Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Man Called Ove: Just Friggin' Delightful

A Man Called Ove, by Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman is one of those odd-but-awesome book stories where the book did okay when it was first published (in 2014), but has recently enjoyed a renaissance due to word-of-mouth recommendations, as well as the hit Swedish-language movie (oh, and probably the overwhelming need for a feel-good book in these rather trying times). So, for the sake of upping my cultural literacy I gave it a shot.

Often, as I was reading it while working at RoscoeBooks, someone would see the book on the counter and comment on how delightful it is or how much they loved it.

Even after I loved the first chapter (in which Ove squares off with a sales associate at an electronics store as he tries to buy an iPad), I tried really hard not to like it the rest of it. It's a little a cheesy at times, the grumpy-old-man trope is nothing even remotely new (for my money, Sully from Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool is still the paragon), and the translation is often a bit clunky. But, then, by the end....I loved it. It won me over. I couldn't help it.

It's a charming tale of a guy named Ove, confronting what he believes to be all the various violations of good sense and decency of everyday life in his little neighborhood in a small town in Sweden. We learn in the first few pages that Ove's wife has died, and he's been forced into early retirement. So with nothing else to live for, Ove decides to exit stage left. But then life keep interceding — he can't help himself from helping other people. (The one thing that kind of shocked me about this novel is its sort of cavalier attitude toward suicide. But not a big deal...)

Ove becomes more lovable the more you learn about his backstory — chapters alternate between his current life and his history, which includes more than his fair share of tragedy and sadness. In the present, he makes begrudging friends with new neighbors, a family four with a fifth on the way. We also learn about his long-running feud with his neighbor Rune, a grouchy guy just like him. But against all decency, in Ove's view, Rune has the gall to drive a Volvo instead of Ove's beloved Saabs. The final nail in the coffin in their tenuous relationship is when Rune buys a BMW. Then it's all-out war.

In the present, Rune has fallen on tough times, and the dreaded "white shirts," government bureaucrats who have been Ove's life-long nemeses, are threatening to remove Rune from his wife and his home and put him in state-sponsored care. Will Ove help Rune, or will their long-stand rivalry be too much to overcome?

If you're for something you can laugh with, that's heavy at times, but ultimately redemptive, this is your novel. You may not totally like Ove all the time, but it's hard not to enjoy his story.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Lincoln In The Bardo: Saunders' Strange Debut On Empathy, Grief

First off, in case you're wondering already, a "bardo" is a Tibetan word for an "intermediate state," a sort of purgatory between one life and another. In George Saunders' ridiculously smart, entirely weird first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, a bunch of interstitial beings (ghosts, if you want to not think too hard about it) hang out in a graveyard and discuss their personal lives, as they were, as well as life in general, truth, kindness, empathy, and grief.

What sparks these conversations is the arrival of a new person to their bardo — Abraham's Lincoln's son Willie, who has just died of typhoid fever. It's February 1862, the nation is at war, and Lincoln is doing all he can to hold both his personal life and the country together. Lincoln periodically visits to mourn his son. It's funny, and perhaps significant, that Lincoln himself, despite the title, is never actually IN the bardo. He's in the grave yard where the other occupants of the bardo are stuck, but he himself isn't in that interstitial state. He's still alive!!

Much of the "action" of the novel reads like a play. Our main three "actors" include a guy named Hans Vollman, who died getting brained with a falling ceiling beam, a freak accident. Poor Hans had recently gotten married, and was about to finally consummate his marriage with his beautiful young wife when he's abruptly ripped from life and deposited in the bardo. Roger Bevins III is a gay man whose lover made fun of him in front of their friends, so he killed himself. And finally, there's a reverend named Everly Thomas, who acts as the sort of conscience of the novel. While we don't know how he died, he knows more than all the the ghosts — he's the only who knows he's dead, having actually made it all the way to the pearly gates before absconding to the bardo. But he has a secret.

And so the occupants of the bardo — including Willie — learn that they can "enter" corporeal bodies (as well as each other), and hear that person's thoughts. It's sort of a literal way of seeing the world through someone else's eyes, and trying to understand their sides of things — a constant theme throughout the novel. 

Interspersed throughout these conversations are snippets from real newspapers and letters from historical people detailing the mood of the country at this point in history. It's not good, to say the least. For instance, Lincoln is crushed in the press for having a big party at the White House, both while the country is at war and also while his son is sick. 

While the novel clocks in about 320 pages, you can probably read it two or three sittings. It's not text heavy at all. But to truly unlock what Saunders is up to here, it definitely requires a re-reading or two. I have not yet done that, mostly because it was a novel I sometimes felt like I was enduring more than I was enjoying. I mean, this novel is unquestionably the work of a genius writer. There's no doubt about that. And I would recommend it highly just for the wholly unique reading experience, as well as it's quite-frequent profundity. But it's certainly not something you'll want to bring to the beach with you this summer.

(Finally, if you're interested, here's my favorite paragraph from the novel, that helps tie together the themes of empathy and grief: 
“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, it’s like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Separation: Slow-Burn Meditation on Failed Marriage

Katie Kitamura's novel about a failed marriage isn't like Gone Girl or any of the other tent poles of the recent entries into the "bad romance" genre. This is a wholly unique take on this type of novel, and it's really terrific.

A Separation, which is out today, is a slow-burning, introspective, and incredibly astutely observed look at a relationship that has gone sour. It's the story of an unnamed narrator and her husband Christopher, Londoners who have separated, ostensibly due to Christopher's multiple infidelities.

Christopher has gone to Greece to work on a book, and then promptly disappeared. Christopher's mother Isabel — a domineering, annoying woman who never warmed to the narrator because she "stole" her son — calls our narrator and asks her to go to Greece to find her husband. Isabel doesn't know the two have separated, and the narrator chooses to keep that secret.

So to keep up appearances, off to Greece she goes to find her soon-to-be-ex-husband. While she's there, she begins to slowly reconsider her separation — or at least try to better parse her feelings for it and for Christopher, now that they're even more separated than they were before. She literally has no idea where he is — didn't even know he'd gone to Greece. What's happened to him? Will she find him? Has he taken even more extraordinary means than are usually necessary to separate himself from her? Or is he just on another tawdry tryst?

Part of what makes this novel special is that it's a novel about ambiguity, but told in language so precise and carefully chosen. Kitamura is an amazingly talented writer — her narrator can spend several pages watching a conversation between two people, describing their facial expressions and cadence, and tell us what she thinks they're talking about. And it's fascinating! But again, this is not a novel you'll confuse with a thriller. Watching the introspection, watching her her puzzle things out as best she can with incomplete, indeed, ambiguous information is truly the strength of this great read. 

Despite the commonality of failed relationships, this is also a novel about subverting what's normal, what's expected. To further this notion, the narrator tells a brief story about a friend who went on a date with a man she really liked. At the end of the night, he invites her up "for coffee." Instead of inventing an excuse, she tells him she can't because she's on her period, which is actually true. On the surface, it's a hilarious non-sequitur. But everyone knows coffee doesn't mean coffee — only her friend has subverted the purposeful ambiguity of what it means to be invited up for coffee. The guy never calls her back.

It's little touches like these that makes this a really terrific reading experience. There is a lot going on in this slim, taut novel, many themes (grief, loyalty, and whether monogamy is still pragmatic) intersect and augment each other. It's a savagely smart and masterfully crafted novel — very highly recommended.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Rules of Civility: Love Triangle in Late 1930s New York

If you're one of Amor Towles' rabid fans (I am a new one!), you probably know his story: He spent 21 years working in banking before publishing his first novel, Rules of Civility, in 2011. Thank goodness he found his calling! Because whether this fellow is writing about horrific traffic accidents, jazz, women's clothes, or sordid love triangles, he's always entertaining. I expect he could write technical manuals about elevator maintenance, and they'd be enjoyable. He has such a fluent, articulate, evocative, warm style, and it's on full display in this terrific novel of 1938 New York City.

Katey Kontent and her friend Eve meet a dashing banker named Tinker (the names, my god, the names!) on New Year's Eve, 1937, and are swept up by his charm (indeed, civility) and he by their spirit and cleverness. These are two modern, independent women, enjoying all that New York City has to offer. But what starts off as a possible competition for Tinker's affections and perhaps a love triangle morphs into something...well, I don't want to say. It's the surprise — the way Towles flips your expectations totally on their ears that makes this novel especially fun.

Part of the strength of this novel beyond its plot is how alive late 1930s New York is. The drinks flow, the buildings shimmer, the steam rises in the summer, and the jewels of New York's society folks — of which Katey and Eve find themselves for the first time — sparkle. New York will be shattered by the war in just a few short years, but for now, it's a sort utopia. And Towles captures this really well.

Full disclosure: I actually liked A Gentleman In Moscow, which I read last fall, a bit more than this novel — there are few dead spots and missteps here. But again, because of Towles' smooth style, I didn't mind too much when the plot lags. It's a quick read, and one that leaves you more than a little shocked when you unlock its secrets.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Dream Author Panel: What If I Could Interview Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace?

Zadie Smith and I have one very important thing in common: We both count David Foster Wallace as our favorite writer. She explains her DFW fandom in her terrific essay, "The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace," which starts out as a review of DFW's short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and morphs into a very heartfelt tribute to him and his genius. (She started the essay before he died and finished it afterwards.)

Ever since reading that essay almost a decade ago, I've wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall as those two discussed books and the writing life. So at the prompting of the good folks at Eventbrite, an event planning software company, who are working on a project to collect posts by book bloggers on their dream author panels, I decided I'd up the ante and imagine what it'd be like to actually be the one interviewing them. Like my goofy post about Thomas Pynchon, what follows is an imagined present-day conversation between DFW, Zadie Smith, and me as the moderator. (I mean, if I'm going to write about a dream author panel, why not put myself right in the middle?!)

Me: Zadie, in your essay, you wrote about Dave's famous quote, "Fiction is about what it is to be a f$@#king human being," can you explain why you admire that quote specifically, but also what it says about Dave's own approach to writing fiction?

Zadie Smith: Sure, and thanks — it's great to be here with you and Dave. As I say in the essay, that quote sort of encompasses why I love Dave's fiction: Because it's about empathy. Fiction allows writers and readers alike to walk around in the shoes of someone who is not like the reader at all. It allows readers and writers to understand different situations than their own. That is why nothing is more real than fiction. And Dave does empathy in his fiction better than any writer.

DFW (nervous laugh): Am I a ghost? Kidding. I never had much use for the laws of physics anyway. It is not for me to question how I'm here. I just am. And but so, thanks for the kind words. Yes, also when I delivered that keynote address at Kenyon College in 2005, and sweated my balls off too, empathy was the idea there, too. I talked about being patient with the person in front of you at the grocery store, because you never know what they're going through, and chances are it's worse than you. That understanding of others' situations different from your own is what writing and reading fiction does. It situates you in the world.

Me: Dave, what do you admire about Zadie's fiction?

DFW: She is often described as an exuberant writer, and I agree. I love the experimentation in NW, and I love the take on celebrity and authenticity in Swing Time. But White Teeth is still my favorite. Though, while we're here, what were you thinking with The Autograph Man? A bit of misstep, no?

Zadie: Well, that's brutally honest! Yeah, I'm proud of everything I write, but that was a sophomore slump, sure. But hey man, what were YOU thinking with "Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way." That thing was unreadable!

Me (can't help interjecting): For those unfamiliar, Zadie is referring to a novella included in DFW's 1989 story collection Girl With Curious Hair. And she's right, it IS unreadable.

DFW: Yeah, well, I think I've since admitted when I was young writer, my calibration between reader enjoyment and reader aggravation might've been a tad off at times. That's an example of that. I finally got it right with Infinite Jest...or so people tell me.

Me (still can't help myself): I'LL SAY!

Zadie: What's interesting is how well that novel has aged; how relevant it is today in the age of addiction to social media. I mean, I'm not a tweeter or a facebooker, but do you think you would be if you were still here, Dave?

DFW (lighting a cigarette): I think you know about my love for TV and movies, but the entertainment on the web is a different beast. I wouldn't totally decry and ignore it like my buddy Franzen, but I'd probably dip a toe into Twitter just to entertain myself.

Me: Dude, I don't think you can smoke in here. And since we're well over the appropriate length of a normal blog post (wait, what?), let's stop here and go get a drink!