The City & The City by China Mieville

Imagine a drab, Eastern-bloc type of city side by side with a brighter, more prosperous city, with the border between them so undemarcated that people on one side of a street can be in Beszel and, on the other, in Ul Qoma, but where — in both places — it is a crime, a Breach, of unimaginable proportions to consciously notice people, shops, and restaurants in the street with you that belong to the other city. If you accidentally see them, you must immediately “unsee”. Travel from one city to the other is allowed only through the official border crossing checkpoint.

In this blend of crime fiction and speculative fiction by English author China Mieville, Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad in Beszel investigates the murder of a woman whose body was dumped in a rundown skate park along the border with Ul Qoma. While he follows leads to shadowy political organizations and academic archeologists rumored to have discovered proof of a legendary, original third city, Borlu is watched closely by the mysterious agents of Breach to see that none of the arcane laws and established protocols of the two cities are broken.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of alternative history, enjoy philosophical speculation about human behavior and government, or if you liked The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, you should try this novel, which is a fascinating exploration into national and cultural differences and what, in our common humanity, transcends them.

China Mieville is known more for writing fantasy and s/f, but don’t let that scare you off from trying this book, which is very realistic in style once you accept the basic premise. Check out the author’s comments on writing crime fiction at author John Scalzi’s Web site here.

Check for availability of The City & The City in the Old Colony Library Network here.

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

New Yorker reviewer James Wood beat me to reviewing The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, doing a much better job of it, of course. (Beware —contains some plot spoilers.) Like him, though, I was struck by how the jacket copy called The Privileges “an odyssey of a couple touched by fortune, changed by time, and guided above all else by their epic love for each other.” The Privileges is a compelling story of two narcissists with ambitions that coincide, whose physical beauty, family connections, and boldness ensure them money and power, but romantic love story? No.

The Privileges begins with the golden couple, Adam and Cynthia Morey,  getting married young, quickly discarding parents and their pasts; then leaps forward to the couple in their New York City apartment, dissatisfied with their stalled upward mobility — him, in the financial sector without an MBA; her, at home with two young children. Later, another leap, and the Moreys’ grown children become characters, young adults struggling in the cocoon of their parents’ now-immense wealth.
Adam and Cynthia Morey are fascinating, the way glittering-eyed cobras are. Were you to meet them in real life (in rarefied circles of New York philanthropy or finance) you wouldn’t really want to. And they would barely acknowledge your existence.
If you liked The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (whose blurb is prominently on the front cover), pick up this memorable novel (the author’s fifth) of characters seemingly headed full-tilt for self-destruction or, at least, comeuppance.
Jonathan Dee is a former senior editor of The Paris Review and teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and the New School.

The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs

Winter snow and ice getting you down? Try some humorous reading. Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs has made a niche for himself by practicing various extreme ways of life — to the exasperation of his wife, friends, and complete strangers — and thenwriting about them.

His last book, A Year of Living Biblically, was about trying to follow all the prescriptions and proscription in the Bible. Before that, he read the whole Encyclopedia Britannica, from A to Z, and sharing his newfound knowledge in The Know-It-All.

In The Guinea Pig Diaries, the author writes about, among other experiments in abnormal living, trying radical honesty for a month (in a chapter called “I Think You’re Fat”) and, for another month, abiding by all of George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (“What Would George Washington Do?”).
Here’s how the chapter on outsourcing (“My Outsourced Life”) begins:

“I really shouldn’t have to write this piece myself. I mean, why am I the one stuck in front of a computer terminal? All this tedious picking out of words on my laptop. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions. Sheesh. What a pain in my butt. Can’t someone else do it?”

Read a longer excerpt — and sample other memoirs– at SMITH Magazine here:
Excerpt: The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs | Memoirville

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