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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Round House: The Fine Line Between Justice and Revenge

The opening pages of Louise Erdrich's 2012 National Book Award-winning novel The Round House show our 13-year-old narrator Joe digging up tree roots that are attacking the foundation of the family's home on an Indian Reservation in North Dakota. It's a scene that screams "METAPHOR," and it's not long before we find out just how uprooted Joe's family's has become. Joe's mother has been savagely beaten and raped, and as a result, she dissolves within herself and withdraws from the family, as the family and the reservation community struggle to make sense of the crime. 

Joe's father — a judge on the reservation —looks for legal recourse. But the crime has deeper roots and is more complicated than the family could've imagined. It's not just a case of reservation politics and misguided revenge, as Joe's father originally assumed. Of course, that doesn't make the crime any less horrific. What it does make it is more difficult to bring the perpetrator to justice.

Joe — always accompanied by his good friend Cappy — struggles to understand the crime, as well. He wants revenge, but more, he just wants things to be back to normal. Of course, that's impossible — not just because of the terrible crime against his mother, but also because Joe's at that age where he has to choose what kind of person he will be. Will he become a "reservation deadbeat" like many of his relatives, or will he make something of himself, and work toward justice, like his father?

Told in thrilling bursts of story (with Joe as the first-person narrator) mixed with Native American myth, and even a dash of humor (one of Joe's grandmothers is a consummate pervert — constantly telling Joe and his friends about her sexual escapades as a younger woman), this is a novel that won't leave you anytime soon after finishing.  It's about in/justice and revenge and violence and hypocrisy and history and growing up and friendship and family and just all the things that make for a novel you're can't extricate from you thoughts. Yes, it's haunting. And it's highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Five Thoughts About Dan Brown's Inferno

1. Is This The Same Guy? Right off the bat, I have to ask: Why doesn't Robert Langdon ever reference his previous adventures?! Wouldn't you think it'd be a huge credibility booster (and probably score some points with the cute lady he's running with here) to drop into conversation something like "Well, I did save the world once before from an anti-matter toting lunatic, so this time it should be no sweat" or "Remember that time I discovered that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene? That was pretty cool." But, no. Nothing. All we get is that he's still a symbologist, and he's still claustrophobic.

(I totally understand there's something beyond Langdon's control going on here. Dan Brown and Dan Brown's publisher wants each of the four Langdon novels to be self-contained so readers won't feel like they have to read the others to know what's going on. I assume that's the case. Right? Still...)

2. Bad Writing Is Badly Written: On the plus side, a reference to Langdon's claustrophobia (and according to this fantastic Book Riot post — Inferno By The Numbers— there are 13 such references) provided fodder for, by far, my favorite unintentionally comic passage in the novel. You ready? 

Landon shrugged, “Your plane needs windows.”
She gave him a compassionate smile. “On the topic of light, I hope the provost was able to shed some for you on recent events?”  

Now, I know you don't read Dan Brown to be achieve literary enlightenment. Still... Oh, and here's another one — because you can't not gently chide Dan Brown's writing without pointing out one of his oh-so-dramatic italicized thoughts. So, here is my favorite:

Only one form of contagion travels faster than a virus, Sinskey thought. And that’s fear.

(You can practically hear the dramatic music behind the text, can't you?!

3. A Mini-Review: So, how is the actual novel?  If you like Dan Brown, you'll probably like this — it's a novel generated directly from the Dan Brown Plot Formula. Only the names and places have been changed. This time, we're in Florence and the puzzle and clues are Dante Alighieri- and Divine Comedy-themed.

Our good buddy Robert Langdon wakes up in a Florence hospital, having no memory of how he got there. And so he has to re-solve all the mysteries he solved the previous evening before he was shot in the head, which apparently caused his memory lapse. It's The Hangover, Part 4, Starring Robert Langdon! (And as much fun as that might, it's not — it's a little silly and seems a tad contrived.) And so we lucky readers get to follow him around, as he's chased by an assassin and evil government forces, trying to remember what the hell happened last night.

But soon, a larger issue emerges. As The Lost Symbol was "about" Noetic Science, Inferno's about world overpopulation. And the question is: Will Langdon solve the puzzle in time to stop a madman hell-bent on creating a 21st century plague that will effectively thin the herd, as the Black Plague did in the 14th century (which, incidentally, lead to the Renaissance)?

Langdon's sidekick is the beautiful, brilliant but troubled Sienna Brooks. Since Dan Brown needs to have Langdon tell us things in conversations with other people, Dr. Brooks is the unwilling victim of this edition of Langdon's Mansplaining. Anyway — away we go from Florence, to Venice, to Istanbul, and this time, Brown's even got a few tricks up his sleeve. Not everything is as Langdon assumes. (Dramatic music, again.)

4. Dan Brown's Italy: Along the way, Brown takes an inordinate amount of time (usually at the beginning of each chapter) describing each and every landmark he thinks we should know about. So a lot of this novel reads like a travelogue — which prompted this tweet, which is so accurate I'm mad at Jeff for thinking of it first:
(If you're not familiar, here's who Rick Steves is.)

This tour-guiding put a rather fierce dent in my enjoyment of this novel. I even skimmed a bit. And I never skim. 

5. The Divine (Unintentional?) Comedy: When this novel is funny, both unintentionally and intentionally, it's VERY funny. In one scene, Langdon is trying to talk his publisher into letting him use the company's private jet. And the publisher tells him his books don't sell well enough to give him jet privileges: "If you want to write Fifty Shades of Iconography, we can talk." That is legitimately funny.

One recurring theme I also found hilarious is how condescending Mr. Langdon seems to be in this one. For example, there a few times in the early parts of the novel when the supposedly genius Sienna doesn't know something Langdon does. And so Langdon thinks (in a signature italicized aside): "Nice to know a 208 IQ can be wrong sometimes." Whoa, there, fella?! What's with the 'tude?!

So, to sum up: This is my least-favorite Dan Brown novel since Digital Fortress — which wasn't a Langdon novel, but which is my no-hesitation answer to the "worst book I've ever read" question. If you're curious, here would be my order of Dan Brown Langdon novels: The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, The Lost Symbol, and then Inferno. I really struggled to get through Inferno — I was just bored a lot of the time.

What did you think?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Seating Arrangements: New England Snob Story

As a German Catholic Midwesterner, stories about wealthy New England WASPs are infinitely fascinating to me. And if they are to you too, you'll definitely get a kick out of Maggie Shipstead's debut novel Seating Arrangements. It's a fun story for many reasons, not the least because it allows us as readers to look down our noses and laugh at these haughty, Harvard-educated, soulless jerks — to turn the tables on these characters who are so used to looking down their noses at us.

The story takes place over the course of a weekend, as the Van Meter and Duff families gather on an island at the Van Meter's summer home off the coast of Connecticut for the wedding of daughter Daphne to son Greyson. Even the names of these characters invite derision from us "normals" — Greyson Duff's father is Dicky Duff, his older brother is Sterling Duff, and his two grandmothers go by Mopsy and Oatsie. I mean...right?! (It's Mopsy who delivers the line of the novel when she's dissatisfied with the choice of restaurant for the rehearsal dinner: "This family is falling into the middle class." OH NO!?!? A fate worse than death, right?) 

Lest you think this is chick lit (it's not!), most of the story is told from the perspective of Winn Van Meter, Daphne's father. This guy's a real piece of WASPy work. He's incapable of empathy, has no understanding of (or concern for ) how he comes off to people outside his upper-crust crew, and he's constantly "manifesting someone else's idea of perfection." His entire life is constructed only to conform to what's expected of him as a member of the American elite.

Here's all you need to know to understand Winn: When his younger daughter Livia calls in tears about an embarrassing episode at a Harvard club (incidentally, the same club Winn was a member of, and still hold irrationally dear), instead of being a good father and consoling her, he scolds her for shaming the family — "...and you chose that place, of all places, to drag this family through the mud." Wow! And then, when his wife Biddy explains that he may not exactly win father of the year, he can't believe he did anything wrong: "(Livia's) too worked up. She's hormonal. I can't get through to her when she's like that." (Now, I may not be the most sensitive fella in the world, but even I know that going with the "she's hormonal" explanation is going to go over like a lead balloon with most women.)

So of course, Winn makes a fabulous mess of his daughter's wedding weekend — he fights with Livia (thinking she's the reason he's not been invited to join an exclusive golf club), he flirts with one of Daphne's bridesmaids, and he generally makes an ass of himself with drink and bad behavior. It's so much fun to watch him crash and burn. Schadenfruede, to the nth degree!

If you're like me, and you enjoy a good New England snob story, this is for you. Shipstead is a wonderful, observant, often funny writer, and her debut novel is a breezy, beachy read. Hey, it was even blurbed by Richard Russo, if that sweetens the deal. Check it out! 

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Last Girlfriend On Earth: Riffs on Relationship

You may have heard of Simon Rich — he's a writer for Saturday Night Live (second youngest one ever), and he also frequently writes the Shouts & Murmurs column for The New Yorker. Hell, his Wikipedia page even calls him an "American humorist." Basically, his comedy credentials are well-established, even though dude's not even 30 yet.

In this collection of very short stories, Rich's goofiness is on full display. These 30 stories, each between one and five pages, are about the quirky, often absurd, nature of relationships. Generally, Rich starts with a stereotype or a simple kernel of assumed truth, and riffs it into an entire story. For instance, my favorite story in the collection "Magical Mr. Goat" is about what would happen if a child's "invisible" friend became real and started making uncomfortable advances. When the child fends him off, telling him they should just be friends, and that he'll find someone, the goat exclaims, "That's not true ... You're the only one who can even see me!" THAT's comedy!

Or, another story titled "Sirens of Gowanus" makes fun of dudes who overlook any red flags in a woman when she slows the slightest interest in him. In this case, the woman is a siren who will lure him to her island in the Gowanus Canal, and probably eat him. It had happened before. "You can't judge someone by their past relationships," the guy argues to his buddy. "Like okay, she killed Stanley. But how do you know what was going on between them? You weren't there."


"Center of the Universe" is about God dating a needy woman, who doesn't understand why he can't take time from his job of creating the world to spend more time with her. Yeah, some of these stories may annoy you.

The title story is about one of the last women on Earth, who is in a committed relationship, and who refuses to acknowledge that the President and Brad Pitt requesting "meetings" with her is not because they want to bed her, but only because she's smart and engaging. And she still becomes jealous of one of the other last women on Earth when she thinks the other woman hits on her boyfriend. Really funny!

There are a few duds — stories in which the cornerstone idea may have just been better as an idea, not a whole story. Rich riffs off the idea that your exgirlfriend's next boyfriend is always evil — and builds a story about a guy's exgirlfriend dating Hitler. Another story in a similar vein has a guy using a secret government invisibility serum — and he's supposed to be finding a terrorist, but instead the guy uses his invisibility to stalk his exgirlfriend while she's on a date.

Overall, though, I'd definitely recommend these — I read them over the course of three weeks or so, just a few here and there. They definitely don't require much mental bandwidth, and for the most part, they're clever, funny, and insightful. You'll definitely do a few "knowing nods," a few chuckles, and a few outright laughs out loud.