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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Flight Behavior: Marriage, Monarchs and a Changing Climate

Humans are the only animal that can use logic, but that doesn't mean we're always logical. Nor does it mean that we'll always be convinced by reason, or when presented with overwhelming factual evidence.

Yes, the back drop for Barbara Kingsolver's new novel Flight Behavior is climate change. But the novel also examines how poor choices in our personal lives can become victims of their own logic -- that how things are is how they'll be, and they can't be changed. In both cases, though, we do have the power to combat the inertia of entrenched beliefs -- it just takes some courage, discipline and a hell of a lot of hard work.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a married mother of two living on a farm in Eastern Tennessee with her husband Cub. And she's about to throw away her good name on an affair. But as she treks into the woods to the spot for her illicit rendezvous, she witnesses the side of a mountain as if it were a "lake of fire." What she's seeing is actually a huge swarm of monarch butterflies, who have taken a wrong turn (much like Dellarobia with her hasty marriage) on their way to their usual winter home in Mexico, and alighted on this mountain in Tennessee.

Soon, folks from all over the world begin descending upon this small, quiet, conservative Tennessee town to witness what some consider a miracle and what most consider to be a terrifying effect of climate change -- including the handsome, enigmatic Dr. Ovid Bryan, who takes up residence in a trailer on Cub and Dellarobia's farm to study the monarchs.

Throughout the novel, as Dellarobia becomes more involved in studying the butterflies (she gets a job helping Dr. Bryan with his research), and challenging her own beliefs -- both in terms of her conservative, religious values, and also her marriage to her husband, a shotgun affair when they were still in high school because Dellarobia was pregnant -- she begins to wonder what it might take to change her station in life. Is it possible? Is it realistic?

My favorite part of this novel was Dellarobia. I really, really liked her, and I was on her side from beginning to end -- rooting for her to figure that ineffable "it" out. She's plucky and smart, and increasingly determined to change for the better.

But overall, as someone who has studied and written frequently (in my real-world job) about climate change, I wish I'd liked this novel more than I did. It tends to get a little bogged down often with long descriptions of things like sheep husbandry and butterfly science. (Kingsolver is a trained biologist, and that's fairly evident here.) And there's a strange, not-critical-to-plot twist near the end that felt kind of unwarranted and unnecessary and left me wondering about the choice to include it.

The parts of the novel that some readers have found preachy -- about why people seem only to listen to and read media that props up their already-established-and-never-to-be-challenged beliefs, and why climate change seems to have become one of those things, despite the fact that it's not a political argument, but is a scientific near-certainty -- are the parts I actually found most interesting. (Kingsolver doesn't spend a lot of time on the evidence for climate change -- she assumes that you already know this, and also that you're a rational person, and understand that climate change is real. She's not trying to convince readers. She's more interested in the "psychology" of climate deniers, and how they try to recruit others to their fold.)

If you're in to biology and/or the politics of climate change, as well as a good, down-home story about the politics of marriage, you'll definitely find something to like here. I give it 3.5 stars


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bond Girl: Adventures on Wall Street

Alex Garrett is young, cute, and seemingly in way over her head in the cut-throat, spectacularly excessive, old-boys-club world of Wall Street. The questions in Erin Duffy's debut novel, Bond Girl, then: Will "the Business" break her, or will she tough it out, maintain her morals, and rise to the top (even as the markets are melting down)? Or will she let the misogynistic jerks (especially the older married guy who keeps texting her) beat her down?

The atmosphere on Alex's bond-trading floor is not unlike that of a frat house -- the team plays ridiculous pranks on each other, completes "feats of strength" (one fellow earns a $28,000 pot for eating one of everything in the vending machine), give each other silly nicknames (Alex's is "Girlie"), and treat the newbies like crap. At one point, as a punishment for being late one day, Alex has to drive to Brooklyn to pick up a 50-pound wheel of parmesan cheese. Another newbie, a would-be hot-shot Princeton grad, thinks he's advancing quickly when the other traders let him help out on a trade for Cox Communications. They make him yell across the trading floor "I'm a large buyer of Cox." He doesn't get why that's funny, or that he's being pranked.

And while that's all fun and games, the real thrust of this novel is how difficult it is for a woman on Wall Street. Alex begins dating a guy from her company, and he's cute and romantic and nice to her when they're together, but for some reason, he never answers his phone on weekends -- which should be an enormous red flag, but Alex enjoys their time together, and doesn't want to be "that girl" by making a big deal of it. And then there's Rick, the head of a hedge fun, and a major client -- who immediately sees Alex as a potential conquest. He rigs situations to be alone with her, constantly asks her out for drinks at hotels, and texts her creepy messages at all hours of the night. Alex just grins and bears it, and chalks it up as part of the job.

Overall, Bond Girl is a quick, fun read that gives a glimpse into the excesses and absurdities of Wall Street. Yes, it is on the "chick-lit" side (as you can probably tell by the cover), so there's lots of spa-ing and gossiping with friends over margaritas and thinking about how it "takes pain to beautiful." But if you're a dude, it's a good look behind the curtain, per se, to see how the other half thinks. (That's the real reason I read it -- it came up as available on my library holds list right before Christmas, and I figured it'd be a good mindless distraction between presents and egg nog.) It's light and breezy, and a good read for when you just want to turn your brain off and be entertained.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Yellow Birds: On The Psychology of War

It's a mercy Kevin Powers' Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds is not longer than its scant 225 pages. That's not because it's dull or slow or poorly written. No, it's a good thing it's not longer because it's often hard to read and draining — it deals with the psychology of soldiers at war, and that's a tricky thing. Had this novel been longer, it could've felt long-winded and easily lost its way, like soldiers in the dark.

But as is, it's a chilling illustration of how shattering war can be for kids in their late teens and early 20s. No one is adequately equipped for the psychological toll of war, but especially not kids. So one of their coping mechanisms is to turn the terrible to mundane. After watching an old woman get shot, and a young girl trying to drag her from the road, our narrator, 21-year-old Private Bartle muses: “I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed…We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.”

Chapters alternate between war scenes in Iraq (it's 2004, and the soldiers are fighting in and around the small fictional city Al Tafar) and post-war Bartle, who has returned to his hometown of Richmond, Va., and trying to comprehend the war. Before shipping out, Bartle promises a young private's (named Murphy) mother that he'll watch over him, and deliver him back safely — of course, an impossible promise. Murphy is an 18-year-old country boy, who doesn't quite understand what he's getting himself into. And as the effects of the war break him down, Bartle's promise becomes increasingly difficult.

Where this novel really succeeds — and why it was a finalist for the National Book Award, no doubt — is in diving into how these characters rationalize the war; how they come up with psychological justifications to help them deal with the stress. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Bartle explains that he and Murphy assume that anyone who is going to die is, essentially, predestined to die. So there's no use worrying — if there's a bullet with your name on it, there's nothing you can do.

The novel also succeeds because of its poetry — Powers writes with power and grace, simultaneously; each page, practically, includes a way of describing something that makes it as clear as if Powers had plopped what he's describing down in front of you. (Example: "When the mortars fell, the leaves and fruit and birds were frayed like ends of rope. They lay on the ground in scattered piles, torn feathers and leaves and the rinds of broken fruit intermingling.") And there's even a few pages of stream-of-consciousness — another example of how the stress of the war wreaks havoc on these characters' psyche.

This certainly isn't your typical war novel — you don't often hear war novels described as "inexplicably beautiful," as Ann Patchett does on one of the cover blurbs. But it is all the things that make up a good war novel, specifically, but just a good novel in general. Definitely recommended!

Friday, December 14, 2012

How I Learned To Love Books

“I recall with utter clarity the first great shock of my life.”
And I recall with utter clarity, when as a lad of 15 or so, I read that line for the first time. It’s the opening line from Leon Uris’ novel Trinity – the first novel I remember really, really loving, that gave me that indescribable “good book butterflies” feeling in my gut. I understood this book. It’s the first book with which I had a dialogue. And it’s the first book that wouldn’t let go of me weeks, months, years after I’d finished it.

As I wrote the “How I Learned To Read” post a few weeks ago, I started thinking about things — like reading Trinity — that not only taught me how to read, but showed me just how much I loved books–watershed moments that showed me that books were an inextricable part of my life, and always would be. I’m not talking about obvious things – like an English degree, or my parents reading to me as a child, or telling friends I was sick or broke so I could stay in and read (though all those are important). I’m talking about things that you only realize later, things that seemed relatively run-of-the-mill at the time. I came up with two more.

The first happened on June 2, 2001. I had graduated from college the previous year, and was living at home with my parents, a situation I wasn’t entirely excited about. I was reading John Updike’s Rabbit Run, and really loving it. Suddenly, I realized that of all the hundreds of books I’d read since I learned to read, I only remembered a few of them in any detail (Trinity being one of them). So I started a reading journal. Every time I finish a book, I wait until the next day (you know, to let it “sink in” a bit) and then spend 30 minutes or so writing about the book. This list (that nobody has ever seen but me) is now approximately 475 single-spaced typed pages. And I’ve done this for every book I’ve ever read since then. I haven’t missed a single one. So thinking back to that summer night when I started the reading journal… I must’ve understood something about myself then – that I wanted to remember these things I loved so much – like photographs from a honeymoon, or a voicemail from a friends saved over the years.

The second happened a few summers ago. On a vacation to New York City, my girlfriend and I were sitting on a bench in Central Park, when I glanced to my left, and was stunned to spot novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on the bench right next to ours. I had just picked up her new novel 36 Arguments For The Existence of God, but I hadn’t read it yet. I started poking my girlfriend on the shoulder and whispering, “That’s a famous writer! I just bought her book!” “Go talk to her,” she suggested. Me: “Oh, God no — I don’t want to be that guy. I’d just make an ass of myself.”

I know writers are just people like you and me, but what I realized is that I idolize writers. The reason is almost too obvious to warrant mention: It’s because novelists do something I’ve only dreamed about doing. They’re the paragons of a craft that is quite possibly the most important (non-breathing) thing in my life. And this is what made me realize how much I truly loved books. Indeed, I loved books enough that I could put a person most people have never heard of on the same pedestal others put LeBron James or George Clooney or Bruce Springsteen.

In total, what I’ve come to realize is that I love reading much more than just as a hobby — something to pass the evening hours — but as something I almost literally couldn’t be without. What I’ve learned in reflecting on these things is about the intensity of the devotion more so than the devotion itself.

Now I won’t tell you a revisionist story about how I went home after that NYC vacation, and started my own novel immediately, or that I knew on that June day in 2001 that this reading journal would be the catalyst to a life-long devotion to books. All I can tell you is that thinking about them is incredibly rejuvenating!

I now know that books are a cornerstone of the model of myself that consists of all the non-negotiable pieces of who I am. Should I ever lose my way — hey, midlife is approaching, and we all know that that is often a time of crisis — I can rest assured I’ll always have books to keep me on course.


(This post originally appeared earlier this week on Book Riot.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Tender Bar: Bad Title, Great Book

Do you know why I'm one of the last dozen or so people on Earth who hasn't read J.R. Moehringer delightful memoir, The Tender Bar? Simple: Its title. Yes, I get the turn-of-phrase, and even the possible double-meaning of "tender." And yes, it's sort of clever (in a not-really-clever sort of way). But it's just so preciously cutesy. I always rolled my eyes when I saw it in a used bookstore, and never even considered picking it up — even though I know millions of readers have loved it.

With the publication of Moehringer's first novel last fall — titled Sutton, about a bank robber, and a book I'm chomping at the bit to get to — I decided to finally grow up a bit, conquer my silly hang-up, and read. (Besides, I LOVED Moehringer's work on Andre Agassi's autobiography Open, as much for the story — and I'm a huge tennis fan — as the writing.)

I'm glad I did — The Tender Bar is a fantastic read.  It's funny. It's touching. And, yes, gosh darn it, it's tender. But you know this, already.

And most of you probably know the story, too. But if not, here's the deal: It's the mid-1970s, and Moehringer is growing up without his father, living in a house with more people than a house rightfully should hold, on Long Island. He idolizes his Uncle Charlie and Charlie's buddies, who spend their days hungover and their nights creating the next day's hangover at the bar down the street — for better or worse, they're the male influences in his life. Charlie's awesome — he's a booze hound gambler, but he loves words. Charlie's grandfather is less awesome — he's mean to his wife, and is a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but he also loves words. And so J.R. learns to love words, too.

Then the story shifts to a coming-of-age-type thing — Moehringer and his mother move to Arizona, where he meets a couple of oddball bookstore owners, who show him how to read deeply. He gets in to Yale, but feels like he doesn't belong. Still, he meets Sidney — a rich girl, who he loves desperately, but who breaks his heart (when she cheats on him), but then loves again, but then decides to ditch (a decision made at the bar, incidentally) for his own mental health. He starts his career at the NY Times, and continues to visit the bar night nightly, soaking up the barroom wisdom.

Throughout it all, J.R. struggles with his identity — does he want to be known as a person raised in a bar, and now spends his adult free time in a bar? How is bar wisdom and etiquette applicable to the real world? How does he separate himself from his father, who has constantly left his hard-working mother in the lurch? And will his own inherited love of words pay off? 

There are few parts of the story that sort of smack of revisionist history — you know, events Moehringer claims to recognize as turning points at the time they were happening, which is convenient for the story. Maybe that game of catch he had with his younger cousin (e.g.) really was a pivot for his life, but in reality, we rarely do understand moments like that at time they're happening. Then again, most memoirs are at least a tad revisionist, aren't they? But overall, it's a great story, told in prose so smooth and clean, it practically slides off the page. I give it four stars and highly recommend it, if you're one of the few who hasn't yet picked it up.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Finishing East of Eden

It's crazy, I know - but I'd never read John Steinbeck. Not once. Not in high school, nor in any literature survey in college (how is that possible?!), nor in 10+ years of post-college reading. So it wasn't without a touch of trepidation that I finally picked up East of Eden — the motivation came partially from the fact that it had recently shown up on Book Riot's Readers' 50 Favorites list, and several people whose opinions I respect had helped put it there.

It's magnificent. Fast at times, brooding at others. I learned. I laughed. I got a bit emotional, too. It's really just about everything you'd want from a novel — no wonder it's a freakin' classic (says Captain Obvious).

Beyond the obvious (the creative re-tellings of the Cain and Abel story; the Hebrew word Timshel — which is Adam's last word, and which means "thou mayest": the core idea of the novel, that we can choose to reject bad and be good, or we can choose not to; and the wonderful descriptions of the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck's beloved home), there are two things I'll remember most about his book:

1) Steinbeck's quotability. Over the course of reading this book, I tweeted a good half-a-dozen passages from the book, and marked about two dozen more. Here are a few of my favorites:
"A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar — if he is financially fortunate."
"No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel it is true and true of us." -- Lee, one of my favorite characters (see below).
"Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners." (This seems to me about as clear a statement of Steinbeck's personal philosophy as you could gain from this novel.) 

2) The characters Samuel Hamilton and the Chinese servant Lee — two of the wisest, noblest, most dignified characters in any literature I've ever read. The two recognize each other as kindred spirits early in the novel — and become fast friends. Throughout the novel, they guide the other characters, helping them to choose good instead of bad. Samuel and Lee both guide Adam out of his malaise after Cathy shoots him (Samuel punching him around is one of the great scenes in the novel), and it's Lee who constantly guides Caleb through his moral dilemmas and attempts to be good, because, as Lee says, "The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears." Indeed.



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Office Girl: A Chicago Love Story


It's February, 1999, and here we are, in snowy, freezing Chicago. Odile is 23. She's dropped out of art school and is aimless. She fears she's never done anything interesting. Jack is 25. He's an art school graduate, recently divorced, and is also aimless. The two meet at a menial second-shift office job.

That's the basic framework of Joe Meno's slim, sad new novel Office Girl. But Joe Meno's slim, sad new novel is awesome; it's one of my favorites of the year, in fact. It's a book that resonated with me — it gave me that indescribable "good book chill" feeling when I finished. And I haven't been able to shake it.

The idea here is that Odile wants to start her own art movement, and recruits Jack to help her. Odile is against "everything popular. Anything that makes art into a commodity. Or people into commodities. Or anything that's supposed to be a commodity." So she wants to make art that is surprising, because "people in this city...nothing surprises them anymore. When you live here, there's just too much going on around you, so you don't see any of it. It's hard to get people's attention."

So, they do things like ride an elevator in a downtown building wearing ski masks and holding a giant bouquet of silver balloons. Or wearing sheets with eye holes (as ghosts) on a city bus. They just want to create art that's "a moment" — that someone might remember. Jack is also working on an art project — he records sound of anything he thinks is interesting or beautiful while riding his bike around the city — a girl crying at a bus stop, or steam from a sewer, or total silence. It's similar to the guy from American Beauty, who records mundane things he finds beautiful. Jack's goal is to create a city of sounds — and when he shows Odile, she absolutely loves it.

But the idea of the art is secondary to the notion that these two people are just trying to find their ways in the world, and see in each other kindred spirits and journey-mates. They spend a lot of time riding their bicycles around the city at night, through the snow, confiding in each other, and telling each other secrets they've never told anyone else. And they try to decide what the future might hold — to move forward or to keep spinning their wheels. 

Again, I loved this book. It's 295 pages, but really much shorter (because of page breaks, and some cool art work and photos included in the pages, as well) — I read it in two sittings. No, this novel doesn't really break any new ground in terms of theme or plot, and yes, it could be argued that it feels a bit slight. But to me, neither of those mattered. These characters and the setting (dark, brooding Chicago — the streets, the buildings, the cold, snowy nights) got their claws into me, and haven't yet let go. Highly, highly recommended — especially if you love Chicago, especially if you were in your early 20s in the late 90s, and especially if you've ever felt a bit adrift. Five stars.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

How I Learned To Read

(This post originally appeared last week on Book Riot — I was feeling poetic.)

I learned to read when I opened my eyes.
 
I learned to read when I learned I loved stories.
 
I learned to read helping Encyclopedia Brown and Joe and Frank solve mysteries.
 
I learned to read when choosing my adventure was as much fun as choosing my next book.
 
I learned to read on long, warm summer afternoons when I wasn’t “supposed” to be reading.
 
I learned to read Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Harper Lee between pep rallies, tennis matches, and awkward dances.
 
I learned to read Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Irving around a square table for credit, and there were no wrong answers.
 
I learned to read all night. And I loved it.
 
I learned to read more selectively — to begin to understand what I liked, and what I didn’t. And, most importantly, why.
 
I learned to read when I learned to love what I love, and let others love what they love.
 
I learned to read in coffee shops in the evenings, after long desk-bound days spent wishing I was reading.
 
I learned to read on Sept. 12, 2008, when it was weird to feel like I missed someone I didn’t even know.
 
I learned to read in a community of other passionate readers.
 
I learned to read Riotously.
 
I learned to read on a screen or on a page — and it didn’t much matter.
 
I am still learning to read.
 
I will never, ever stop learning to read.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: Old Meets New, and Trendy

Robin Sloan's debut novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, is a funny, fashionable novel about the seeming tension between the computerized digital age and dusty, old-fashioned, mystery-infused books and bookstores. It's a novel that really wants you to know how hip it is — with asides about the Singularity (which Time Magazine actually covered last year), Google's absurd computing power and other really cool stuff you can do with computers, that, if you're impressed by, "you must be over 30."

At its heart, it's a literary mystery — just what is going on in this weird bookstore mid-20s San Franciscan Clay Jannon finds himself working at, after he's let go of his web design job? Who are all these weirdos that come to the store in the middle of the night and breathlessly request these books that don't exist anywhere else in the world (believe him, Clay's Googled them!)?

The action of the novel really starts when Clay and his new girlfriend Kat — who works at Google in data visualization, and is so smart and cute — solve one of the mysteries of the bookstore using fancy computer stuff. But of course, this mystery leads to a much bigger mystery involving a font from the middle ages and one of the first printers who published much of the knowledge of the ancient world. So Clay and Kat go to New York City to find Mr. Penumbra (who, of course, has disappeared, but they use computers to find where he's going), and try to get to the bottom of this incredibly mysterious bookish mystery.

This is one of those novels I know I'm supposed to like — but I'm not sure I did. I could never shake the feeling of how proud of itself it seemed to be. (I'll admit that it's entirely possible that I'm still smarting from that crack about the apparent simple-mindedness and lack of tech sophistication of people over 30.) Okay, but beyond that — there are sections of this novel that involve nearly impossible coincidences, and other sections that summarize a fantasy series of novels of which Clay and his friend are big fans of, but which seem like a parody of Game of Thrones, but which we're maybe supposed to take seriously?  And then these Game of Thrones-like stories suddenly become an important part of the plot too.  

And even though it really is a quick, often fun read (I read it in two sittings on planes — to and from San Francisco, incidentally), it just seemed to bow under the pressure from how hard it was trying to be cool and make you like it. Clay constantly produces these silly sarcastic asides (the story's told in first person), that are sometimes funny, but more often seeming to screaming "Please, like me! I'm really hip and urban and cool!" (Also, Clay and Kat's first date is "virtual" - i.e, he's working at the bookstore and on a video chat while she shepherds him-on-the-computer around a party. That was groan-worthy, for me.)

And but this is one you may not want to take my word for, since most people who have read it have seemed to like it — it has a 3.93 rating on Goodreads. I give it three stars, myself. Either way, it's not a huge time-committment and it's gotten a lot of hype, so I'd definitely be interested to hear someone talk me into liking it. Anyone?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes: To Live Is To Die

Jennifer Dubois' debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, is one of the more artfully written novels I've read in a long time. Here's an example of one of the many passages that exhibits Dubois' talent:
"…and an overgenerous fractured light came in through the windows. It was the kind of light that seemed to be throwing itself at your feet to beg for mercy. Or maybe the kind that falls down on its own knife in the name of honor.”
Dubois' characters seem to see a cruel, corrupt, perhaps hopeless world in these beautiful, poetic terms — and it's almost enough to distract them, and the reader, from the fact that their lives (and our lives!) are, at their most base, lost causes — because, quite obviously, we're all going to die. That's true, whether you're the victim of a debilitating disease like Huntington's that causes you to lose your sense of self, or whether you've devoted what remains of your life to a conviction that has no chance of success.

The former describes Irina Ellison, the 30-year-old Bostonian whose father lost himself, and then died of Huntington's disease. And doctor's have suggested the hereditary disease will hit her at about age 32 — so the clock is ticking on Irina remaining who she has come to know as herself. "When you are the lost cause, this makes for a lonely life," she says.

The latter describes the other protagonist (the novel is told in chapters alternating between the two characters' points of views, like chess moves) a chess prodigy named Aleksandr Bezetov, who we first meet in the early 1980s, moving to Leningrad to attend a chess academy. Aleksandr alternates in life between political conviction and the decadent lifestyle his fame as a chess champion affords."...his whole life had been about trying — and failing — to come to grips with the inevitable."

The touchstone for the plot is that Irina finds a letter her chess-playing father, who followed Aleksandr's career closely, had written to Aleksandr asking him what he does when, in the course of a game of chess, he knows he's going to lose. How does he deal with a game that's a lost cause? The life-chess metaphor is one we follow through the rest of the novel, as Irina decides to run away from her life in Boston to go to Russia (it's 2006 now) to track Aleksandr down and find the answer to her father's question — since she's soon to be in the same predicament.

The story itself, while interesting, isn't nearly as strong as the words used to tell it. But this is still a joy to read — and it's not just the illusory, imaginative passages that make it so. It's also how Dubois constructs the theme of hopelessness to make it feel somehow hopeful, and how Dubois' writing exhibits a sagacity and insightfulness you'd expect from a much, much older writer. (Dubois is 29, and was recently named by The National Book Foundation as one of its 5 under 35 honorees.) An example:
"...and that was the bottom line, he often thought: not that you could be sure that nothing would work, but that you could be sure you would never, never know what would."
I read this novel slowly — both to savor the writing, but also because the writing (and story) has to be taken in short doses to appreciate fully. But I'd highly recommend this for fans of smart literary fiction. 

(Thanks to Bookish Habits for the giveaway, from which I was lucky enough to win this great novel!)

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Book Riot Top 50: How Many Have You Read?

Over the last several weeks, Book Riot compiled a list of readers' favorite novels. 1,311 readers answered naming more than 1,200 different books. Now, Book Riot's asking how many you've read. The list is below (the ones I've read are bolded - 24 total) — count your total, and then go here to enter your number. Book Riot will tabulate and post the results regarding the averages and whatnot next week. 

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (126 votes)
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
  7. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  10. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  11. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  12. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  13. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  14. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  15. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  16. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  17. The Stand by Stephen King
  18. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  19. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  20. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  21. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  22. The PIcture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  23. The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  24. The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
  25. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (reading now)
  26. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  27. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  28. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  29. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  30. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  31. 1984 by George Orwell
  32. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  33. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  34. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  35. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  36. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  37. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams
  38. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  39. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  40. Ulysses by James Joyce
  41. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  42. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  43. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  45. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  46. Dune by Frank Herbert
  47. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  48. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  49. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  50. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (13 votes)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Naked Singularity: When Logic Fails, Readers Win

"Logic, like whiskey, loses its beneficial effect when taken in too large quantities." That quote (from some old English guy you've never heard of) is a near-perfect description of the ostensible point Sergio De La Pava's massive, ambitious, by-turns-fun-and-infuriating novel A Naked Singularity.

Through nearly 700 pages, we follow an uber-logical 24-year-old Manhattan public defender named Casi. When Casi seemingly goes to the well of logic one too many times, and logic stops working, the rest of his world comes crashing down, as well. He starts to wonder, Descartes-style, who he really is.

If that sounds a little heady, it should. And that's not all: This is a novel that's short on plot and long on digressions, including on philosophy, legal intricacies, the human genome, little-know 1980s champion boxer Wilfred Benitez, advertising, The Honeymooners, and the moral decay of America. It cuts quite a swath, to say the least! But if you can abide the digressions, De La Pava is a witty and funny enough writer to keep you turning the pages, even if he pisses you off from time to time.

We first meet Casi arguing three cases in a night court session — and losing them all in spectacular fashion, a foreshadowing of what's to come in terms of the breakdown of Casi's logic vs. the world. One of the clients — an old Chinese man who'd been arrested for selling batteries without a license — despite all possible logic to the contrary, is made to stay in jail and is later beaten to within an inch of his life for no particular reason. This episode, and one that follows: Casi actually loses his first trial, begin to crack Casi's sense of the logical world.

And so, enter fellow public defender named Dane (an Ayn Rand-ian jerk, if there ever was one). Dane, who at one point spends a dozen pages describing his attempt at a "perfect" defense, tries to talk Casi into a caper to steal $20 million in drug money from an associate of one of their clients. With meticulous, logical planning, they believe they're assured of success. It'll be the "perfect crime." But will they pull it off?

De La Pava, mostly for marketing, has been compared to David Foster Wallace — and there are certainly a few similarities, in terms of the digressions, the difficulty, and of the playful, funny pop-culture-infused writing. Also, De La Pava is very interested in the exactitude/precision of language, and often has his characters purposefully misunderstanding each other for comic effect.


But here's another cool thing about A Naked Singularity: De La Pava self-published the book in 2008 (which is why you've probably never heard of it), but it gained enough of a readership that the University of Chicago press picked it up and published it "for real" earlier this year. So it sort of stands as a self-publishing success story to be encourage by (as opposed to say a supposedly sexy, but actually terrible, book with about different swatches of a white-black color).

For the most part, I loved this book — when I wasn't mad at it. There were times I had to force myself to pick it up again, but when I did, I'd look up to find I'd read 40 or 70 or even 100 pages in single sittings. It really can be that engrossing. So if this your thing — say, if you liked Infinite Jest or Adam Levin's The Instructions — I'd highly recommend this.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cloud Atlas: "Souls Cross Ages Like Clouds Cross Skies"


David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas presents an optimistic view of the world, despite a set of stories teeming with characters who often present the worst of what human nature has to offer. Human nature is what it is, and Mitchell's six connected short stories that comprise this novel — set over widely ranging geography and time — build the groundwork for Mitchell to explore why we are the way we are, were, and will be. Indeed, "Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul."

But here's the trick: Mitchell only gives us half of each of the first five stories — we go from 1849 on a Pacific Island, to 1931 Belgium, to the 1970s in California, to modern day in England, to a future dystopian Korea. Then we get the whole of the sixth story, set in a far-future Hawaii, in which human kind has "fallen" and reverted to tribalism. The protagonist of the Belgium section is a composer named Robert Frobisher, and in a letter to his friend Sixsmith (who is one of the protagonists of the California section), he explains the piece of music he's working on, (which, incidentally, is titled the Cloud Atlas Sextet): "In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order."

How very meta of you, Mr. Mitchell — because that's the exact structure of his novel, as well. After the long sixth story is finished, each of the previous five stories is concluded, in reverse chronological order. By further way of explanation of the structure, a character, who happens to be a physicist, is writing notes to himself: "One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each 'shell' (the present) encased inside a nest of 'shells' (previous presents) I call the actual past which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of 'now' likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future."

Yes, it's all very high-concept — but it's not difficult. As with any book of connected short stories, some of these are better than others, on strictly a "reading pleasure" basis. One of the stories is about a journalist named Luisa Rey, who is investigating a big evil energy corporation. Both parts of this story hum along at a pace akin to a John Grisham thriller. My favorite was actually the story set in modern England, about a publisher named Timothy Cavendish, who has to escape from some thugs demanding money. And he winds up trapped in old folks home — but he seems to be your prototypical unreliable narrator, and so we have no idea if what he's telling us is true. It's great fun!

The most difficult part of the novel is the sixth story about the far-future tribe in Hawaii. It's difficult because it's told in a made-up dialect, so you really have to slow down in your reading to understand. At first it's cute, then it's annoying, and then it's just gut-wrenching and you can't wait for it to be over.

On the whole, though, I loved this novel. But I think I was more in thrall with what Mitchell was able to do with the structure. I could've taken or left most of the stories —  but the plot's not the point, here. What's fun is figuring out how Mitchell is able to connect his ideas and themes across all the stories

One of those themes is best summed up with one of my favorite quotes from the novel: "In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction." I loved that idea. And to expand it further, Mitchell seems to be saying that whether bad or good, humans are connected through time and geography in ways you'd never conceive of. And when at their worst, sometimes the worst wins — but sometimes "the human spirit" succeeds as well. Goodness seems to have an uphill battle against bad, but sometimes good triumphs. And that's cause for optimism. 



Friday, October 19, 2012

Facebook Resources For the Bookish Type

Amanda crushed it last week with this post about book-related Facebook pages you should “like.” Let’s keep the party going! Here are 10 more (this post originally appeared on Book Riot, but since it's Friday, and I know you want to kill time at work, I'm reposting here):

10. Téa Obreht — Last year’s Orange Prize Winner and National Book Award Finalist for The Tiger’s Wife has a kind of funny, playful tone on her feed. For example: “Dear readers: do you love David Mitchell? Does his work routinely blow your mind?” (Yes, and yes.) And, she’s a fairly regular updater with events and random items of interest.

9. Richard Russo — With only 8,000+ likes, this feed is woefully under-viewed. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that page is updated only once every couple of weeks or so. But you still get good information on Russo’s appearances, quotes from his (fantastic!) novels, and even multimedia, like this greeting from Helsinki.

8. Matthew Norman — The author of Domestic Violets, one of the funniest books of 2011, maintains one of the funniest author feeds, too. He updates pretty frequently with links to interesting articles, posts about his writing process, reader polls, and general nuggets of goofiness (eg. “If I never write and publish a novel with the title ‘Pants Off Dance Off’ I will have failed as an artist.). Give this one a “like” if you’re in the mood for giggles.

7. Gillian Flynn — This feed is mostly dedicated to Flynn’s appearances and links to interviews she’s done. But that’s a good thing, because if you’ve never gotten to see her discuss her fiction live (I had the pleasure this past summer), you’re missing out. She’s as good in person as she is on the page. And as we all know from Gone Girl, that’s VERY good.

6. Philip Roth — Something tells me Mr. Roth would hate the idea of his own Facebook feed. Even so, this is a good spot to keep up on Roth’s publishing news — including links (like this one to his awesome rant against Wikipedia) for his stuff all over the web. Warning: Page may contain crankiness.

5. Gary Shteyngart — Photos and updates from Mr. Shteyngart’s extensive travels populate this feed. Also, dachshund photos. The author of Super Sad True Love Story is rather proud of his wiener dogs.

4. John Irving — Despite the so-so reviews of his latest novel, In One Person, dude’s Facebook page has more than 117,000 likes. Last week, I learned from his page that, after 27 years in print, The Cider House Rules, hit No. 1 on B&N’s bestsellers list. Nice.

3. JK Rowling — It’s not real difficult to find information about JK Rowling on the web, but if you like keeping up with the zeitgeist, having her official FB feed on your newsfeed is a must. She’s at 1.2 million “likes,” by the way. (Stephenie Meyer only has 18,000+. I find this strangely encouraging, for some reason.)

2. Sarah Vowell — One of my favorite FB feeds, this oft-updated one gives you a wide variety of quirky, but fascinating, content. (Careful if you’re anti-political.)

1. David Foster Wallace — Of course, there are a ton of DFW-related pages on Facebook, but this one seems to be the best — offering links to ALL THE DFW-related content all over the web. (Bonus: Here’s the FB feed of The Howling Fantods, the DFW fan site. Its content is purely an RSS feed from the site itself, but it’s still a good way to keep up with what’s going on at the best DFW site out there.)

And here are a few more for the road — these are great book bloggers with great Facebook pages you may want to consider "liking," also.  
5. Bookrageous
4. Book Riot
3. Unputdownables 
2. A Home Between Pages
1. Entolmology of a Bookworm

(And, of course, I'd be eternally grateful — and may even buy you a beer — if you'd give The New Dork Review of Books a "like," as well.)



 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Winners of THE MIDDLESTEINS giveaway

We wound up with 33 entries for three copies of Jami Attenberg's new novel, out October 23rd. I assigned each entry a number and used random.org to pick three winners.

And they are....

1. Jennifer Hartling, at The Relentless Reader

2. Lindsey Sparks

3. Ellen Rhudy at Fat Books & Thin Women

Congrats, winners! I'm just emailed you to get your addresses.

Don't be ashamed, losers — you just have to try harder next time. :)

In seriousness, The Middlesteins is a great read. I'd highly recommend picking up a copy.

And, again, if you're in or near one of these cities, check out Jami Attenberg on her tour.

Now, back to Friday. Cheers!


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Middlesteins: Failed Marriage, Family Dysfunction

Richard and Edie Middlestein have been married for nearly 40 years. So when Edie's life-long overeating problem re-emerges, and "causes" Richard to leave, it's no surprise that their two grown children — Robin and Benny — take their mother's side. How could he leave when she most needs his help? That's the set-up for Jami Attenberg's new novel, The Middlesteins.

The question, though — and the reason I loved this novel — is, is it really Richard's fault that the marriage failed? How do you assign blame when such a long marriage comes to an end? Is the issue as black and white as Edie's obesity (she's pushing three-and-a-half-bills) and eating problem, and Richard being a lout? Or is there more below the surface? As Attenberg writes:

“Was he a bold individual making a last grab at happiness? Or a coward who could not contend with fighting for his wife’s life? Was he merely soulless?”
So we spend the novel, alternating between the points of view of the characters, Edie and Richard, Robin and Benny (and Benny's wife Rachelle, and their two children, 12-year-old twins Emily and Josh), trying to decide whose side we, the reader, is on. Is Richard as big a jerk as he initially seems? Or is Edie to share the blame for the failed marriage?

Attenberg is really good at pacing, revealing new pieces of information slowly and surely, and therefore constantly asking the reader to revise opinions based on these new details As more and more is told about Richard and Edie's history, and as we get to see (and feel) more about each of Robin's and Benny's relationships with their parents, what emerges is a portrait of a family on the brink. Robin's and Benny's stories are both fascinating, as well. Their own problems (Robin = single at 30, a bit of a misanthrope, and a drinker; Benny = controlling wife, unrewarding career, kind of a pushover) provide good context (and contrast) for their parents' late-in-life problems. And so will Robin and Benny learn anything from their parents' mistakes?

If you're a fan of realistic, modern, character-driven literary fiction, this is definitely a novel for you. It's a quick read — fewer than 300 pages — but one I really enjoyed. Four stars.


Finally, if you missed it last week, the publisher has generously allowed me to give away three copies of the novel — which is out Oct. 23rd. You can enter by leaving a comment on this post. The deadline is Thursday, 10/11 at midnight EDT.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg: A Giveaway!

One of the new novels I'm most excited about this fall is titled The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg. The story is about a nearly-40-year marriage that's about to come to an end — and the couple's two children are doing their all to keep them together. The twist on this one is that wife Edie’s food addiction has caused her to become so obese, her husband Richard decides to leave her.

I mean, who doesn't like a good failing marriage / dysfunctional family story? And, as if to endow this story with extra "dysfunctional family cred," The Franzen even contributed a blurb: “The Middlesteins had me from its very first pages, but it wasn’t until its final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg’s sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling."

Ms. Attenberg grew up in Buffalo Grove, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) and has set her story in and near Chicago. There's always an added pull to fiction set where you live, isn't there? But besides that, I'm really drawn to realist literary fiction like this, so I'm super excited. I've read the first 10 pages, and Franzen is right — it grabs you right away. If the rest is this good, we're all in for a real literary treat!

Now, for the good news: The publisher, Grand Central Publishing, has generously offered to allow me to do a giveaway of three copies of the novel — which is officially out Oct. 23.

To enter, please comment below with your name and email address. Alternatively, you can leave your name and email on the post at The New Dork Review of Books Facebook page.

You have until midnight EDT next Thursday (10/11) to enter. I'll announce the winners Friday, 10/12.

Giveaway is open to U.S. residents.

Good luck!

Also of note: Ms. Attenberg will be on tour this fall to support her novel. Here's a list of events. If you're in or near Chicago, she'll be at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square Nov. 8 at 7 pm (see you there!) and the Barnes and Noble in Skokie Nov. 11 at 2 pm.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Zadie Smith's NW: Playful, Poetic, Passionate

Zadie Smith's fourth novel, NW, is her most ambitious in terms of structure and style. She's passionate, poetic, a bit cheeky, and, yes, at times challenging, too. But don't let that scare you off. This novel about the people who inhabit a London neighborhood, told in five sections, might be her best book yet.

The now mid-30s Londoners who all grew up in the same neighborhood, but whose paths have diverged, all have secrets, all have seen successes and failures (some more than others), and all have a complicated relationship with their roots. Essentially, the novel asks us to consider how different factors (race?) and different formative events turn us into the people we eventually become.

The main focus is on Leah Hanwell and Natalie (Keisha) Blake, lifelong friends. Each woman gets her own section of the novel. We start with Leah, whose story is told in short mini-chapters. Leah is in a failing relationship, based largely on physical attraction, with a "beautiful" man named Michel. And she's trying to figure out what it means to be happy — is the definition of contentment her friend Natalie's marriage to a nice, successful man named Frank, and their two children? Or is it Leah's own avowed-childless state?

The next section, the most straightforward in the novel, tells the story of a guy named Felix — a recovering drug addict who is trying to put his life back together. But is the pull of the past too strong? We only find out at the end of the novel how Felix's story relates to the stories of the other three characters. And it's more than a little bit of a gut-punch. 

My favorite part of the novel is Natalie's section, the third. It's the longest in the novel, and it's told in 185 line- to paragraph- to page-length snippets, each with its own title (the title, which, is often key to understanding what Smith is talking about). What makes these so successful is that Smith trusts you as an observant reader, often dropping you in mid-scene or mid-conversation. It's like she assumes you will know what she's talking about — whether a popular movie or Kurt Cobain or a reference to a previous part of the novel itself — and therefore the effect is that you actually feel engaged in Natalie's story. Besides that, Natalie's story — growing up, going to law school, marrying Frank, harboring a secret — is really engrossing.

The final two (very short) sections tie a bow on the novel, as we see Leah's problems with her boyfriend come to a head, and Natalie, despite her own problems, has to come help her. We also see Natalie taking a quasi-tour of the neighborhood with the fourth principle of the novel, a fella named Nathan, who had been the object of a schoolgirl crush by Leah. But now, drug-addicted and possibly homeless (we actually first see Nathan briefly in the first section, when Leah runs into him at a train station), Nathan stands as cautionary tale and is the balance or contrast to the relatively successful Leah and Natalie.

Overall, this is a great novel. I loved it! My only complaint about the novel is that, even though it's 400 pages, it actually feels a bit slight. Indeed, it's probably, on a word-count basis, the shortest 400-page novel you'll ever read. That's because the line-by-line spacing is rather loose  and the Natalie section often breaks several times on the page.

I would've gladly kept reading more about these fascinating characters. There are several unanswered questions at the end. But still, the process of getting there is a really rewarding reading experience. I devoured this novel in about four days. It's worth noting that, often, you have to go back and re-read some of the simple clues Smith drops in earlier sections to understand a reference in a latter. But that's not hard, and it gives you those awesome "I'm-in-on-the-inside-joke. I get it!" moments when you understand. (Example: Why does Natalie change her name from Keisha?) 

Zadie Smith is one of my all-time favorite writers, and this novel — seven long years after her last — does nothing to diminish that. Four stars. Highly recommended for the literary fiction fiend.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Bookish Birthdays Abound!

Okay to drink when you're 3 years old, yes?
On October 1st, 2009, The New Dork Review of Books was born! Can you believe it? And three years,  277 posts, untold number of comments, more than 110 reviews, only a few bad feelings, and much, much, much fun, it's still going (relatively) strong!

And if that's not enough to get your blood racing, here's this: Book Riot turns ONE today! (Click the link for Riot editor Jeff's stats on the first year of rioting.)

On this day of dual-bookish-birthdays, I figured it'd be fun to look back at some posts from each site — sort of a quasi-clips show. Enjoy!

Five Favorite New Dork Review of Book Posts (not necessarily best, just my favorites, and in no order):
5. Top Five Sins of the Reviewer — No. 1 response to this: Man, I do all these. Don't worry, I do too.

4. Should Art Be Separated From Artist? — A quasi-stroll into philosophy, with comment-y results.

3. A Dude's Guide To The Help — Believe it or not, I read The Help. It's good!

2. Top 10 Books I Wish I Could Read Again For the First Time — I almost never participate in the bookish memes all around the interwebs, but I couldn't resist for this one. It struck a nerve.

1. What's It Called When You Write About Your Own Life? — This is actually my favorite post, because it's my least favorite post. It went up in early January, 2010, and it taught me quickly that if you're lazy and you put bullshit on the Internet, people will call you on it. So this was an eye-opener. Plus, not only is the idea behind it stupid, it's just a badly written post — something I always look at for inspiration. Is that strange?


Five Favorite Book Riot Posts.
5. Reading Pathway: David Foster Wallace — This was one of my first posts - it went up Oct. 27, 2011 — and the one I probably wrote and rewrote the most. I wanted this "tribute" to my favorite writer's work to be perfect. It's not, but it's still one of my favorite BR posts.

4. A Dude's Guide To The Hunger Games — Believe it or not, I read The Hunger Games. Stranger still, I liked it a lot. I did this post back in March, and it earned me accusations of sexism! That was surprising, but funny.

3. Good Writers, Bad Blurbs — Probably the most fun BR post to work on, this involved going through all my shelves in search of laughingly bad blurbs. This post also got me onto The Huffington Post for the first time, which damn near caused my head to explode.

2. Matching Up? Book Quotes and Their Movie Counterparts — While this was generally ignored from a readership standpoint, this was a really fun post to work on because it's something I'd always wondered about.

1. George Orwell's 1984 vs. Real 1984 — Silly, but fun. My first BR post that "hit."

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Few Thoughts On Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace


"Infinite Jest, for all its putative difficulty, cares about the reader, and if it denies him or her a conventional ending, it doesn’t do so out of malice; it does it out of concern, to provide a deeper palliative than realistic storytelling can, because, just as in Ennet House, you have to work to get better.”
That is my favorite passage in D.T. Max's new biography of my favorite writer. It almost perfectly captures what I've thought about Infinite Jest since I first finished (and loved!) it. Hey, you get out of it what you put into it, to use an annoying platitude that DFW would've probably hated.

If you're a DFW fan, this biography does a great job of filling in the meat on the bones of a lot of piecemeal anecdotes or generalities you probably already knew about him. Yes, he battled lifelong depression, managed with a drug called Nardil. Yes, he was a passionate prescriptivist and a "hard-core syntax wienie." Yes, he wrote Infinite Jest based much on his own experience in rehab and a halfway house in the late '80s after his own drug and alcohol addiction nearly brought him down. And yes, trying to figure out how to write The Pale King is what practically killed him — he wasn't blocked, per se, he just couldn't figure out how the book should come together, and he thought going off the Nardil might help. It didn't.

The biography assumes you've read most of DFW's work, and includes a lot of literary theory. Max spends much ink in the early part of the bio discussing DFW's early thrall with Derrida, Barth and Wittgenstein, and how these thinkers manifest in his first novel The Broom of the System, which he wrote during his undergraduate days at Amherst, and published while working on his MFA at Arizona. "For Wallace, the great flaw of most fiction was that it was content to display the symptoms of the current malaise rather than solve it," Max explains.

I won't lie to you, these theory sections (even interspersed with tales of boozing and philandering with women) were dull and difficult — and probably even duller if you've never read DFW's first novel or his collection Girl With Curious Hair, which is anchored by his nearly impenetrable novella, Westward The Course of Empire Take Its Way. Indeed, the first part of the bio — as many chronological bios are — was the least interesting. But I did love this idea, about DFW's first days at Amherst: "There was a moment in many of his fellow students' lives when they realized Wallace was not just smart but stunningly smart, as smart as anyone they had ever met."

After rehab, though, DFW "converted" to an advocate for "single-entendre" writing. As he stalked the poet and memoirist Mary Karr, he produced the novel for which he'll be forever known,. This is the most fascinating section of the bio, to me. Max discusses the aftermath of getting clean, his trouble with women, writing, and then cutting and editing Infinite Jest while teaching at Illinois State.

The last third of the bio discusses DFW's new fame — and his discomfort with it. Even though DFW claimed to have never heard of Nirvana until after Cobain committed suicide (a dubious claim, DFW's friends say), Max argues that there are some parallels between Nirvana, and other music of the early '90s, and Infinite Jest. ("The chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" paralleled Wallace's portrait of a generation addicted to media with its assertion that everyone was 'stupid and contagious...Here we are now, entertain us.'")

For the rest of his life, DFW wrestled with his fiction. He published two more volumes of short stories (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion) and some fantastic non-fiction. His 2006 essay on Roger Federer in The New York Times Magazine is, in my view, the standard by which all other sports journalism should be judged. But it was his next "Long Thing" that he could never quite get right. He wasn't a perfectionist, but his inability to "figure out" what exactly The Pale King should be was his undoing. He decided to try new meds in 2007, but his anxiety increased and depression worsened, and on the night of Sept. 12, 2008, he hung himself. Max: "This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but was the one he had chosen."


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shine Shine Shine: Humans Being

Here's a point to ponder: We're all flawed. But the good news is that it's these flaws that make us, us; indeed, that make us human. Throw in a robot-constructed moon colony, a Burmese-born bald woman named Sunny, and flashbacks (I mean, a TON of flashbacks) to childhoods and adolescence, and you have the general framework for Lydia Netzer's debut novel Shine Shine Shine

Maxon Mann is a socially awkward and way-too-literal-minded robotics engineer. He's the genius behind the design of a moon colony completely built by robots and he's on his way to the moon to put his plan in place. Maxon's flaw is that he wants to be perfectly logical — to eschew the three things he can't seem to program into his robots, "Show preference without reason (LOVE)...doubt rationale decisions (REGRET)....trust data from previously unreliable source (FORGIVE)." Even as Maxon aspires to "elevate" himself to pure logic (robot?), he still seems to understand the value of being human: "Humans work. They are an evolutionary success. The more they evolve, the more successful they become." And he's glad he fell in love with Sunny, despite all rationale to the contrary.

His wife, Sunny, who since they were kids has tried to teach him how to act based on feeling instead of logic, was born to American missionaries in Burma. She just wants to have a normal life, and her flaw is not being able to resist the temptation to celebrate what makes her unique — which is the fact that she has been born bald. And quirky. When she and Maxon decide to begin having children, she begins wearing a wig — a (maybe-way-too-obvious) symbol for normalcy. Their son Bubber is autistic, and in her more unguarded moments, Sunny blames Maxon that his too-logical, too-literal genes caused their son to be abnormal. 

As Maxon is rocketing off into space, a car crash right at the beginning of the novel sends Sunny into a existential tailspin. But Maxon and Sunny met when they were kids, and so, much of the novel is told in flashback. It often felt like just as we got going in the present, we'd pulse back to the past for more back story that would show something supposedly meaningful about Maxon and Sunny's relationship.

Perhaps you've noticed by the tone of this post so far that I wasn't exactly a fan. And that's tough, because a lot of folks whose opinions I trust have loved this novel. If there were ever a time to throw out a (somewhat meaningless) review cliche, it's now: "I really wanted to like this." And more, when you aren't exactly enamored of a novel everyone and her sister seems to love, it's easy to fall into nit-picking to defend your opinion. For instance, the heart-throb TV newscaster neighbor, who all the neighborhood wives lust over, is named Les Weathers and is a fantastically cliché caricature of a real person. But that's not useful.

Really, what this came down to for me is that it just seemed so precious — as if we'd think "Yeah, this is all very precious, but it's also quirky and unusual and quite an inventive story, so it's okay that's it's precious." That, and the constant (perhaps overdone?) flashbacks gave the novel such a recursive feel. After about page 100, I kept thinking,"Wait, hadn't she made that point already?"

Please don't throw tomatoes at me. I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I can definitely see why other readers loved it. Netzer is a clever, funny writer (check out this line: "Pigs are earthy; their proximity may lead to carnal thoughts." And that line's even funnier, I realize now, loosed of context). But so, I just couldn't find my way into this one. If you're on the fence, read other reviews, and then decide. Chances are pretty good you'll like it more than I did. (How's that for passive-aggressive?!)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Suck It, Tolstoy: Reminscing Reading War and Peace

Last year at this time, I was just over 400 pages into War and Peace. I thought of that randomly this morning, as today is the last day of summer and I think of War and Peace as the anti-summer read. Last year, I started it on Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer. Make sense, right?

And so, this morning, I sat for a few minutes reminiscing about conquering that monster — it's probably not unlike some people reminiscing about climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel (not to be overly dramatic.) But I remembered the following post I had a lot of fun writing for Book Riot soon after finishing — it's a sort of running diary of my random thoughts while reading. Enjoy! 

Sept. 5 — It’s Labor Day. I’m a little hungover after a rare Sunday night out, but I’d promised myself all summer I’d start today, Labor Day being the unofficial end of summer, and War and Peace being the polar opposite of a summer read. Makes sense, right? Let’s do this! Bring it, Leo! Confidence: 100 percent!
 

Sept. 6 — Kit, a Book Riot contributor, and War and Peace conqueror, leaves a comment on my Goodreads page congratulating me on starting the novel, but castigating me for the translation I’ve chosen. Some British wanker named Anthony Briggs translated the version I’m reading. Apparently, that’s a bad thing. I decide to keep going. Confidence: 75 percent.
 

Sept. 12 — One of the main characters, Pierre, and his buddies play a drinking game whereby a fellow has to balance himself on a window, pound a bottle of booze, and not fall out. Later, they’re all faced, and they tie a policeman to a bear and throw him in the river. This book is speaking to me. Confidence: 100 percent.
 

Sept. 28 — I’m on page 441. There’s a lot lately about a Russian officer named Denisov, who talks like Elmer Fudd. All his r’s are w’s. So if he were exhorting his buddy Rostov, he’d say “Wostov wules!” as opposed to “Rostov rules!” I spend more time thinking about the linguistic technicalities of how, precisely, this quirk would’ve manifested itself in Russian than I reasonably (or sanely) should. For three seconds, I consider learning Russian to understand better. But I don’t. Confidence: 70 percent.

Oct. 13 — I’ve slowed to an absolute crawl. I’ve only read 90 pages in the last two weeks. But I did traverse the first major “war” scene, which wasn’t bad. Need to refocus. This novel needs more sex. It should be War and Peace and Sex. That would rule. Confidence: 50 percent.
 

Nov. 1 — And here we go…Sex-kitten Natasha is questioning her engagement to the dashing Prince Andrey, and thinking of running off with another dude. I kind of have a crush on her. Confidence: 75 percent
 

Nov. 13 — Finally, the good part! I’m on page 911 and Napoleon’s invading Russia — and Mr. Tolstoy’s giving him an all-time tongue-lashing, just barely stopping short of saying outright that he has a small penis. Good stuff. Confidence: 85 percent.
 

Nov. 24 — It’s Thanksgiving Day, and I’m not watching football. Instead, I’m reading War and Peace. You better never question my literary credentials ever again. I’m on page 1,195. Rounding third and heading for home. Confidence: 95 percent.
 

Dec. 5 — Holy shit, I’m finished! Well, to be precise, I’m finished with the main story.There’s still about a hundred pages of epilogue. That should be no big deal, though. It’ll just wrap up the loose ends and I’ll be done. Done! Confidence: 100 percent!
 

Dec. 7 — Holy shit, that was brutal! The last hundred pages (two epilogues) were an absolute test of wills — Tolstoy wraps up the characters’ stories eight years in the future, and then spends another 40 pages philosophizing on history and war and whatnot. It was rough going. Of course, the last bit has to be the most difficult. But now I’m done. DONE!
 

Jan. 3 — I’ve spent a month thinking about this novel, and with the exception of this pithy blog post, I’ve been unable to come up with anything even remotely intelligent to say about the book. I need to read it again, I guess. Anyone else in?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fobbit: War Is Hell(ishly funny)!

Should Iraqi suicide bombers be called "insurgents" or "terrorists" in the official Army press releases? Why? And what's the big deal anyway?

It's Baghdad in 2005, and these are just a few of the many questions, often of increasing absurdity, the Public Affairs Officers (PAO) of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Triumph must concern themselves with in David Abrams alternatingly hilarious and heart-attack serious debut novel Fobbit.

"Fobbit," as is explained right there on the cover, is a derogatory name for the paper-pushers who work at the base in Baghdad, but who don't see combat. They still have to carry their guns around with them, though.

The funny parts in this novel (which is told from the alternating points of views of several characters) are mostly from the point of view of the Fobbits. Exhibit A is Eustice Harkleroad (called Stacie) — he's the chief PAO, and the patsy for the whole base. He's a nose-bleeding nervous nelly who always has state- and country-shaped food stains on his uniform. He's also a momma's boy who writes hilarious emails home to his mother with wildly exaggerated claims of his exploits. In one memorable instance, in a case of such comic earnestness the reader can't help but laugh out loud (which I did!), he tells his mother, "A hero never yawns, after all."

Harkleroad's charge is one Chance Gooding, really the only "normal" person in the story. Gooding spends his days writing and re-writing press releases, dealing with annoying journalists, and writing a journal about his experiences.

Of course, we also get stories from regular soldiers, like Abe Shrinkle, an incompetent, indecisive moron, and Lt. Colonel Vic Duret, his commander who is constantly exasperated with Shrinkle and wants nothing more than to go home to his wife with her big, pillowy breasts. The war scenes are the not-so-funny, but still-riveting parts. Right at the beginning, there's a scene in which an Iraqi has tried to run his bomb-laden car into the back of a tank, but the bomb doesn't explode, and Shrinkle is left wondering what to do about the injured suicide bomber who's trapped in his crumpled car. His indecisiveness costs him the respect of his men and Duret. And he didn't have much of their respect in the first place, evidenced by the fact that, earlier, somebody had pooped in his helmet.

On the whole, I loved this book. The only thing that gives me pause — and it's not unique to Fobbit, but in any war story in which a moron has a position of authority — is to wonder how someone who is so incompetent (like Harkleroad and Shrinkle) ever could've gotten to their posts as leaders of men? Didn't someone recognize earlier on that they were idiots, and decline to promote them? Abrams mentioned on his blog that the novel as it came into the world was about half as long as he originally wrote it, so some of that may have been explored in pages that wound up on the cutting room floor. Or maybe it's just a nit-pick.

At any rate, Fobbit definitely deserves its spot on the "latest and best" war novels list. Four stars, and highly recommended!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Highlights of Salman Rushdie's Personal History

This week, The New Yorker published a 12,000-word piece written by Salman Rushdie about the famous fatwa, and its immediate aftermath. It's an absolutely riveting story.

(Also, strangely, it's written in third person. "There was a novel growing in him, but its exact nature eluded him. It would be a big book, he knew that, ranging widely over space and time." e.g.)

And but, I'd highly recommend carving out some time to read it, too. But if you don't have the time, here are the highlights:

— I don't know that I've ever seen the actual text of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, but here it is, quoted in the story's opening lines: "I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the 'Satanic Verses' book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them." Awfully chilling and stark, isn't it? 

— On the morning the fatwa was issued, Valentine's Day 1989, Rushdie attended a memorial service for a friend. Martin Amis was there, and expressed his concern for Rushdie's safety. The novelist Paul Theroux was also there, and expresses something approximately opposite to concern, joking "I suppose we’ll be here for you next week, Salman."

— These lines, that wrap up the first section of the piece, reflecting on the day the fatwa was issued, are chill-inducingly good: "On this day there were crowds marching down the streets of Tehran carrying posters of his face with the eyes poked out, so that he looked like one of the corpses in “The Birds,” with their blackened, bloodied, bird-pecked eye sockets. That was the subject today: his unfunny Valentine from those bearded men, those shrouded women, and that lethal old man, dying in his room, making his last bid for some sort of murderous glory."
 
A fascinating, engrossing short history of the origins of Islam and what, actually, the Satanic verses are is here; scroll to the "1966" subhead. (This part's worth reading word-for-word — it's not very long, and immensely worth it.)

— Rushdie discusses his inspiration for the novel The Satanic Verses (as well as what he believes to be his future oeuvre): "...the great question of how the world joins upnot only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live."
 
—  The Satanic Verses was published Sept. 26, 1988 in England. It was banned in India (a friend of Rushdie's in the Indian government called him to break the news) in early October. On Oct. 10, he received his first death threat. Many more followed. Rushdie, of course, was taken aback by the fury: "To him, it was the least political of (his) three books. And the material derived from the origin story of Islam was, he thought, essentially respectful toward the Prophet of Islam, even admiring of him."
 
And, suddenly, two-thirds of the way in, a turn for the sentimental: "He became, in the media, a man whom nobody loved but many people hated."
 
Semi-disingenuous-sounding (on purpose) apology offered soon after the fatwa, in exchange for continued protection from the British government: "As author of 'The Satanic Verses' I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others."
 
—  D'oh! “'Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell,' the dying imam said." 
 
John Irving, comedic genius: "When the book was in its third consecutive week as No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, John Irving, who found himself stuck at No. 2, quipped that, if that was what it took to get to the top spot, he was content to be runner-up."
 
The last part of the piece chronicles Rushdie hiding out under the protection of two guys named Stan and Ben. At one point, there's a scare (that turned out to be just a misunderstanding) regarding his ex-wife and son. And then, Rushdie, at the behest of his protectors, renamed himself Joseph Anton (the first names of two writers he admired, Conrad and Chekhov). "He had spent his life naming fictional characters. Now, by naming himself, he had turned himself into a sort of fictional character as well."