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?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Martian: "Life is amazingly tenacious."

Life is also amazingly ingenious! And if Andy Weir's utterly enthralling debut novel, The Martian (out today!) is to be believed, life is also pretty freakin' funny when it's pushed to the brink.

Exhibit A is our hero here: Wise-cracking astronaut Mark Watney. Watney, as he tells us in the opening line of the novel, is pretty much fucked. He was a member a six-person manned mission to Mars. On the 6th day, a storm forced an evacuation, but Watney was clobbered with a piece of communications equipment, and his crew, thinking he was a goner, left him.

Now, Watney must figure out how to survive. Using his training as a botanist and a mechanical engineer, Watney makes water from leftover fuel, grows potatoes, and amazingly, is able to re-establish communications with NASA. But as you'd expect, obstacles continue to present themselves, and Watney must continue thinking quickly to solve them with the meager supplies and equipment he has on hand.

This is a fantastic novel for several reasons. Yes, the man against nature survival aspect is great — you'll think of this as Castaway On Mars. But also the science and problem-solving Watney displays — and this isn't survival for dummies — is really fascinating for anyone with an inclination toward science. Weir gets pretty technical on everything from chemical reactions to rocket design and engineering to hacking computers systems. I don't claim to understand everything, or even close to everything, but Weir definitely seems to know what he's talking about. You trust him. And it's all very fascinating. 

But the best part of this book is the character Watney himself — he's right out of central casting for the nerdy science dude whose only defense against the world is sharp-witted, often juvenile, humor. Naturally, I loved it. Try this exchange on for size, between NASA who, at kind of a tense moment, is telling him how to modify one of the rovers to connect to the other: 
NASA: What we can see of your planned cut looks good. We're assuming the other side is identical. You're cleared to start drilling.
Watney: That's what she said.
Honestly, that's probably a bad example for how funny this novel really is (but, that one, because it was unexpected, hit me pretty hard right in the funny). Watney's often a bit more clever than this. But if Weir's goal is to get you to like Watney in order to root for him as hard you do, then mission accomplished. Over the course of the last hundred pages or so, things move so quickly, you have to remind yourself to breathe. Will Watney be saved?

It's a novel you're thinking about constantly when you're not reading, wondering what new problem Watney will have to overcome next (will he get to eat the ration he's saved for when he "Survived Something That Should Have Killed Me"?). I loved this book, and think most other readers will too.