grave” was about all I knew of the famous abolitionist until reading McBride’s National Book Award winner. Told from the perspective of a young black boy mistakenly taken up by Brown’s ragtag “army,” the novel recounts critical events that led to the Civil War. With double-edged parochial wit befitting Mark Twain, McBride examines racism and sexism through a 19th century lens.

    A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. The title derives from the medical world, the domain of two prominent characters in this dark and gripping war novel. Set in Chechnya, the book follows eight villagers swept up in Chechnya’s brutal conflicts with Russia over a 10-year span. Brilliantly plotted and superbly written, this reminded me of another unorthodox war story, Corelli’s Mandolin.

    The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Dickensian in scope and execution, Tartt’s coming-of-age epic opens with a lethal explosion in an art museum. Her dazed young protagonist staggers from the wreckage clutching a priceless Renaissance masterpiece, the “Goldfinch” of the title. His efforts to keep the theft secret lead to 900 pages of adventure, love, duplicity and betrayal. Tartt’s many characters and settings are indelible, making this a Great Expectations for our time.

    Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane. This falls somewhere along the continuum from Dave Eggers (see above) to Dan (Da Vinci Code) Brown. Jobless after a corporate buyout, Sloane’s funny, tech-savvy narrator takes a job in a very weird San Francisco bookstore. The only customers are black-cloaked figures trying to solve a 500-year-old codex. As the narrator enlists his high-tech friends in the quest, Google meets Guttenberg. Light and snarky.

    The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Named for her home town, Kushner’s young heroine Reno is a fearless motorcycle racer who hopes to become a film maker. Set in the 1970s, the novel follows Reno from Utah’s Bonneville salt flats to Man- hattan’s lower East Side and finally to Milan and Rome in Italy. Along the way, she encounters a vivid cast of daredevils, artists, poseurs, seducers, elitists and evildoers.

    And finally, since the red planet is back in the news this week, a plug for The Martian by Andy Weir. Imagine Robinson Crusoe or the Tom Hanks movie “Cast Away,” only this time, set on Mars. Accidentally stranded by his departing crewmates, a lone astronaut has to survive until a rescue ship can reach him. The catch: it could take four years. He will need some good books.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 26, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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