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fmagraphicIn July I joined the #Firemanalong, a group read hosted by Care’s Books and Pies and The Capricious Reader. The Fireman is the newest book from Joe Hill, son of Stephen King, about whom I’ve been most curious.

I was all set for this to be a new favorite, especially after reading the opening page, in which Hill cites as “inspiration”: J.K. Rowling, P.L. Travers, Julie Andrews … and Ray Bradbury. Excellent!

Hill has fun with his allusions, one moment citing Samuel Beckett and then MTV VJ Martha Quinn. There are also nods to Dumbledore, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Graham Greene, Mary Poppins, and, of course, zombies.

The Fireman starts out much like one of King’s novels in that it grabs you straightaway. It was an exciting and addictive page-turner … right until about page one hundred and forty-something, when it really slowed down. Considering the book was 747 pages, I wish Hill had kept up the thrill ride a bit longer.

The first part deals with an outbreak of a mysterious epidemic of “Dragonscale,” which causes its victims to self-combust. Hill offered a plausible and scientific explanation for the disease and that kept me invested.

Our heroine is a plucky nurse named Harper (after another of Hill’s favorite authors) who volunteers as a nurse and ultimately gets infected.

The scenes of mass hysteria and of the unraveling of society were believable and suspenseful. There’s a compelling, vivid urgency that makes you think, wow, this could happen. There are also several buzzy cameos: George Clooney, President Obama, and Glenn Beck.

fireman in boxIt wasn’t until Harper joined a sort of commune for the infected, Camp Wyndham, that the book stepped into the slow lane and became more of a morality tale. I felt Hill had pulled a bait-and-switch—I wanted more of the excitement that he had teased me with for over 100 pages.

Instead, I got lots and lots (and lots) of backstory! I don’t know why Hill decided to go the route of having all the subplots and complications relayed second-hand. Hill is a master of twists and turns, but this genius was somewhat diluted because instead of experiencing it … we had it retold by other characters. I like my suspense real-time.

In particular, the Harold Cross subplot and the prison story would have been so gripping to read as they occurred. I cannot think why we had to hear about them postmortem? I wanted to be in there with the prisoners, looking around and fearful of what might happen next. What did happen would have been much more chilling to me if I didn’t already know who would survive. Also, the Mazz and Father Story question would have been spookier and more complicated if I had first known and identified with Mazz.

The Harold Cross thread reminded me of something from 24—the stray character who makes a series of judgment errors that escalate. I just wish I had gotten to experience that paranoia and tension. Likewise, I would have cared more about Cross’s fate.

Even if Hill were not King’s son I would be contrasting this to Under the Dome, in which King had several subplots spinning out at once via many lead characters. Michael Crichton also did this very well.

Since the action was elsewhere, the whole camp kibbutz storyline got stale for me. I wanted to know more about what was going on beyond their hideaway. The state of Maine had burned to a crisp, but what about the rest of the country? The rest of the world?

The camp dynamics of, say, who got soggy oatmeal versus who got fancy coffeecake seemed a bit trifling when there was a worldwide catastrophe going on.

Also, I felt a bit let down by the ending. I’m not asking for things to be tidied up and happy. I loved how Christopher Nolan tantalized us with the conclusions of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. (I even loved the LOST finale!)

But, after 747 pages, I do expect some sort of pay off. This felt like it ended midstream with little resolution and almost no reveals as to what was next for Harper—or for the world. It was like ending halfway through Homer’s Odyssey and just as frustrating as the fuzzy, fade-to-black of The Sopranos.

Having said all this, I must add that Hill is a very good writer and (when he wants) can make for some addictive reading. If he had presented his subplots (with their creepy twists) firsthand and given them the same sense of urgency as the first one hundred pages, then The Fireman would likely have been *the* blockbuster, can’t-put-down book of the summer. Hill definitely has that potential.

Lots of the #Firemanalong readers loved the book! They posted all sorts of shrewd observations and fun reactions on twitter. Indeed, for me, the #Firemanalong was the best part of this read.

 

#Firemanalong at Care’s Books and Pies

#Firemanalong at The Capricious Reader

#Firemanalong on twitter

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SPQR on a manhole in Rome.

SPQR on a manhole in Rome.

On my first visit to Rome, what most astounded me was that “S.P.Q.R.” was actually imprinted on manholes in the street. I had expected to be awed by a sense of antiquity from the Coliseum, the Forum, and the many ruins sprinkled about the city. But, for me, standing right on the famous Roman phrase that I had studied in school was a palpable ‘history comes alive’ moment.

So I was most eager to delve into Mary Beard’s new book on ancient Rome, SPQR.

Note, this is a political history of Rome. There is an in-depth look at Pompey the Great, and also his namesake city of Pompeii, but very little about Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. Beard doesn’t bother with the importance of Roman Concrete or the development of aqueducts (covered extensively elsewhere). Instead she focuses on social and political innovations.

For example, while conquered peoples were typically brought back to Rome as slaves, Beard explains that a large number of these slaves would be freed within their own lifetimes. Some would even gain citizenship, living out their days in the city of Rome or returning to native lands.

Indeed, the definition and scope of Roman Citizenship continually evolved and expanded, adding to the cosmopolitan mix of the city and the empire. This idea of shared citizenship—that one could be a citizen of a province and also a citizen of Rome—was a totally new concept that fueled military success. This countered a longstanding tradition of parochial allegiance to city states or regions, setting a precedent that continues in nations today.

Beard also gives us a fresh look at the Romus and Remulus myth and how this founding story of fratricide was mirrored in the repeated violence of Roman politics. Well before Julius Caesar, murder was a method of the Roman Republic. One election was broken up when a cabal of angry senators bludgeoned Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters. Sulla marched on Rome with an army (twice), sparking a civil war that killed civilians in the streets and senators sitting in the senate house. Even Pompey the Great was decapitated by supporters of the up-and-coming Caesar. “His life lasted longer than his power,” Beard quotes Cicero.

This only intensified with the rise of the Roman Empire. Assassination was the de facto method of succession. “Vespasian in 79 CE was the only emperor in the first two dynasties to die without any rumors of foul play surfacing.”

SPQR coverIndeed, SPQR at times reads like a House of Cards take on Roman history, as Beard narrates with suspense the political wranglings, betrayals, and changing power players over the centuries. I found all of this particularly compelling—and relevant—in light of the recent political upheaval and shifting alliances in the United Kingdom following the Brexit vote.

Despite the intensity of her subject matter, Beard keeps it lively and readable.

She reminds us that Commodus was the emperor portrayed in the popular movie and Oscar Best Picture winner Gladiator. We also learn that famed British Celtic warrior Boudicca (who led an uprising against the Romans) is buried near Platform 10 of Kings Cross station. Nor is Beard too scholarly to resist calling Arminius “Herman the German.”

My only complaint is that, despite the title, Beard doesn’t really addresss the phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” aka S.P.Q.R., except for a brief mention in the introduction.

I’m still curious about the provenance of this fabled motto, which means “the Senate and the People of Rome” and how much it was really averred in its day.

Nevertheless, SPQR is an informative, fascinating, and engrossing read which I highly recommend.

Mary Beard, Cambridge Professor & Classics Scholar

Mary Beard’s Blog: A Don’s Life

Mary Beard on Twitter: @wmarybeard

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I love my sleep mask.

Sleep mask and comfy pillows.

Arianna Huffington dedicates her new book, The Sleep Revolution, to “all those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Here, here! We love (and need) sleep, but so many of us don’t seem to get enough of it. It’s brutal to walk around in a sleep-starved haze.

There was a time when I thought of sleep as a luxury, and, like many people, I managed to get by with attitude … and coffee.

Eventually, I woke up (pun intended) and realized that sleep is a magic tool we are given to help us confront challenges and pursue our goals.

Huffington gives a pretty scary example of how she collapsed from exhaustion and shattered her cheek bone. That was the epiphany which sparked her on a mission of sleep evangelism.

Her book looks at sleep via scientific, historical, medical, and cultural perspectives. Most of the information isn’t new, but—much like her namesake website—Huffington aggregates it all in a very readable manner, with fascinating tidbits perfect for cocktail party banter. For example, sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy a whopping $63 billion annually. And, before artificial light, our ancestors slept in two blocks instead of one long night. She also cites evidence that links improper sleep to maladies from diabetes to Alzheimer’s to weight gain.

The Sleep Revolution serves as a call to action in the face of what Huffinton calls “our current sleep crisis.” She argues that this is a serious health issue that we should address just like any health issue. Indeed, it’s scary how many people complain, or even boast, about lack of sleep. How did insomnia become our default?

Huffington also offers strategies and advice for “mastering sleep.” One of the best tips is making it a comfortable ritual—cosy pjs, lavender tea, a hot bath. This sounds corny, but if you practice compartmentalizing work thoughts and stressful items away from bedtime, it will become a habit. I went from dreading bedtime (anxiety that I wouldn’t nod off) to looking forward to it each night.

Still, Huffington reminds us, just because snoozing can be a pleasurable routine, we must remember that it is a necessity—not an indulgence.

The book argues for a new approach to sleep in the workplace—a rise in naps and nap rooms and a pullback on the 24/7 cycle of work-related texts and emails.

sleep revolution coverHuffington contends that getting the full forty winks is crucial to success. “Sleep is my weapon,” she quotes Jennifer Lopez. Other prominent sleep proponents include supermodel Karlie Kloss, tennis god Roger Federer, and investment mogul Warren Buffet. Speaking of business, there’s a whole chapter on successful men and women who pointedly get eight hours each night. Oh, and the legendary Tom Brady? He goes to bed at 8:30 pm.

I highly recommend this informative and fascinating read. It’s sparking a dialogue and—I hope—a new attitude toward the urgency of proper sleep. Bravo to Arianna for shining the spotlight on this issue. It’s proactive, not lazy, to get your sleep!

If you want to get more zzzs, this book will help motivate you. And if you are in the “sleep is for wimps” camp, it might just open your eyes … or help you close them.

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Very Long EngagementI greatly enjoyed A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot, but for me it was a bit of a bait-and-switch book. It starts off very much like a suspense novel, with tension and mounting dread. I found myself completely riveted by the first chapter in which French soldiers are marching through one of the First World War’s infamous trenches.

“Watch out for the wire.”

Indeed, Japrisot is known for his crime writing and has been nicknamed the “Graham Greene of France.”

But then, the novel takes on a more quiet and reflective tone—somewhat the inverse of say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which begins with more reserved prose and moves to breathless action at Dunkirk.

I had a little trouble shifting gears with Japrisot. I flew through the opening scene, and then it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the rest of the book. This is not a subway read but is best enjoyed if you can spend some time sinking into it.

Overall, I found A Very Long Engagement to be rewarding, moving, and thought-provoking—somewhat reminiscent of a Marcel Pagnol novel in the sense that it offers a glimpse into this fleeting, evolving moment in France. The characters are trying to put their lives back together while dealing with grief, hardship, and the aftershocks of the Great War. This novel feels especially resonant as we head into the 100th anniversary of the start of that conflict this July.

Now I am eager to see the film.

Now, I am eager to see the film.

A thread of mystery pulls us through the story, as the heroine Mathilde searches to find out what happened to her fiancé Manech, who has been reported “killed in the line of duty.” She goes on a scavenger hunt, sifting through a tangle of clues gleaned by word-of-mouth, letters from survivors, ads placed in newspapers, and the work of a private detective. I won’t offer any other plot details, except to say that the ending offered a satisfying resolution that was not predictable.

I went back to reread the first chapter and found that I had missed this lovely, layered transition from the trenches to Mathilde, which also somewhat encapsulates the essence of this book:

“There was still that wire, mended whenever it broke with whatever came to hand, a wire that snaked its way through all the trenches, through all the winters, now up at the top, now down at the bottom, across all the lines …

Mathilde has seized hold of it. She holds it still. It guides her into the labyrinth from which Manech has not returned.”

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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I just loved the cover!

I picked Arabian Nights & Days by Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz to start off the Dewey’s Readathon in April, which fell on a drizzly, cheerless morning. As I love to travel to exotic and faraway places via books, I thought a trip to medieval Arabia would offer a nice antidote to such a rainy day.

Mahfouz wrote this as both a sequel and a tribute to the classic One Thousand and One Nights, and the book picks up the day after Shahrzad has told her last story. Though billed as novel, it’s really a collection of interwoven short stories that feature many of the same characters as the original fables. I do suggest reading them in order as there are a progression of subplots.

Though the stories are told as episodic vignettes, I found myself invested in the fates of the characters—particularly of the families of both Sannaan al-Gamali and Gamasa al-Bulti—as they continued to make cameos. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Shahrzad and her sister, Dunyazad, the only two female characters that are even remotely developed.

Despite the enchanting prose, the magical realism of his setting, and familiar characters like Aladdin and Sinbad, these stories feature somewhat dark and jarring plotlines. It felt a bit like the jolt one might get by turning to Grimm’s Fairy Tales after seeing the sugar-coated Disney versions of Snow White and Cinderella (and Aladdin for that matter).

Except for one charming love story, Mahfouz uses his allegorical world to spotlight modern-day problems such as police corruption, dirty politics, unjust rulers, greedy power struggles, assassinations, and the misfortunes of the downtrodden. Genies here do not seem to grant wishes but rather wreak havoc on feckless humans, forcing them to do things against their will.

“We love what you love, but between us and people is a barrier of destinies,” explains the genie Singam.

I’m sure there are many layers and allusions that I missed because I am not versed in One Thousand and One Nights—so I would especially recommend this book to readers who have an appreciation for that classic. Still, I enjoyed being transported by Mahfouz’s alluring prose to the fragrant courtyard of the Café of Emirs, to eavesdrop on conversations and people-watch vicariously.

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

Dewey’s Read-a-thon April 2014

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other typistThe Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell is a twisty, noir page-turner. Fans of Gillian Flynn will definitely enjoy this book, which feels like Gone Girl set in the 1920s. Actually, strike that. The plot is totally different, nor is The Other Typist so dark. It’s snazzy!

What I mean is that Rindell also offers us an unreliable (and rather unsettling) narrator, Rose Baker, who spins out an alluring, slow-boiled plot.

Rindell sets the story in a New York City police precinct in 1923, when women have only recently been brought in as typists. I won’t divulge any other plot details, as the reveals will be best enjoyed firsthand.

The writing crackles with a sort of stylized, art-deco feel:

“We were headed into the long black nights of winter, and although it was only four o’clock, outside a cloudy sky was already turning from ash to soot. And yet inside the office there was still something vital, the peculiar sort of kindling that comes from human activity buzzing away in the falling dark of dusk. The electric lights still glowed, and the office thrummed with the sounds of telephones, voices, papers, footsteps, and the syncopated clacking of many typewriters all being operated at once.”

I was a tad concerned when I saw The Great Gatsby cited in the author’s acknowledgements page. That is sacred text. However, this is not an overblown attempt at replicating Fitzgerald. (Phew.) Though this would be a good pick for those who enjoyed the new film version of The Great Gatsby.

The Other Typist reads much like a paean to film noir classics of the 1940s and 1950s. At one point Rose says of another character, “Gib and I were building up a slow tolerance for each other, the way some people slowly build a tolerance for a specific kind of poison.”

Overall, The Other Typist is clever, atmospheric, and unpredictable. There’s a lot of buzz online about the ending—so avoid the spoilers!

The Other Typist

Suzanne Rindell

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Jane Austen Game TheoristWe all know that reading Jane Austen is good for you. Scientists at Stanford proved this last fall with MRI scans that showed reading Austen’s work boosted neural activity and even increased blood flow to the brain. Now, it turns out, we Janeites have also been unwittingly indulging in sophisticated Game Theory Economics.

Yes, Game Theory—the very discipline which garnered John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame) the Nobel Prize in Ecnomics.

UCLA professor Michael Suk-Young Chwe argues this in his new book, Jane Austen Game Theorist.

Instead of bothering with chalk boards and lengthy variable-laden formulas, Austen imparts economic wisdom via the subtext of Marianne Dashwood’s swoons—indeed, Chwe cites this as an example. Who knew that while I was reading about Fanny Price deciding which necklace to wear, I was actually engaging in “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation.”

As I reread Pride and Prejudice for the 200th Anniversary, I will be subconsciously learning the mathematical analysis of strategic thinking. Just like when moms puree broccoli to hide in brownies. And all this time I thought I hated math.

Seriously though, tremendous kudos to Chwe for giving us yet another way to examine Austen’s work. If more economists read Austen, perhaps we could finally settle the debate over the Laffer Curve.

Chwe’s emphasis, however, is more on the political ramifications of Austen’s strategic thinking, and I must say I am fascinated by his approach. According to Chwe, Jane’s observations and theories can be applied to the Cold War stalemate, as well as to military mistakes made in both Vietnam and Iraq. And that’s just what I have gleaned from reviews and excerpts … I cannot wait to actually get my hands on this book!

Janeites, this would be a perfect pick for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013.

All this does make me feel better about myself, mathematically speaking. Even though I struggled with trigonometry in high school, I made it through each of Austen’s books twice so I must have actually been a math prodigy. I’m also feeling rather smug about opting out of ‘Intro to Economics’ in college for a course that compared Northanger Abbey to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (No joke—great class!)

One can’t help but feel bad for those poor souls who actually studied economics. Why bother with the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times when you can just read Emma? Or Jane Austen, Game Theorist?

Given that prominent economists like Thomas Schelling (Nobel 2005) endorse this book, I do wonder if the all-knowing Jane also offers clues as to how I should invest my IRA? I will have to keep this in mind as I dig into Jane Austen, Game Theorist, and when I reread Persuasion.

Economics, Game Theory, and Jane Austen via PBS NewsHour

Game Theory: Jane Austen Had it First via The New York Times

More Austen on WordHits…

The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks: Boring to Brilliant

How Did I Not Know about Marvel’s Pride & Prejudice

Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

So Glad Jane Austen Made Me Do It

A Joyous Season for Janeites

Spoiler Alert: This Book Has No Ending

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