Books Completed in August

1. Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Echo
2. We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead, edited by Dawn Keetley
3. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
4. The Essential Edgar Allan Poe (audio book) by Edgar Allan Poe
5. Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz
6. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line: Veronica Mars #1, by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham7.
7. The Science of Herself, Plus… by Karen Joy Fowler

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month:
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
• Blue (poems) by George Elliott Clarke
Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, edited by Rose Fox
• The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

REVIEWS:

1. Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Echo
This is one of those books I feel it should have enjoyed more than I did. It’s an incredibly intelligent book of Templar secrets and conspiracy theories. However, it didn’t quite work for me.

The story involves three friends work at a publishing house that is used to seeing manuscripts exploring and supposedly revealing the secrets of the Templars and other occult sects. When a man comes to tell them he has discovered a secret code, they figure he is mad like many of the others and send him on his way. Several days later he disappears under mysterious circumstances. Inspired by the mystery, the friends begin to spin a story based on the texts they’ve read, inventing the Templar Plan. It’s a game, a fake. Or so it seems.

The premise sounds exciting, but it was bogged down and drawn out. Around 90% of the book is in dialog between the three friends or between the narrator and other characters, talking history, theories, counter theories, myths, and so forth about the Templars, Rosecrutians, and others. Hundreds and hundreds of pages, so many facts an dates and names with periodic untranslated phrases in Latin and French, so much that I would sometimes grow glassy eyed while reading and facts seemed the blur together. I couldn’t keep it all straight. I like my history books to read like stories; this is a novel that reads like a history textbook.

Other than the narrator, I never full connected with or cared much about the characters and even the narrator I wasn’t that much into. Any threat or tension was buried under the mountain of information. The Plan created by the three friends doesn’t even start to take place until over halfway through the book. By the time the danger starts to really show itself and actual action becomes mixed in, it’s almost too little too late. The climax felt anticlimactic and it all seemed more work than it was worth.

It’s clear that Echo is a scholar, because the amount of research that had to have gone into this book boggles the mind. I know of at least one friend who loves this book and I can see why people like it. But ultimately it was not for me.

2. We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead, edited by Dawn Keetley
This collection of academic essays explores the nature of humanity — and their differences or similarities to the undead zombies in AMC’s The Walking Dead (one of my favorite TV shows). A couple of these essays are intellectually dense to the point of being obtuse, but most are readable and present some fascinating interpretations of the show. Here are few of the essays that stood out for me.

Steven Pokornowski in his essay “Burying the Living with the Dead” compares zombies to viruses and the external battle of humans to survive in the face of them to the human immune system, which doesn’t always work at an optimal level. He writes, “Just as immune can slip into autoimmune, the sanction of violence in self defense can devolve into generalized violence.” In his discussion of biopolitics and social justice he looks at how bare existence with with nothing more meaningful to love for leads to a survivalist system of exclusion. “In the logic of survival, the drive for security for one group of people often comes at the expense of another group.”

“Walking Tall or Walling Dead?” by P. Ivan Young presented an amusing and fascinating comparison of The Walking Dead with the cowboy myth, particularly in the 1953 movie Shane. He uses Rick (with his sheriff hat and horseback ride across the apocalypse) and Shane (as an inversion of the 1953) movie character of the same name to the honorable cowboy image of the silver screen.

“Rest in Pieces” by Laura Kremmel discusses the importance and changing parameters if ritual in world where the line between dead and living is not clearly defined.

It’s interesting to think of a zombie apocalypse as a kind of utopia, Chris Boehm does in “Apocalyptic Utopia.” He describes the zombies as being the force that erases the old flawed society and allows for a new society to be built, with Rick as the idealistic figure trying to hold to the promise of a new world.

“Zombie Time” by Gwyneth Peaty looks at zombies and the survivors in terms of their relation to time, notably that they have none. “The zombies in The Walking Dead represent a form of monstrous timelessness that is not infinite time but an infinite lack of time… It is perhaps fitting that these zombies are not the energetic, hyper-mobile kind, but the more traditional shufflers. They do not run; there is no need to hurry, for they have all the time in the world.” She shows how watches and a sense of time running out are continually revealed in the series.

And, of course, in my love for slow, shamblers, I have to quote from Dave Beisecker’s Afterword: “We see why it’s actually important to both Romero and Kirkman that, at least individually, zombies are as slow and as they humans are. That we can eventually fall to such a mindless horde ultimately says much more about our human frailties than it does about theirs.”

3. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Discussed elsewhere.

4. The Essential Edgar Allan Poe (audio book) by Edgar Allan Poe
As a teenager, I used to list Edgar Allan Poe as one of my favorites, which looking back was kind of disingenuous, since I only ever read “The Raven,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and those because they were assigned in school. Though I loved with these stories, I never really reached for his work for pleasure. It was always too difficult to get into.

This audio book pulls together some of Poe’s greatest hits, both stories and poems, as well as a good, short biography. I found listening to Poe a great way to approach his stories. It really helped me get into the stories, though it didn’t work as well for poems (which may have in part been due to the reader).

“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” were by far the most readable. Each are dark, thrilling stories.

“The Facts in the Case of Monsieur Valdemar” was also fascinating, involving a case in which a man hypnotized a corpse. It was strange and horrifying.

“Enjoying The Murders of Rue Morgue,” feature a representation of the brilliant detective, who recognizes details and makes deductions no one else notices, similar to Sherlock. The murders are brutal and the reveal is strange. This is quite a good one.

“The Premature Burial” felt very much like a memoir with an introduction about the nature of fear and a historic look at premature burials in specific. There is nothing fantastical about the story and it was a little slow, but it was interesting.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Mask of the Red Death” were the headrest to follow. I wasn’t that into them.

After finally getting around to reading a good chunk of Poe’s work, he’s not my favorite, but his work is certainly worth a read.

5. Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz
This was a fascinating magical fish story, in which Rudy moves to an island in order to try to save his younger brother’s life. The island is empty of teenagers his own age, as everyone there is seeking the same magic cure that his family is. It leaves him lonely and wandering, and his wandering leads him to discover a fish boy named Teeth. (So refreshing to have a merman story!) He is drawn into a friendship with Teeth, which could endanger his brother’s life.

This book does an excellent job mixing the modern world with a true fair tale feel. It also handles Rudy’s emotions well, showing how he at once longs for his old life and his boredom and at the same time his deep, deep love for his brother. He’s a brilliantly crafted character.

The book delves into some dark territories, but evades easy answers or solutions. The ending left me feeling a little heartbroken. I will definitely be picking up more books by this author.

6. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line: Veronica Mars #1, by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
My sister bought this for me because we both loved the. Veronica Mars TV show and movie. The first book in the new line of novels occurs several months after the movie. Veronica is working at her father’s detective office while her dad recovers from his injuries (he’s not happy about her current line of work).

The novel is right on tone with the TV show and managed to transition into adulthood well. Popular characters from the show crop up here and there (almost like a seedy Where’s Waldo), and I could hear their voices in my head as I was reading.

While I’m sure this might be a bit lite for avid mystery readers, I found the mystery interesting with a good set of twists along the way. The book does a good job of filling the hole for those who still long for the return of the show.

7. The Science of Herself, Plus… by Karen Joy Fowler
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this little book. I didn’t know Fowler (best known for the The Jane Austen Book Club wrote science fiction until I read this book. It provides a set of stories and nonfiction essays.

“The Science of Herself” provides a biography of Mary Anning, who became known for being and expert of fossils, digging them out lyme cliffs under treacherous conditions. She kept detailed research about the pieces she dug up and sold, even positing her own theories. Jane Austen is discussed in comparison because she visited Lyme and because Anning would not have made it into Austen’s novels. A fascinating read.

“The Motherhood Statement” discusses the exploration of motherhood in science fiction novels an called for more such discussions to be made.

“The Pelican Bar” is a subtly fantastical story about girl sent away by her parents to be “fixed”. The tale is dark and bleak and so, so good.

“More Exuberant Then is Strictly Tasteful” is an interview with a random set of questions that didn’t flow well. They jumped around too much into too many random territories for my taste.

“The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man” is a great coming of age story. A man remembers the year he played baseball, revealing how his mom changed the story to suite her needs.

I have three or four more books in this “Plus…” Series and I’m very curious what they will reveals.