Posts Tagged ‘Robin Sloan’

A few year’s ago I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. When I saw Sourdough at a used bookstore in New Haven a few weeks ago, on the $1 cart, no less, I thought it looked like fun. I’m about to study research methods for a solid week so my brain needed something fun. Sourdough was as predicted.

To be clear, fun does not mean lightweight. This is an enjoyable, fast paced read but it examines some big questions: does technology have a place in the way we produce food and nourish ourselves? Is organic, farm to table food part of the solution or part of the problem? What about technology? How do we determine the value of work? What makes a good life?

Lois Clary, Sloan’s heroine, is a brilliant programmer who lands a coveted job at a tech startup in San Francisco. She moves there knowing no one and works such long hours she doesn’t even have time to cook. But she finds a Lois club like the one she and her grandmother belonged to (just what is sounds like, women named Lois), and she grows fond of the two brothers who run a small take out operation illegally from their apartment making a strange, spicy soup and bread. She learns to enjoy their strange music and food, and then they leave for Europe, gifting her with a crock of sourdough starter.

Lois stays in touch with one of the brothers via email. She tells him about learning to bake bread, he tells her the history of his people (a fictional group called the Magz), his family, and his dream of opening a restaurant. She works and bakes, and then she gets a chance to participate in a strange underground market in an old missile storage bunker. She meets a whole community of people doing unusual and interesting things with food. She gets into the market because her bread is weird and because she programs robotic arms.

The rest of the novel is the story of how her view of work, baking, and life evolve as she becomes more committed to the market and its mysterious but anonymous founder, and more convinced that she can solve the puzzle of her life the way she solves the puzzle of teaching a robotic arm to crack an egg — “not by adding code, but by taking it away.” She creates a technical “blink” in which her robot “was no longer second-guessing its second guesses a thousand times a second.” She calls her code Confidence. And this work, along with her bread-baking and her new friends, convinces her to live more boldly herself.

A lovely, fun, and thoughtful book. If you like Marie Semple, you’ll enjoy Robin Sloan.

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So after reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore I decided to spend a little more reading time in San Francisco and chose a book Boston Bibliophile mentioned recently, San Francisco Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Marie wrote about this line from “Challenges to Young Poets:” “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” Good advice.

This little volume is the first in the San Francisco Poet Laureate series published by City Lights Foundation. I’m not a Ferlinghetti aficionado and I’ve never read a full collection of his work but I enjoyed this brief book. It opens with his inaugural address as the city’s poet laureate, a post he held from 1998-2000. It’s interesting that Ferlinghetti sees a city gentrifying and losing its culture, whereas Robin Sloan portrays San Francisco in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore as plenty off-beat, artsy, & funky (albeit well-off).

The poems in this volume are like postcards, giving the reader small, intimate sketches of the city Ferlinghetti loves, and which has been his muse. I especially liked “The Changing Light,” about the beauty of the sun and fog and sea light in San Francisco; and “Dog,” in which a dog takes the reader on a tour of the city’s streets, “investigating everything/ without benefit of perjury/a real realist/with a real tale to tell/and a real tail to tell it with . . . .”

“Baseball Canto,” is probably the best baseball poem I’ve read and is also about race and class and the American Dream and the giving way of the old guard in literature to new voices that aren’t all male and white. Really. Read it, you’ll see what I mean. And “A North Beach Scene” is a painting in a poem, so vivid.

I got to wondering whether there are other book series devoted to poets laureate and I couldn’t find any. Nor did I find a consolidated list of cities with a poet laureate. I did learn on Wikipedia that not all U.S. states have one. And now I need to finish my lunchtime musings and get on with the rest of the day here in the bookconscious household. If anyone knows of links to poets laureate of cities please leave a comment.

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The November Mindful Reader** column is up at the Concord Monitor‘s website. My main review covers B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger and I also wrote short reviews of The Paternity Test by Michael LowenthalMy Escapee by Corinna Vallianatos, and Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography by Dana Wilde.

It was a busy weekend in the bookconscious household but I did read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane.  Clay Jannon, a laid off art school graduate in San Francisco, stumbles across a help wanted sign at a strange “vertical bookstore” in which some of the shelves are accessed by climbing ladders. Mr. Penumbra, the store’s owner, hires him for the overnight shift.

Clay soon realizes that Penumbra’s is actually two stores: a conventional bookstore in one small section, and the vertical stacks or “Waybacklist,” strange old books that appear to be written in code. “Customers” who ask for these books by name are members (of what he’s not sure at first) who borrow volumes, as Clay figures out, in a particular order.

With his own background in web design and the advice and influence of his friends (a geeky start-up CEO whose company specializes in virtual breast animations for video games, an artist who designs strange and wonderful stuff for films, a Google genius who believes the company will eventually unlock the secret to eternal life) Clay figures out how to create a digital visualization of the store and reveals a strange pattern in the regular customers’ book borrowing. Penumbra is pleased, but promptly disappears.

Clay and his pals track him to New York where they get to the heart of a secret society, the Unbroken Spine, which is covered by a front company, Festina Lente (motto of the Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius, who is the group’s messiah). I don’t want to give away too much because this in an ingenious story, but suffice to say our heroes embark on a quest and the rest of the book involves the resolution and results of said quest.

Can they protect Mr. Penumbra, who embraces Clay’s technological innovation at the risk of alienating the Unbroken Spine’s old fashioned leader? Can they harness technology to solve what 500 years of scholarly effort have not? You’ll have to read to find out — and it will be a pleasurable few hours. Clay has an artist’s eye for detail.

Here he describes Penumbra’s codex in the Unbroken Spine’s subterranean library: “This book is beautiful. It’s taller and skinnier than its neighbors, with super-stiff binding boards. Its dimensions remind me more of an oversized children’s book than an occult diary. The cover is pale blue, exactly the color of Penumbra’s eyes, with some of the same luminescence, too: the color shifts and glimmers . . . . It’s soft under my fingers.”  And that’s just an example picked at random; this novel is filled with rich descriptions of things real and imagined.

Books coexist in this novel with their high tech cousins, parts of the story are set in a dusty bookstore and others in Google’s campus. Community is both Clay’s ragtag tribe and the whole world — Hadoop‘s “distributed computing” and a hacker site run by a mysterious person called Grumble are important to the success of Clay’s quest. There are references to history and phrases in Latin as well as descriptions of all kinds of futuristic research at Google. Clay’s favorite childhood fantasy trilogy is key to the story and so is advanced computing.

Sloan’s joy in presenting the old and the new (and even the not yet conceived) as complimentary forces for good makes this novel a very happy one — there is some tension, and a couple of characters face disappointment, but overall it’s a book that will make you feel good about human progress. In Sloan’s fictional world there is no real villain. If there’s a flaw here it’s that everyone seems pretty darn smart, but then maybe Sloan adheres to the idea that everyone has something to be brilliant at if given the chance.

Spend some time in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It’s a delightful place to hang out for a little while.


** Column text as it appeared in print:

‘The Art Forger’ keeps the mystery going

By DEB BAKER The Mindful Reader

Monday, November 12, 2012
(Published in print: Sunday, November 11, 2012)

Boston novelist B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger kept me up late wondering what would happen to Claire Roth, the deliciously complicated character at the center of this “literary thriller.” Last summer I read Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist, about the unsolved theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Shapiro doesn’t get into the heist itself but imagines what might happen if one of the stolen works surfaced.

Claire is a young artist scarred by a professional and personal scandal involving her relationship with a well-known painter. She’s been shut out of the art world and works as a “certified Degas copyist” for Reproductions.com. Prominent art dealer Aiden Markel visits her studio and offers her a solo show at his Boston gallery.

The catch? She has to copy one of the Gardner’s missing works.

Aiden promises to pay her more than she’s ever made, sell her copy and return the original to the museum. Claire is nervous about the scheme but can’t resist the opportunity to redeem her reputation and see the stolen art returned.

Aiden brings a large Degas entitled After the Bath to her studio. She dives into the work, studying Degas paintings, pouring over his sketchbooks, and analyzing the work of great forgers of the past. It doesn’t take Claire long to realize that After the Bath is a fake.

But is it the painting that was stolen? And if so, was Isabella Stewart Gardner aware of the forgery?

 Shapiro weaves together details about painting, art forgery, museums and galleries with her absorbing story and a fictionalized account of Isabella Gardner’s relationship with Edgar Degas.

Her writing is vivid and entertaining, illuminating the mysterious and rarified art world and how human nature – particularly a desire to protect one’s reputation – can overwhelm logic, professionalism and even morality.

A few of the minor characters are somewhat typecast, and Aiden is a bit flat at times, but the storytelling made up for these flaws and book clubs would enjoy The Art Forger.

‘The Paternity Test’
by Michael Lowenthal

Former University Press of New England editor Michael Lowenthal’s new novel is a searing psychological drama. A gay couple, Stu and Pat, hire a married Brazilian immigrant, Debora, as a surrogate mother for their baby.

The novel probes the emotional turmoil of a couple trying to become parents, as well as the consequences of following sexual and emotional impulses, what it means to be committed, and whether domestic habit can seal the cracks in a relationship.

While Pat and Stu are the heart of the story, Lowenthal deftly draws their family and friends and Debora’s family into the tension.

The ending is anything but neat and tidy, as Lowenthal leaves readers with plenty to ponder.

‘My Escapee’
by Corinna Vallianatos

Jhumpa Lahiri selected this short fiction collection by Vermont author Corinna Vallianatos for the Grace Paley Prize. The characters in these stories, mostly women, are almost all acting counter to the world’s expectations of them.

Vallianatos explores their inner lives, exposing their choices and desires, the hard edges and soft comforts of their lives.

Age and illness, infirmity and death, love and betrayal, motherhood and youthful indecision – Vallianatos sculpts this ordinary stuff of life into stories that make common human frailties beautiful.

‘Nebulae: a Backyard Cosmography’
by Dana Wilde

This self-published book of essays collects Wilde’s Bangor Daily News “Amateur Naturalist” columns with longer pieces.

Besides making astronomy and physics clear to the layman, Wilde muses on science history, psychology, philosophy and mythology.

His observations about the emotions star-gazing induces – “awe, strangeness, fear, humility, and sometimes dreams of untold infinities” – and the strangeness of space-time are intriguing, as are the parallels he draws between contemporary science and ancient knowledge.

Some passages are quite beautiful, such as this one describing late afternoon sunlight on fall leaves: “The angle of the light pries something loose. The mind finds itself inside those shafts and colors. . . . For a moment there is a sense that this autumn afternoon is the whole of autumn, all autumns from childhood up through autumns yet to come.”

A few pieces seemed a bit too similar, but this is a well-written, erudite and interesting collection.

(Deb Baker can be reached at mindfulreader@yahoo.com)

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