Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cornucopia of October Mini Reviews

It's been a helluva month — multi-day trips to four cities (Vegas, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New Orleans) in a span of 18 days. That's really good for reading, but not great for writing about reading. So here are a bunch of mini-reviews to catch you up on the half-dozen books I plowed through amidst bad airport food, better wedding food, and the best NOLA food. It's a pretty eclectic group. Enjoy!

Books I Loved
Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson — This utterly fantastic novel (one of my favorites of the year) is about a social worker named Pete Snow in the early '80s in rural Montana. When he meets a kid who seems to live in the woods with his father — an ardently anti-government roughneck — he does his best to empathize with the kid and his father amidst his own troubled family life. He's left his cheating, booze-addled wife and soon, his own teenage daughter runs away. This is a novel that will stay with you long after you've finished.

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell — I'm gearing up to tackle Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks by delving into his backlist a bit. This 2006 novel is a year in the life of a boy named Jason Taylor, as he tries to navigate hallway politics at his school, bullies, girls, fighting parents, and a stammering problem. It's an often funny coming-of-age story that includes plenty of Mitchell's flourishes of wit and profundity. There are so many highlight-able passages, but my favorite is describing February as "not so much a month as a twenty-eight-day-long Monday morning."

Books I Liked, With Minor Reservations
Brutal Youth, by Anthony Breznican —  This novel about a Catholic high school is absurd in both the good and bad senses of the word. The kids at the slowly failing St. Mikes have no qualms, no conscience, and no hesitation towards cruelty whatsoever. And neither does their evil pastor, Father Mercedes, who wants to close the school to cover up his own secrets. You have to suspend disbelief a bit to go along with some of the important plot points here. As well, you have to ignore a few first-novel foibles (everyone seems to have "meaty hands," e.g., and dialogue could use a bit of a spit-shine), but if you can do those, you'll be treated to a hard-to-put-down novel that will make you think back on your own crappy high school experience and thank your lucky stars you weren't at St. Mikes. 

Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell — This was a cool story about a creepy (but with a heart of gold?) IT dude who "eavesdrops" on the emails of two employees at the newspaper at which they all work. He finds himself falling in love with one of the two women, just from her cool, witty, quirky style. She also crushes on him, not knowing who he is — calling him My Cute Guy — even though they never talk. Rowell has given us a nice little irony here: The man falls in love with the woman sight unseen (not how it usually works), and the woman falls in, if not love, in infatuation with the man based solely on his looks (not how it usually works). My hesitation with this novel is that the male characters are terrible — they're silly steroetypes (the IT guy plays Dungeons and Dragons, and lives with his parents, and the girl's boyfriend is a slacker rockstar who won't marry her because he loves her too much ... groan) that only vaguely resemble real people. But overall, it's a fun, quick plane read.

Books I Thought Were Good But Not Superb
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood — I'm glad I finally read this terrifying dystopian novel about what happens when women are merely objects for breeding, but it was a bit of a slog for me, frankly. I think that's partly due to the fact that I'd known a lot about it already, so it kind of felt like I was just reading to fill in the gaps, which I realize is a silly reason not to like a novel.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers — Eggers' is always a must-read author for me, and his latest is a strange all-dialogue novel about a guy who kidnaps various people and has conversations with them, with the goal of trying to make sense of his life that has gone off the rails a bit. It's all just okay. However, there's a long section about police brutality and unnecessary violence that is really interesting in light of the recent Ferguson situation. It's a one- to two-sitting read, so worth checking out if you're a die-hard Eggers fan, but it's probably a pass if you're not.

Monday, October 6, 2014

THE DOG and I AM PILGRIM: Two Mini-Reviews

Joseph O'Neill's new novel, The Dog, is a strange little piece of fiction — it's about an unnamed mid-30s lawyer who, having just participated in a spectacularly messy break-up with his girlfriend of nine years, moves to Dubai to take a job with a family conglomerate that may or may not be totally on the level. But the real story on this novel is its dense, ultra-logical (dude's a lawyer, after all), digression (and parenthesis)-laden prose. It's a style you're going to either love or hate. I loved it, much as I did O'Neill's previous novel Netherland. (I remember thinking after reading that novel that O'Neill reminded me of an Irish Philip Roth. In this novel, he's closer to an Irish David Foster Wallace.)

The story itself, which takes place in 2011, is largely portrait of Dubai — and its massive contradictions. For instance, Dubai is a place of ridiculous wealth and excess (even as it's still reeling from the effects of the financial crash), but it's still ruled by strict religious law. Dubai is a fascinating place, and O'Neill, through his narrator, delights in pointing out all its foibles and its hypocrisy — often at length.

Our narrator actually spends most of his days sending emails (both real, and hilariously, in his mind) to his employers, trying to cover his own ass in case what the rich sons who run the conglomeration of companies are up to isn't exactly legal. Sometimes he has to book Bryan Adam's for one of the guy's wife's birthday. Sometimes he teaches the guy's spoiled 15-year-old son how to do Sudoku. Sometimes, he visits prostitutes — and then spends pages justifying this splurge.

There's a mystery here, too — what happened to a guy who lives in building who it's discovered has a secret Dubai wife (in addition to his other wife back in Chicago)? Has he run away with Wife No. 2, or has some other more sinister fate befallen him?

Again, despite the fact that this novel made the Booker Prize Long List, it's probably not a novel most readers will enjoy (and given its meager 3.3 rating on GoodReads, most readers clearly haven't). But I dug it — I liked how O'Neill could use these ridiculous hundred-word sentences that would include five parentheticals, and tease out an argument about something as relatively mundane as porn. If you liked DFW's essay on whether lobsters can feel pain, you may like this novel, too.

_____________________

And then, on the opposite end the spectrum prose-style-wise: Terry Hayes' impossibly long thriller I Am Pilgrim. This novel was recommended to me earlier this summer by a bookseller at a Maui Barnes and Noble when I stopped in to pick up Stephen King's new novel, Mr. Mercedes. So I was excited about it, both because it recalled when I was in Maui, and also because any comparison to King deserves at least a glance.

The verdict? It's a decent plane read, but it's definitely a turn-off-your-brain-and-suspend-disbelief-and-overlook-silly-coincidences-type novel. The story is about a secret agent who we see in the first scene investigating a mysterious murder — the killer apparently used tactics spelled out in our hero's book of investigation techniques penned before going into hiding. This really bugs him. Then there's a radicalized Muslim who wants to destroy America. There's another mysterious murder in the Turkish resort town of Bodrum. And so our hero — Pilgrim, eventually — has to race against time to solve murders and save the world from terrorism.

Again, it's just okay. Clocking in at well over 600 pages, it actually seems longer than that. Many of the subplots and much of the background information Hayes gives could be easily condensed or cut altogether. 


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The New Dork Review of Books Turns FIVE

If the blog were a human, it'd be heading off to kindergarten soon, playing in its first teeball league, and probably reading at a junior high level. Right?

Five years ago today, I launched this thing — and even way back then, I wasn't above making a joke at Dan Brown's expense. Good times.

This is post No. 385 since this thing launched, which frankly, is hard to believe. It's also hard to believe I still haven't gotten that cease and desist order from the blog's namesake: The New York Review of Books. Everyone be cool, and maybe they'll never find out!

But here's to 385 (at least) more! There have been some lulls, more so lately, I realize. I've always said that when this starts to feel like work, I'll quit. But most of the time it doesn't yet, so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past. Or something.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

(By the way, today is also Book Riot's 3rd birthday. To celebrate, Riot New Media is launching a new product site called Panels. If comics are your thing, check it out. It promises to be awesome.)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Five Thoughts On A First Ever Reading of Jane Eyre

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

This old Bantam Classic is the edition I read.


A few years ago, I wrote a silly post about literary confessions — one of which was that I frequently confused Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. It was mostly a joke, but also when I told people that in real life, they’d always look at me with that particular sympathy consistent only with a self-deprecating joke falling flat on its face (i.e., too stupid to be funny).

For penance, I decided I should probably read them both — so I knocked out Pride and Prejudice last year, and then just a few weeks ago, Jane Eyre. While of course it’s tough to come up with anything original to say about Charlotte Bronte’s tale of woe and redemption, I can certainly come up with five things I thought about the novel. So here you go (and normally, I’d say “caution, spoilers,” but this book’s 167 years old, and so well past the statute of limitations to require a spoiler disclaimer):

5. Jane Throws Shade — On page 33, not even 7 percent of the way into the novel, Jane tells her adopted guardian Mrs. Reed she hates her more than anyone else in the world except her idiot son. “I am not deceitful,” she says. “If I were, I should say I loved you.” This was the first indication that many of my long-held preconceptions (read as: misconceptions) about this story were pretty wrong. I thought, maybe this isn’t just a long-winded, ooey-gooey love story. And plus, that made me laugh, and I decided right then I was going to like this book.

4. Jane’s Friend Helen Imparts Life Lessons, Dies — Jane’s friend at the boarding school basically explains that you shouldn’t let shit bother you because we ain’t gonna be here long, and God awaits. “Why then should we sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over…?” That’s solid advice. So next time my boss forgets the attachment on an email or the dogs pee on the floor or the lady in front of me at the grocery store pays with a check, I’ll think of Helen. Hey, life’s short, and then you die. So just relax. It’s gonna be okay. Except, though, Helen proves the wisdom of her advice by dying young. That was sad.

3. Jane Weathers the Worst Guilt Trips — I was pretty sure I liked Jane quite a bit (see No. 5 above), but I knew I liked her after Mr. Rochester is caught in his web of deceit, (Dude’s married! And to a crazy lady! And she lives in his attic!), and his attempts to guilt her into running away with him anyway fall upon deaf ears. But I DOUBLE KNEW I liked her towards the end when Mr. St. John uses the most unintentionally comic (to a modern audience) guilt trip to get her marry him; paraphrased: Marry me, or God’ll be pissed at you. Strangely, this one almost comes closer to working than Mr. Rochester’s, but it doesn’t.

2. Speaking of Mr. St. John… — What a tool! I loved laughing at this chucklehead. And it’s too bad he’s so clueless, because his sisters seem nice. And that poor rich lady who is (improbably) in love with him seems nice, too. Good on you, Jane — even if took a touch of the supernatural to somehow hear Mr. Rochester calling to you in your head, and withstand St. John’s “unimpeachable” logic, wily advances, and a free trip to mid-19th century India!

1. Happy Endings Are Happy — It was rather an improbable happy ending, transcending time, space, and all known medical reality (Dude just starts seeing again? Now I see where Downton Abbey got the idea to have Matthew just magically start walking again), but how could you begrudge Jane her “happily ever after”? I certainly can’t. And I’m really happy I finally read this. Now onto Wuthering Heights. What? That’s Emily Bronte. Ah, crap.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: Starter Murakami

If you've never read Haruki Murakami and always wanted to, his bafflingly titled new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a great way to wade into his work. That's because, it's a pretty straightforward story on the surface — a 36-year-old engineer living in Tokyo named Tsukuru Tazaki is trying to find out why, when he was in high school, his four best friends suddenly broke off all contact with him, refusing to even give him an explanation for why they'd never talk to him again.

But the novel also includes some of the weird, wild hallmarks of Murakami-ism — there are some strange, often sexually-tinged dreams, a long tangent (or is it?) about a dying guy who sees people's "colors" and only people of one color (nothing to do with race) can save him, and constant questioning of the line between what's real and what's imagined and what's part of this world and what's not.

Tsukuru Tazaki, for all his self-perceived colorlessness, is still a fascinating character. But he doesn't think so — he has a small-minded view of himself, thinking of himself as boring and plain (he's the only one of the group of five friends who doesn't have a name evoking a color), and he's constantly telling people how boring he thinks he is, including his new ladyfriend Sara. But it's Sara who convinces him he needs to dredge up his past and go on his mini-vision quest to find out why his tightly knit group of high school friends suddenly stopped talking to him — an event which sent poor Tsukuru Tazaki into a near death-spiral of depression.

So Tsukuru goes back to his hometown Nagoya and then to Helsinki, Finland, to find the truth. Unlike some other Murakami novels, there is an actual, specific answer to his question about why he was suddenly treated as persona non grata. And it's shocking and sad, and brings up even more questions for poor Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki.

Whenever I'm reading Murakami, I'm always in awe of how his prose alternates between sentences that are so clunky and mundane and passages that are amazingly profound and insightful — my favorite of which is this, and which is kind of the main theme of the novel:
In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony."
Not exactly a sunny outlook life, is it? Still, when I'm reading Murakami, I'm convinced he employs some weird sorcery (like something in his novels) to make the pages just fly by. I don't know how he does it. This isn't my favorite Murakami of all time (that's a distinction Kafka On The Shore holds), it's still a really interesting, thought-provoking, entertaining read—a great starting point for Murakami novices, but with Murakami-ness enough to keep his long-time rabid fans happy as well.