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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The New Dork Review of Literary 2011

From Leo Tolstoy (twice) to Vince Flynn and from Stieg Larsson to Margaret Mitchell, an eclectic year in reading, it was. So much so that I'm writing like Yoda now, apparently. Anyway, in total, I read 43 novels comprising about 19,000 pages. Out of that, here are some high (and low) lights:

Novels That Had Me Near Tears...of Funny
Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman, and Fathermucker, by Greg Olear -- Of all the novels I read this year, I probably had the most pure fun reading these two.

Best (But Most Depressing) Novel About Catholicism
Faith, by Jennifer Haigh -- Haunting. A gut-punch to your guilt-basket. But very, very good.

Longest, Most Scaled-the-Summit-Feeling-When-Finished Novel
War and Peace, of course. As one commenter suggested, I can now where the "I Read War and Peace" Tshirt. You know, if something like that existed. It doesn't, right? Right?

Uber-Hyped Trilogy That Kept Getting Worse As The Books Got Longer
I liked The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But The Girl Who Played With Fire was mostly dull and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest made me glad there are no more novels.

First Time With a Famous Novelist...Success
Haruki Murakami -- I loved both Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore. I'm hoping to take on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 in 2012.

First Time With a Famous Novelist...Failure
T.C. Boyle -- When The Killing's Done just didn't do it for me. But it was just intriguing enough to give Boyle another try...at some point.

Most Sobering Reading Moment of 2011
Finishing The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. Made me incredibly, incredibly sad.

Most Overrated Book of the Year
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht -- The writerly chops are clear, but why this novel won so many awards isn't.

Biggest Surprise of the Year
I really, really enjoyed Gone With The Wind. I had assumed it would be an ooey-gooey slog. Not so at all. Ta'dow, Rhett!

Favorite Non-Fiction
In The Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson -- Just a fascinating, intricately researched look behind the curtain of Berlin in the 1930s.

(and finally...)

Favorite Fiction of the Year
3. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
2. Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman
1. The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Cheers to a great Literary 2012!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fathermucker: Parenting is Rewarding?

Joshua Lansky, the SAHD (that's "stay at home dad") protagonist of Greg Olear's fantastically comic meditation on parenthood and marriage, hates a lot of things -- Josh Duhamel, The Devil Went Down To Georgia, the Kardashians, 99 percent of Facebook status updates. But he does love his children, even though they drive him practically batty. And, thus we have a novel. The conflict between Josh's striving to be a good parent and his sarcastic cynicism (he still hasn't quite given up the ghost on being "cool") are what make Fathermucker such an awesome read.

This novel takes place over the course of one particularly hectic day. While Josh's wife is away for what is ostensibly a week-long business trip, Josh has to hold down the fort with his two high-maintenance little whipper-snappers, three-year-old Maude and four-year-old Roland. An early-morning playdate yields a potentially life-changing secret: Another mother tells Josh she suspects his wife is cheating on him.

The rest of the novel chronicles Josh's day. Josh is quite the contemplative chap, but hilariously so. And so we get his meditations on everything from oral sex to rock and roll to why the hell he can't seem to write another screenplay -- he'd sold the option for one five years ago, but has been basically blocked ever since. We watch as Josh takes Roland on a fieldtrip, deals with his idiotic babysitter and even more idiotic pest control guy, tries to score an interview for a freelance article with the frontman for a popular 90s punk band whose kid happens to be in Roland's class, and all the while wonders if his wife of 10 years is, indeed, having an affair. 

I'm not a parent, but I loved this novel. It's a quick, easy read (I read it in two days) that'll have you alternating between giggles, *snorts* and gut-wrenchingedness -- Josh's wife isn't really cheating on him, is she? IS SHE? Sometimes Josh is sure she is, sometimes he's positive she's not. But most of the time, he literally doesn't have time to think about it as he's trying desperately to shepherd the kids to the next thing. At any rate, this book is high quality. Definitely check it out!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Submission: Confronting Beliefs

This is a novel that demands a lot of its readers. That's not to say Amy Waldman's The Submission is difficult or dull -- in fact, it's the polar opposite of both. What it is, though, is a novel that makes readers think; that asks readers to challenge long-held beliefs and ideas, no matter how firmly they think those ideas are held. Notions you may judge to be obvious, aren't. And ideas that may have seemed odious suddenly may not seem that way either. To me, it's one of the best kinds novel: A novel that feels perfectly in tune with how our society operates (for better and, mostly, worse), and that demands that you confront your own feelings and beliefs.

Enough with abstractions. Here's the deal: Two years after the attacks of 9/11, a jury convenes to select a design for the memorial to be built at Ground Zero. The jury selects (without knowledge of the designer, since the submission process was anonymous) a design for a beautiful garden with flowing canals and the victims' names written on the walls in the shapes of the twin towers. Most everyone's happy, until...envelope please...the designer is revealed to be a Muslim. Or at least he's a guy with a "Muslim name": Mohammed Kahn.

The public outcry is immediate. And furious. How could a Muslim be allowed to design an "Islamic paradise" to effectively memorialize the "jihadist martyrs," not the victims, right-wing conspiracy theorists ask? Obviously, not all Muslims are terrorists, you bigoted fools, say Mo's advocates. So why shouldn't Mo, an irreligious American architect, be allowed to build his design, since the design was judged the winner based on aesthetics, not politics or religion? But Muslims are responsible for 9/11, counters the opposition, so it'd be, at best, insensitive,and at worst, horribly insulting, to allow a Muslim designer to memorialize them.

This culture war is the basis of the novel, and the frenzy that follows is examined through the eyes of several New Yorkers -- including Mo himself, and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow who is the leading proponent of Mo's design. But both of these characters begin seeing themselves through the lens the increasingly polarized public sees them. They begin to question and doubt, to yield, especially in Mo's case, to others' (often stereotypical) visions of them.

A Bangledeshi immigrant who lost her husband in the attacks, a woman who runs an organization called Save America From Islam, a buffoonish right-wing talk show host, and a down-on-his-luck blue collar fella named Sean who lost his brother round out the cast of characters that give this novel a really complete feel. And the media circus (another character is a less-than-ethical journalist) and the political wrangling (the governor of New York has national ambitions and is constantly waiting to see which way the wind blows and maneuvering politically) feel spot on. As do the difficult questions the novel raises. 

Are moral absolutes really absolute? Why is bigotry so wrong (and idiotic...and harmful)? Can art ever really be separated from artist? The readers must grapple, especially those of the conservative persuasion, at whom Waldman often takes aim.

Much like the politically charged environment portrayed, this novel itself was also divisive. It's the only book I've seen wind up on a "most overrated novel of the year" list, as well as several "best of the year" lists, including this one from Entertainment Weekly. I tend toward the latter -- perhaps not one of the best books I've read this year, but a very, very good one, nonetheless. Waldman (a former journalist) writes lucidly and knows her stuff -- whether architecture or the ins-and-outs of a newsroom. You trust her, even if her characters piss you off. This is highly recommended!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Marriage Plot: A Book Report

Here's how Jeffrey Eugenides tells this story: Each section starts in the present and continues for just a couple of pages. (eg. The novel opens with main character Madeleine waking up hungover on her graduation day from Brown in 1982.) Then, we go back six months to a year or more so it can be explained how everything leading up to where we are now came to be that way. (eg., Madeleine had been dating mysterious, but sexy, Leonard, but they fought and broke up. And she'd also fought with her friend Mitchell, who is secretly in love with her.) Then, once we're caught up on everything, the story continues onward. (eg. Leonard and Madeleine reconcile. Mitchell's left out in the cold, and goes to Europe.)

Of course, that's a fine way to tell a story. But here's the problem: The "rehashing" parts are all much, much longer than the real-time parts, so the novel has the effect of seeming like a book report of the book this book was supposed to be. We feel like we're constantly reading summary, not story.

Here's the other problem: The first 100 pages are a LOT about literary theory and semiotics, which not only adds to the "book report" feel, but also makes the beginning of the novel feel like a freshman weed-out class — it's tough to get through, but once you do, you're supposed to be treated to the "good part." But what happens here is that high expectations for this novel (based on how awesome Middlesex was) are almost immediately dampened. And unfortunately, the novel never fully recovers.

So the rest of the story is about Madeleine and Leonard's troubled life together, and Mitchell's travels throughout Europe, during which time his college crush, Madeleine, is never far from his mind. But is Mitchell really in love with Madeleine, or is he in love with the idea of being in love with Madeleine?

Look, I'm more surprised than anyone I didn't like this novel. I'm willing to allow that certain readers who have more of an appreciation for 19th century literature (Madeleine considers herself a "Victorianist" and loves novels by writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters) may decode some allusions in this novel that I missed, and therefore like it much more. And furthermore, parts of the novel are amazingly lucid and insightful. Other than the first 100 pages, this is a really smooth, easy-to-read book.

But sadly, Eugenides fluid prose can't save many other snooze-inducing episodes — eg., as we learn about Leonard's family history and while Mitchell is working in India. So I'm giving this 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Upon Finishing War and Peace

Did I like it? Sure, I liked it well enough. That is to say, I liked chunks of it. Parts were snooze-inducing, but parts were as fast-paced and fun to read as any modern thriller. It's only when you see the whole and start thinking about the scope and how it all came together — and start missing the characters — that you realize that you did truly enjoy it; that you didn't just keeping reading to say you'd read it.

So was it worth it? Absolutely! Indeed, the hardest part isn't reading the novel itself — contrary to popular opinion, it's not difficult at all; it's just long. No, the hardest part is coming up with anything reasonably intelligent to say from 1,400 pages and three months of reading. 

One thing I can tell you for sure; here's my favorite quote from the novel, about Pierre:
"And it was the lack of an purpose that gave him the complete and joyous sense of freedom underlying his present happiness." 
If you're unfamiliar, Pierre, a Russian nobleman who inherits a huge sum when his father dies, spends most of the novel on a sort of vision quest to find life's meaning. He carouses with women. He drinks heavily. He gets religion. He turns philosophical. And then mystical. But then he finally gets it, and the moment of his catharsis is one of the great moments of the novel. I loved it!

The thing that most surprised me about the novel is the much higher proportion of "peace" scenes to "war " scenes. Only about a third of the novel takes place on the battlefield, or deals with other men-at-war-related stories, including a few chapters from the point of view of Napoleon, which were hilarious in that it was clear how much Tolstoy detests him.

But it's in one of these war scenes in which Tolstoy gets to what seems to be the point of the novel, inasmuch as you can pinpoint a single point in a 568,880-word novel.
"The course of a battle is affected by an infinite number of freely operating forces (there being no greater freedom of operation than on a battlefield, where life and death are at stake), and this course can never be known in advance; nor does it ever correspond with the direction of any one particular force."
Just as true in war as in peace (life), yeah? This is an idea Tolstoy brings full circle in his (rather tedious) epilogue, in which he discusses his philosophy of history and argues that free will is false.

Anyway, so here we are, at the end of a three-month climb. And you know what the best part about it is? Finally (finally!), this photo I've been bandying about on this blog for more than two years isn't just a sad example of blatant grandstanding anymore. It's real. Yeah, this actually happened! Woohoo!  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Two Months of Book Rioting: A Short Update

It's been a great few months over at the new site venture Book Riot. Have you been by to check it out? There's a TON of great content over there — from one of the funniest, most gruesome book-related things I think I've ever seen (When Used Books Attack: Banana Edition) to a post that stirred up quite a bit of controversy (Why Aren't Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult Pissed At Jeffrey Eugenides?).

I've been posting twice a week over there, and really enjoyed the developing community and the feedback. (...except for the guy who called my Booze and Books "stupid" and "insensitive." That guy can ram it.) One of my posts is currently second (behind the Banana thing) in traffic — George Orwell's 1984 vs. Real 1984: Which Was More Gnarly?  (If I had it to do over again, I'd probably re-write that headline and not try to be overly clever with the word "gnarly." It's kind of cringe inducing now. So it goes...) And my David Foster Wallace Reading Pathways post is currently sitting at third. Good times! 

On the not-so-successful-but-still-fun-to-write-front: I did a post trying to evoke a Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal — satirically "explaining" why we need more celebrity-penned novels, like those that have recently been published by Snooki, Tyra Banks and the Kardashians. It pretty much went over like a lead balloon. So later that week, I posted a companion piece that was a bit more straightforward. Lesson learned. But they were still fun to work on, even if they were mostly ignored. 

Anyway, if you haven't swung by, please do. Here's the page that lists my posts from the last two months, in case there's anything you missed.

As always, thanks for reading!