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Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad: Time Marches On

Music as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of life is a fairly common strategy in literature. But rarely is it employed with such hipness and fun as it is in Jennifer Egan's 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From The Goon Squad. To drive home this music-as-metaphor notion, near the end of the novel, a character explains: "Hey Dad, there's a partial silence at the of 'Fly Like An Eagle,' with a sort of rushing sound in the background that I think is supposed to be the wind, or maybe time rushing past!"

In fact, the passage of time is the real rub in this series of 13 interconnected stories featuring several recurring characters. "'Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?'" an aging music producer named Bennie tells an aging guitarist who is hesitant to play a show. Bennie, who owns a record label, and his assistant, Sasha, are really the two main characters. The novel goes back and forth in time explaining both their successes and failures. Sasha is a kleptomaniac with a checkered past — as a teenager, she'd run away with (you guessed it!) a musician, and supported herself by stealing, among other socially frowned-upon activities, in Naples. And Bennie struggles to come to terms with middle age and a failed marriage.

The crescendo and diminuendo of Bennie and Sasha's lives, mixed with those of several related characters, is what makes up the meat of the book. As time marches on, and mistakes are made, are the characters able to redeem themselves? And if so, how? And if so, is that redemption authentic?  

The characters' quests for authenticity, whether real or not, is another one of the more fascinating themes of the novel — an appropriate theme for a novel about the music business, don't you think? One of the stories chronicles Bennie's high school days (from the perspective of a female friend named Rhea who happens to have a crush on him) in the late '70s in San Francisco. Bennie and his friends — mostly from upper class families  — fancy themselves punks, but Rhea acknowledges that even with the green hair and dog collars, nothing is real until they leave their parents' houses and join the real world. Another story deals with a PR specialist who tries to rebuild a murderous general's reputation by hooking him up with a famous actress. And finally, the last story has a blogger (though in a futuristic way — because it's the year 2021) paying other bloggers to write nice things about a musician desperately in need of a big break.

Egan tells these stories in different voices and with different methods — one of my favorites is a faux magazine article, the tone of which bears more than a passing resemblance to a David Foster Wallace piece. There's also a story told in shapes that resemble PowerPoint slides — that story itself isn't as interesting as many of the others, but the form and ingenuity is, and this is where the music-as-metaphor theme is driven home in that the character Lincoln is obsessed with pause in classic rock songs.

This is a novel (four stars from me) much deserving of its Pulitzer  — and on a related note, it's awesome reading a Pulitzer-winner that's not a stuffy, too-literary trudge. Read this!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Branching Out: Novels as Linked Short Stories

Last week, Kerry at Entomology of a Bookworm put up a fascinating post discussing changes in how she reads since she started blogging. Her post really got me thinking about how, or if, or in what form this blog has changed my own reading habits. Here's what I came up with: This blog hasn't so much changed how I read as it's changed what I read. (We've already been over the fact that the blog has sped up my reading in terms of books-per-year.)

Here's one major example: In my entire 32 years of life before starting this blog, I'd never willingly read one of those interconnected-short-story novels. And the only one I had read — rather unwillingly in college — was Winesburg Ohio. Those types of novels have always been turn-offs for me. Given my preference for longer books — staying with characters and story for hundreds of pages — these tales-told-in-snapshot just weren't appealing.

But last March, a friend, having recently discovered my blog, lent me her copy of Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders — a National Book Award-nominated collection of interconnected stories about life in Pakistan. Soon after that, I agreed to participate in a blog tour for Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin, a National Book Award-winning novel of stories about New York. And then, earlier this year, based on about 153 blog-comment recommendations, I read Tom Rachmann's The Imperfectionists, a novel of linked stories about an English-language newspaper in Rome. There's no two ways about it, all three of these novels are phenomenal. I loved 'em!

And now, I'm almost through Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Good Squad, which I'd avoided, despite the facts that I'd very much enjoyed the three novels-via-linked-short-stories mentioned above, and that it comes highly recommended by The Reading Ape, and that it won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and that it just won the Pulitzer.

The lesson here: I'm nothing, if not a stubborn reader. A Visit From the Good Squad is fantastic as well, and so having avoided these types of novels my whole reading life, now I've read four really, really good ones in the past 12 months. Amazing, right? See, it pays to get over your hang-ups and try new things! And it's almost all attributable to conversations via this blog.

And now that I'm over that hang-up, what can you recommend in the way of other great novels told as linked short stories?  What are some of your favorites?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The History of History: High-Concept Fiction of the Highest Order

The History of History, Ida Hattemer-Higgins' debut novel, is, simply put, an awe-inspiring piece of fiction. The genius of this fiercely intelligent novel — other than the fact that Hattemer-Higgins' prose is absolutely gorgeous — is that it's an unconventional, postmodern (fractured narrative, bizarre dream sequences, unreliable narrator) tale that still crackles with mystery and page-turning intrigue. It's the kind of novel you really only should read 20 to 30 pages at a time and then put aside to digest and puzzle out the significance of what you've read. Normally, with "difficult" fiction, that's easy to do. Not here — it's a story with a magnetism that won't let you leave it.

Margaret Taub is a mid-20s American living in Berlin, Germany in the early 2000s. As the novel opens, Margaret stumbles out of a forest, not remembering how she got there. Fast-forward two years — Margaret has settled back into her life in Berlin as a history student and English-language tour guide, but still has a significant gap in her memory before and after emerging from the woods. One day, she receives a mysterious note addressed to Margaret Täubner, summoning her to an appointment with a Dr. Arabscheilis. Despite the fact that she thinks it's a mistake, Margaret goes, hoping for some clues about her missing memory.

Then, the novel really starts rolling. Margaret soon becomes obsessed with the story of Magda Goebbels, the wife of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. As the Russians were nearing in the final stages of World War II, Magda murdered her six children in Hitler's bunker before she and her husband committed suicide themselves. Margaret, who is haunted by visions of Magda all around Berlin, wants to try to understand why. Was it an act mercy, or an act of evil? In the course of her research, she stumbles across a clipping about a Jewish couple who also killed their three children before being deported to a camp. To Margaret, that seems to be more an act of mercy, when compared with Goebbels'. But when is killing your own children ever morally justifiable?

Intrigued by Dr. Arabscheilis' wisdom after their first meeting, and becoming increasingly unmoored, Margaret returns frequently to the doctor who becomes her spiritual guide/guru. The doctor, an old woman with a giant head, is a wonderful character, imparting advice and constantly speaking in dichotomy (difference between story and memory, difference between anestheticizing memories vs. aesthetizing them). At one point, Dr. Arabscheilis tells her:
"You, my pet, are having an identity crisis that has become moral despair. It is impossible for the human animal to remember his or her own life without cleaving a line, a line of some kind, however capriciously zigzag, lazy, narcissistic, arrogant or, on the other hand, self-blaming and unforgiving, between right and wrong, credit and blame."
The novel's intricate plotting and Margaret's obsession with history allow Hattemer-Higgins to deal with a number of heady moral and philosophical issues, all the while bringing us along at a pretty fast pace as Margaret tries to figure out what happened to her...or what it was that she did. Throughout the book, we're constantly wondering about Margaret's sanity. Are her visions — Berlin's buildings turned to flesh, Magda Goebbels in the form of "hawk-woman," playing a weeks-long game of Hearts with a ghost — a product of her declining mental faculties, or simply beautiful dreams? "And a sense of beauty, my pet, to each his own, is the weir that staunches the flow of madness," the doctor tells Margaret in the later stages of the novel. The degree of Margaret's madness is the riddle Hattemer-Higgins presents her readers, and even at the novel's shocking, stupefying conclusion, that's never really clear.

Sadly, this novel — published in January 2011 — remains obscure to most readers. Most likely, that's attributable to the fact that many readers hear "difficult" and run screaming towards Dan Brown. But this novel isn't difficult in the Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses sense. In fact, it's not difficult at all — it's just that it does require a fair amount of thought and concentration to get the most return on the reading investment. And even then, it almost certainly requires a second reading to decipher all the symbolism and philosophizing. Still, this is high-concept fiction of the highest order, and therefore, highly, highly recommended!

Monday, April 18, 2011

This Too Shall Pass? Thoughts on The Pale King Release

I have to stop. I am driving myself utterly mad. In the last week or so, I've read approximately 244 articles, reviews and retrospectives about David Foster Wallace and The Pale King. As a result, I spent most of last Friday — the book's official release date — in something resembling the state of mind of the character in DFW's story "The Depressed Person."

And I still haven't been able to bring myself to actually buy the damn book. The reason, I think, is that there's something really final about that. It's something I'll never do again: Buy a new novel from my favorite writer of all time. It's that thought alone that brings about nearly soul-crippling sadness. Not helping matters is the fact that, in a somewhat cruel twist of fate — which isn't really fate, because I freely chose these books myself; it's more like an evil masochistic coincidence — I'm currently reading not one, but two, books about suicide (Anna Karenina and The History of History).

And but so, it's hard for me to account for why DFW's suicide has affected me so forcibly. After all, it's been two-and-a-half years now. But it might as well have been yesterday. I won't bore you by rehashing why I love his writing — you can read that here, in a post I did in Dec. 2009 celebrating my one-year anniversary of finishing Infinite Jest. It's not like his writing disappeared when he did. I don't know. To state the obvious, it's just overwhelmingly sad that such an awe-inspiringly brilliant writer offed himself in the midst of his prime.

Okay, time to sack up. The Pale King's in my cart ready for check out. Nothing left to do but click............

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes: Hawaiian History With a Bit of Punch

When I made my first trip to Hawaii on vacation earlier this year, I quickly realized two things. First, I suck at pronouncing Hawaiian names. Secondly, I know embarrassingly little about Hawaii's history.

So I was delighted when I learned that noted witticist Sarah Vowell's new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, provides a quick, glib guide to 19th century Hawaiian history. I've always meant to read Vowell, and never have, so Unfamiliar Fishes provided an opportunity to kill two Hawaiian nene geese with one lava rock: learn history, read Vowell. (Also, it mercifully allowed me to abandon my original plan to learn Hawaiian history: Trudge through all 1,140 pgs. of James Michener's Hawaii.)

Beginning with King Kamehameha's unification (read as: conquest) of all the islands in the early 19th century and continuing through the arrival of the first American missionaries in 1820, the book explains how various events, factors, influences, etc. all led up to the US's rather underhanded annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Along the way, we get some fascinating tidbits about whaling, the founding of Punahou School (an elite private high school that happens to be our president's alma mater), a Hawaiian princess conflicted about marrying her brother, and a crazy pseudo-Mormon guy named Walter Murray Gibson who made friends with a Hawaiian king, but was excommunicated from the Mormon church for misappropriating funds.

Vowell is a thorough researcher and a wonderful writer — switching seamlessly between historian, travel writer and humorist. She's certainly the most fun-to-read when she's cracking wise and pointing out contradictions and stupidity. She's no fan of the missionaries and generally let's 'em have it throughout the book. My favorite line, which I judge to be pure genius: "In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of 'I don’t give a damn what you think.'"

The black-and-white historical sections are still interesting, but lack that Vowell flair. Near the end of the book, as Vowell rushes through the (il)legal maneuverings that led to the annexation, she barely stops to take a breath, much less throw in her signature wit. Here, you learn more than you're entertained — which isn't of itself a bad thing, but it feels more like a college textbook.

So, four stars for Unfamiliar Fishes. I realize now I liked it a lot more, and learned much more, than I thought I did while reading it. Isn't it cool when a book sneaks up on you? If you like Vowell, you won't be disappointed here. And I liked it enough to try some of her other stuff now.

By the way, the title is a reference to a quote by a native Hawaiian and Christian convert named David Malo, who in his old age, became concerned that the old customs were being abandoned and that the Haole (Hawaiian for "outsider", basically) or "unfamiliar fishes" would soon dominate the islands.


Monday, April 11, 2011

The Omega Theory: Everything Is Information

What if the universe is nothing more than an incredibly intricate computer program? Sounds a bit Matrix-y, yeah? But apparently famed physicist John Archibald Wheeler theorized this "It From Bit" idea -- that literally everything in the universe could be described with 'yes' or 'no' binary choices -- near the end of his career. And it's an idea still being kicked around in some scientific circles. This It From Bit theory is the basis for Mark Alpert's taut, fast-paced scientific thriller The Omega Theory. Only Alpert poses the question: If the universe is a computer program, what could cause it to crash?

As our thriller opens, Columbia University science historian David Swift and his wife, physicist Monique Reynolds, are opening a Physicists for Peace conference in New York City. But just before Swift gives his keynote, the news arrives that Iran has just tested a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, David and Monique's adopted autistic son Michael is kidnapped by some religious nut-jobs who are after a secret stored in his head.

We soon learn, though, that the nuclear test may not be quite what it seems. And with the help of the FBI and a mysterious Israeli physicist and computer scientist, David and Monique race through the back alleys and secret tunnels of the Old City of Jerusalem to the deserts of Turkmenistan to try to rescue Michael and find the truth about a dastardly plot to destroy the universe.

Along the way, Alpert gives us some fascinating tidbits about everything from quantum computing to particle physics to code-breaking to the always-interesting science vs. religion debate. In fact, Alpert primes the pump with a quote from Albert Einstein to kick off the novel: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

The Omega Theory is the second book in Alpert's David Swift series, and it's everything the first book in the series, Final Theory, should've been. I'd even go so far as to recommend skipping the first book and starting with this one. You'll pick up the gist of the first one along the way. Four stars for The Omega Theory -- it's a fantastic read for science-based thriller fans!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Where Ya At? A Look At Favorite Literary Settings

Earlier this week, a friend told me she'd just finished, and really loved, Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus. I have that book (only because I forgot to return the damn selection-of-the-month form from The Quality Paperback Book Club several years ago) but I've never been that tempted to try it. In fact, it currently resides on my "D-list" shelf in the basement. I didn't even know what it was about until my friend described it. And then she said it takes place in 15th century Florence. Now, I am interested.

Why? Because to me 15th century Florence with the Medicis and Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo and the wars and crazy Savonarola's "bonfire of the vanities" is fascinating! Florence in the 1400s was pretty much ground zero for the Italian Renaissance, and as such, is very fertile literary ground. In fact, I'd go so far to say it's one of my favorite literary settings. I've read several books set there — including a biography of Leonardo, and Irving Stone's "biographical novel" of Michaelangelo titled The Agony and the Ecstasy.

And that got me thinking about other literary settings. And what I realized is that the setting of a novel is an enormous deal for me in terms of deciding whether I might be interested in it. Remember your high school English class when you learned that the Mississippi River is actually a character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Since learning that, the idea that good writers make the setting as much a character as the characters has really taken root with me. To wit, I just bought a debut novel by a writer named Ida Hattemer-Higgins titled The History of History solely because it takes place in Berlin, Germany — an amazing city I was lucky enough to spend 10 days in last year. (Thank you, Icelandic volcano, for "sticking" me there for an extra week.)

Perhaps my favorite literary setting of all is New York City. The self-proclaimed greatest city in the world is also the greatest literary setting in the world, in my humble view. I actually wrote about this last year, including a Top 11 list of my favorite NYC books. It's certainly no coincidence that the center of the publishing universe is a common setting for novels. I'm glad things worked out that way.

Another favorite setting is Israel. I've actively searched out really obscure books, like A Palestine Affair by Jonathan Wilson, and By The Rivers of Babylon by Nelson DeMille because they take place in Israel. No matter your politics, you have to agree that Israel's just an absurdly fascinating place. I've read a ton about its history and a ton of novels set there — and the more I read, the more interested I am. David Grossman's To The End of The Land is up soon.

So what do you think — is this fascination with setting quirky or normal? Do you place high importance on the setting of a novel when book prospecting? Do you read novels solely because they're set somewhere you find interesting? Examples?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Is It Worthwhile To Review Crappy, Obscure Novels?

I was going to write a review of the crappy, obscure thriller Final Theory for today's post, but as I started writing, I started thinking: What's the friggin' point? You've probably never heard of this book, so it's not like you were on the edge of your seat wondering if it's any good or not. And so then by writing a negative review about it, I've just convinced you never to give it a second thought. 

So why waste my (and your) time? I'm not sure why this just occurred to me. I certainly don't feel obligated to review every novel I read (and I don't). And I don't accept self-published books to review — partially for this reason: If I hate it, then I'm pasting a novel no one's ever heard of anyway, and so it's like adding insult to injury. Sure, if an obscure novel's great — Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil is one example — it's fun to sing its praises and therefore try to find it a wider readership. But an obscure novel being really good is a rarity, isn't it? That's why it's obscure. 

Of course, the deeper issue here is just the idea of the effect of negative reviews. Personally, I hate writing them — but dutifully do so when it's a book people need to know isn't that good; and more importantly, why. To me, writing a negative review is 100 times more difficult than a positive one. It's often tough to enumerate why I disliked it without just saying some form of "I disliked it."

And it's fair to say people don't like reading negative reviews, as well. It's funny how the percentage of "Not Helpful" votes on Amazon increases in precisely indirect proportion to the number of stars you give a review. A two-star review is guaranteed to garner several not helpful votes, a one-star review even more. Even if, by any objective measure, it's a bad book, people still seem angry at you for pointing that out.

I'm interested to hear from you. Do you review crappy, obscure books? What do you see as the benefit of doing so? Do you also struggle writing negative reviews, or at some level, is it therapeutic to lambaste a crappy book?