Thursday, April 24, 2014

A New Dork Review Short Storypalooza

Here in Chicago, you normally have to wait for a month or (often) more for any nominally popular book or ebook from the library. However, that's not the case for short story collections, which for reasons I can't even begin to fathom, seem to be much less popular among librarian patrons. But other readers' loss is my gain, and I've been on a huge short story binge the last few months. Here's a round-up of four collections.

1. I Want to Show You More, by Jamie Quatro — Man, this was great - by far, my favorite of these four, and one of the more entertaining, sad, smart, funny short story collections I've read in a long time. Quatro has a lot going on here - running as a metaphor for life, several stories about a woman carrying on a long-distance-but-ever-face-to-face affair, and a few stories about a woman who dies of cancer (the story "Here" is one of the saddest things I've read). My favorite story is titled "Demolition" about a southern church that slips, seemingly innocuously, into a sex cult. How could that happen? This collection — which wound up on several readers' best of 2013 lists — is highly, highly recommended.

2. Bark, by Lorrie Moore — This collection was, frankly, a bit disappointing. Of the eight stories included here, only two seemed like well-developed actual short stories (i.e., more than 12 pages), while the other six, all fewer than 12 tiny pages all felt incomplete — like first drafts of longer projects. The two longer stories, however, were both very good. Lorrie Moore is one of those writers for whom the curtains are never just blue — everything means something else. The first story, titled "Debarked" is about a divorced guy named Ira who begins dating a crazy woman with a teenaged son, and a very uncomfortable-making relationship with him. Poor Ira just can't seem to get it together. The other long story - my favorite in the collection - is titled "Wings." It's about a failed musician couple who live in a rental house in the suburbs. The woman befriends a dying old man in the neighborhood, which creates more problems than she could've thought. Fascinating story, in which Moore's trick here is making the easy way out not seem like the easy way out. You'll have to read it for that to make more sense. This collection is worth picking up just for this story.

3. Leaving the Sea, by Ben Marcus —This collection ranged from straighforward-and-awesome stories, to experimental-and-awesome stories, to experimental-and-WTF-is-he-talking-about stories. The stories in the former two categories were mostly really interesting and fun to read. The stories in the latter (of which, mercifully, there are fewer) were a bit of a slog — you have almost no clue what is going on, like Marcus forgot to include the Rosetta stone that would translate his words into a recognizable story. But so, the collection is arranged in six section, the first of which includes four pretty straight-forward stories, all of which are really good. "I Can Say Many Nice Things" is a highlight — an amusing, slightly sad story about a guy teaching a writing workshop on a cruise ship. The last story in the collection, the longest - almost novella length - was a mixed bag, a microcosm of the collection itself. It's titled "The Moors," and it's ostensibly about a creeping guy following a woman to the office coffee bar. But throughout the story, Marcus is digressive and philosophical and sometimes hilarious and sometimes unintelligible. I'd recommend reading this story first, actually, and then starting at the beginning with the more traditional short stories. (Oh, and I'd recommend skipping "The Father Costume" all together - it doesn't make a lick of sense.)

4. The Fun Parts, by Sam Lipsyte — There's a fine line between amusing self-deprecation and just plain sad, and many of the characters in Lipsyte's collection - generally drug-addicted or otherwise down-on-their-luck - blow past that line with reckless abandon. They're just pedantic and pathetic, and you feel more sorry for them than you're willing to laugh at them, or even try to empathize with them. There are few highlights: "The Wisdom of the Doulas" is a really funny story about a guy who worms his way into a job as a doula for a couple, but quickly oversteps his bounds, and vastly overstays his welcome. "The Climber Room," the first story in the collection, is another highlight — it's about a failed poet who a rich guy enlists to pay special attention to his spoiled son at the daycare where she works. Overall, though, this collection was a huge downer, and largely disappointing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Rehearsal: The Play's the Thing

Eleanor Catton's debut novel, The Rehearsal, written as her master's thesis, was published when she was only 23 years old. Her follow-up, The Luminaries, is a hugely complex, massive novel that won her a buttload of awards, recognition, and fame.

David Foster Wallace's debut novel, The Broom of the System, written as his undergraduate thesis, was published when he was 24 years old. His follow up novel, Infinite Jest, was a hugely complex, massive novel that won him a buttload of awards, recognition and fame.

Interesting, isn't it?

There are other comparison between the two, especially, it seems, in their theories on pushing the envelope on what a novel is. And I'm quite certain David Foster Wallace would've LOVED Eleanor Catton's stuff. But it's a little sad to think about. I can tell you this, though, now having read both of Catton's novels: I'll read every word she publishes forever. She's that good.

And but so, The Rehearsal — what a strange, inventive little novel! Publisher's Weekly wrote about The Rehearsal when it was first published in the US in 2010: "It's a good piece of writing, but not an especially enjoyable novel." I actually think it's a GREAT piece of writing, and as piece of fiction read for pleasure, PW might be right that it's not as enjoyable as say, a Dan Brown novel, but it's still immensely enjoyable. It just takes a little work.

The story is this: In the aftermath of a sexual scandal (a teacher slept with a student) at an all-girl's high school, several girls attempt to come to terms with what happened. These girls are all connected by a mysterious saxophone tudor, to whom they tell about the daily goings on in their lives, including the fallout from the scandal. There are three protagonists — one is Isolde, the younger sister of the girl Victoria, who was seduced (or was she the seducer?) by the teacher. Julia is another, she's an outspoken saxophone student and in the same class as Victoria. She and Isolde become acquainted and begin a relationship (or do they?). Finally, intertwined with the story of these girls is the story of acting student Stanley, who has been accepted into the prestigious Drama Institute. The stories converge near the end as Stanley becomes more involved in Isolde's life than he'd probably want to.

Part of the point of the novel — and I highlighted about 37 passages in this novel that relate to this; Catton is AMAZING on a line-by-line basis — is that it's so hard to tell what's genuine and what's an act. Catton writes: “Every word that comes out of your mouth – they’re just lines. They’re lines that you’ve learned very carefully, so carefully you’ve convinced yourself they are yours, but that’s all they are. They’re lines I’ve heard many times before.”

I loved this novel, but I may be in the minority. It's not a "difficult" novel, per se, but it's certainly not a straightforward, point-A-to-point-B type of fiction. We jump back and forth in time, we have several points of view, and sometimes we're not sure if we're in real-time action, or if a character is simply telling a story. It's heady stuff, but even if you don't understand everything Catton's up to here (and I sure didn't!), it's still an absolute pleasure to read. She's quickly become one of my favorite writers. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Lookaway, Lookaway: Satire of the South

Some novels, you can just tell the writer had an absolute ball writing them — and in many cases, those are the most fun books to read. That's definitely the case with vastly underrated novelist Wilton Barnhardt's satiric novel of a southern family, Lookaway, Lookaway.

Here's what you need to know to understand this family, courtesy of the drunken uncle Gaston: "Our families are a ragtag bunch held together by a glue of secrets, and I hate secrets now. Our family's secrets...a mountain of them....We've been tyrannized by these secrets."

Yes, the secrets in this upscale but downward-trending Charlotte family — the Johnstons — will be their undoing. With chapters told from the perspective of each member of the family — the secrets are slowly revealed, to the reader and to each member of the family, as they flit in and out of each others' stories.

But the real mark of this novel is how funny it is, and how much fun it is to read. The opening chapter of the novel follows youngest daughter Jerilyn to her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, as she pledges a sorority populated with ditzy, coke-snorting sisters named Taylorr and Brittanie. Things go south quickly for Jerilyn, as they do for pretty much every member of the family, including patriarch Duke Johnston.

Duke had been the big many on campus at, naturally, Duke — a promising political career, though, was railroaded (and it's a secret why - but we found out soon enough), and now he's settled into his autumn years, dedicating his life to Civil War reenactment. Indeed, supposedly, the Johnston clan is descended directly from Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston.

Duke's wife Jerene is the real star of this show, though — she's the only character who appears in every other characters' story, and she's such a great parody of the proper southern society woman. During a wedding, she points out all the hundreds of miniscule departures in decorum, and we just laugh and laugh that people (and I have no doubt people do!) take such things so seriously. Jerene is constantly pulling strings behind the scenes to make sure the family maintains its place in society. But she's also constantly warring with her brother — the drunk uncle Gaston, a millionaire novelist who has written a series of historical novels about a woman named Coredelia Florabloom, a damsel in distress who just can't find her lost Civil War soldier husband.

So, if you've spent any time in the South, or just want to laugh at some of the quirks of Southerners, this is the novel for you. Oh, and one final note — the ending of this novel is one of my favorite endings to any novel I've read in a long time. It's absolutely hysterical.

Highly, highly entertaining. Highly, highly recommended!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Long Man: "Time was unmerciful."

Counterbalanced to my love of New York snob stories is a similar weakness for stories set in poor rural or small town setting about characters for whom every single day is a struggle. Amy Greene arrived on the scene in this genre with her fantastic 2010 novel Bloodroot. And she continues with her new novel, Long Man, out today.

The short, evocative novel takes place in rural Tennessee during the height of the Great Depression, the summer of 1936. President Roosevelt's Tennessee Valley Authority is removing families from their homes and farms in around the small town of Yuneetah in order to build a dam on the river dubbed by Native Americans as Long Man. But at least one resident — a nails-tough, strong-willed woman named Annie Clyde — isn't taking the relocation lying down. Even when her husband James secures a cushy factory job in Detroit, Annie Clyde resists. And as they argue, their 3-year-old daughter Gracie suddenly disappears in the midst of a nasty storm.

As the rest of the novel unfolds, Greene gives us a variety of wonderful characters complete with intricate backs stories— characters who abide by a simple philosophy: "If a person didn't come to depend on material things, it wouldn't hurt to lose them." Will the few remaining townspeople band together to find Gracie? Will their shared pasts interfere with their increasingly fractured futures? And what's the deal with the mysterious drifter named Amos whose connection to the town's sheriff and Annie Clyde's aunt Silver cause complications?

One of my favorite parts of this novel is how it treats the idea of progress. It's not a political novel at all but the theme of how progress (in this case electricity and emerging from the Depression) has its definite collateral damage is as relevant today as it was in 1936 (or 1636 or 836 for that matter). "Time was unmerciful," a character ruminates at one point, and isn't she right?

Another strength of the novel is its pacing — it alternates between hyper-descriptive language (you can smell the drenched terrain during the heavy rain, and you get a very good education on native Eastern Tennessee foliage) and the fast-paced "mystery" of what happened to Gracie. Also worth noting regarding pacing: It does take a little while to get going in this novel, but your patience is rewarded.

The novel also stumbles a little bit in delving back into the past for the back stories of each character — but we eventually find out why each characters' relationship to each other is important. Where do loyalties lie, and therefore, how do these characters' consciences influence how they'll act? They results are sometimes surprising.

So stick with it — the story's rewards become very apparent. And overall, it's definitely a recommended read, if you're also a fan of reading stories that transport you to a place and time very unfamiliar to your own. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Interestings: Arty Kids Stay Friends, Forever

The cynical, jerky, glib book blogger in me would start this review with something like: "The Interestings? Ha! Helluva misnomer, that! More like 'The Jejunes'!" But then you'd be annoyed that I used the word "jejune" and probably stop reading. So lucky for you, this book blogger is enlightened, well-adjusted, and willing to admit he's probably in the minority on this one.

Most readers I know have enjoyed Meg Wolitzer's long novel about a group of teenagers attending an art camp in the mid-70s, and then becoming life-long friends, through love, loss, secrets, depression, fulfilled and unfulfilled talent, and children. It's an interesting premise — and for the most part, the characters who populate this novel do somewhat interesting things, like create a "The Simpsons"-like cartoon that makes one character rich and famous, hide secrets from their spouses, and unwittingly do LSD to help a middle-aged (pervert?) folk singer write songs.

But this novel never quite clicked for me. It's interesting at the beginning as the kids meet at the camp, and then hang around in New York City, until one fateful New Year's Eve when one in the group accuses another of rape. And the ending is interesting, too. But the several-hundred-page middle often sags. Wolitzer tells large swaths of story in summary — more like you're reading a magazine article about these characters and their exploits, than a novel about them.

The themes here are interesting, and well-developed — what is talent, and what external factors can cause it to be nurtured or snuffed? Why do we cling to childhood friendships when the adult versions of people and those relationships become vastly different? And why is harboring secrets so destructive to relationships built on trust? (Well, the answer to that last one should be obvious.)

And so these questions are interesting to think about, but the plot struggles to support them enough to keep you quickly turning the pages. It took me more than three weeks to traverse these 470 pages, more time than it took to read the super-difficult, much-longer The Luminaries. But I'm fully willing to admit that not being totally in the thrall of this novel is rather a dissenting opinion. Several readers even posted this to their best of 2013 list — including Book Riot. Hey, agreeing on everything is uninteresting, right?