Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Some Exciting New Dork News...and a Few Reviews

I don't have an actual bookish bucket list, but if I did "working at a bookstore" would be near the top. And now I can (pretend to) cross it off! A new indie called RoscoeBooks is opening just a few blocks from where I live here in Chicago, and despite the fact that this is damn near akin to hiring an alcoholic to bar tend, the owner is graciously allowing me to work there a few hours a week. I couldn't be more excited! The store opens this Saturday, Nov. 22 — if you're in Chicago, come say 'hello.' I'll be the one with ridiculous perma-grin-goofy-happy smile on my face. 

And but, one of the reasons I'm super excited to be a bookseller is, yes, to be able to recommend books I love to other people, but also to learn more about what other people are reading that fall outside my immediate comfort zone. Another reason I'm excited is working at a bookstore will only make it more apparent that there's always something to learn about books. So in some ways, this is selfish excitement, because I'll get to discover books I may have otherwise missed. And that's already happened just in the last week as a result of talking with the other booksellers (see below) and helping to shelve (I assume it's natural to talk to the authors as you shelve their books, right?). So anyway, yeah — I'm stoked. This...will be fun.

And so, here, have some reviews:

Submergence, by J.M. Ledgard — If you've never heard of this book, don't worry — I hadn't either until a few weeks ago. But the new owner of RoscoeBooks recommended this, and I read it in about two sittings. It's a short novel about a guy named James who is a British spy and gets kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Somalia. It's also about a woman named Danny who is a biomathematician — she studies microbial life in the deepest depths of the ocean. And finally, it's about how the two met, and how they discuss life, and why we're all here ("We're nature's brief experiment with self-awareness," Ledgard writes — a mind-blowing idea, when you really think about it.), and chance and luck, and art and literature, and it's just fantastic. The story's told in brief snippets, alternating perspectives between Danny and James, and between the present day, and when the two met at a French hotel on the Atlantic coast. If you've read and enjoyed Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, I think you'll love this, too.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber — This big, sprawling novel has one of the more inventive premises of any novel I've read in awhile. It's about a Christian missionary named Peter who is hired by a mysterious corporation called USIC to travel to a distant planet (which humans have dubbed Oasis) to preach the Bible to the native population (which Peter calls Oasans). Peter must leave his beloved wife Bea— who was his savior when he was a drug and alcohol addict, and who was his reason for his being "born again."  Life on Earth in general, and his wife Bea's life specifically (as he learns by communicating with her via a rudimentary emails machine — and Faber includes these missives at great length), begin to deteriorate and Peter feels helpless, but has success with the Oasans. Peter is the second minister to visit Oasis, and the Oasans, who refer to themselves as Jesus Lover Five, Jesus Lover Thirty, etc, are eager to learn more about Jesus. The novel, though often a bit too deliberate, is an interesting reflection on the egoism inherent in particular religious doctrine (being so sure you're right and everyone else is wrong) specifically, but humanity in general. When you finally see the whole picture —why the Oasans want a Christian minister and to learn about "The Book of Strange New Things" (the Bible) — you'll realize it's a conclusion that matches the ingenuity of the whole plot itself. But it's just a really long walk to get there.

A Map of Betrayal, by Ha Jin — I loved Ha Jin's novel War Trash, but I was only so-so on this one. It's the story of a Chinese spy who spends the last half of the 20th century in the U.S. taking an American wife and working at the CIA. It's also the story of his daughter, who in present day, is trying to learn the truth about her father and the rest of his family — her father had a whole other family back in China before he came to the U.S. It's a short, brisk novel that I thought actually read more like an outline for a novel than a novel itself. What's here is intriguing, but it just felt too slight.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How To Build a Girl: Assault on Cynicism

You don't pick up a novel about a teenage girl who attempts or reinvent herself and expect it to be a cautionary tale about how cynicism is exhausting. But here we are — and it's the main reason I really dug Caitlin Moran's filthy, funny coming-of-age novel, How to Build a Girl.

Johanna Morrigan is a 14-year-old girl living in small town in England. When she makes a terrible gaffe on live TV after winning a poetry contest — she does a regrettable Scooby Doo impression, which doesn't sound that bad at first, but in the scorching cauldron of the teenage world, it's all but a death sentence — she's forced to reinvent herself in such a way that she thinks will protect her from the emotional gauntlet to which teenagers are subject. So she decides to become Dolly Wilde, a slutty goth cynical music critic.

It goes well for awhile, but then, predictably, it all goes horribly wrong. It's often said that the measure of good novel is that its characters learn something, are able to change, and therefore readers learn along with them, this novel has that in spades.

Dolly/Johanna sleeps her way through the early-1990s indie rock scene, while using her poison pen to totally eviscerate all the silly new bands she's actually relyingson for her next sexual escapade. All the while, she cultivates a crush on a singer/songwriter named John Kite, who sort of becomes her spiritual guide through her burgeoning adulthood.

But then, the predictable comeuppance. And soon after, Moran gives us a page-and-a-half rail against cynicism that is absolutely shiver-inducing for its insightfulness. It's something EVERY teenage should be forced to read. Here's a taste:
“For when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas…Cynicism is, ultimately, fear...And of course the deepest irony about the young being cynical is that they are the ones that need to move, and dance, and trust the most. They need to cartwheel through a freshly burst galaxy of still-forming but glowing ideas, never sacred to say ‘Yes! Why not!’”
Man, I love that. And I really dug this novel — it's another novel that's rather waaaaaay outside my comfort zone. But it's worth the trip.

(Side note: There's a scene in the novel where Dolly/Johanna goes to review a Smashing Pumpkins concert. It's mid-1992, about a year Pumpkins had released their debut album, Gish. And she actually goes backstage, and briefly talks to D'Arcy (the bassist) about how she thought the show went. And Moran tells us that Johanna finds out later that D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha were in the midst of a breakup, and drummer Jimmy was starting his heroin habit, and singer/guitarist Billy was deeply depressed. And if you've read this blog for any measure of time, you know that Smashing Pumpkins is my favorite band of all time, and seeing them as characters in a novel damn near blew my mind.) 

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.)