Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Love At Absolute Zero: Nerd On The Prowl

"If Einstein could have sex, love and physics, so could I," intones our nerdy protagonist Gunnar Gunderson partway through Christopher Meeks' indie romp, Love at Absolute Zero. But the question is, can he really?

We spend the whole novel with Gunnar, a 32-year-old physics professor at the University of Wisconsin trying to find out. Early in the novel, Gunnar is granted tenure and decides it's time to find a wife. Luckily, that same day, he runs into a high school crush, and he's certain they are meant to be together. But alas, she has a boyfriend -- she met at a speed dating event. And so Gunnar decides to try speed dating as well (that's some impenetrable logic, if I've ever heard it), but not before he does some serious self-renovation. And then, of course, things go a bit awry.

Gunnar's an infuriating fellow -- you often want to reach into the novel and slap him around. But his missteps are hilarious, and it makes for a goofy, lighthearted read. To be fair, this novel's never going to win a Pulitzer Prize, and Meeks won't soon be confused with Philip Roth. Indeed, much of the comedy in the novel is probably unintentional on Meeks' part -- like a sex scene described thusly: "Their hands again traced each other. With fingers and oral stimulation, they satisfied each other." That's giggle-worthy on a number of levels.

But you know what? Overall, I liked it. Gunnar sure is a dumbass, but he's definitely of the "lovable loser" variety. And he learns from his mistakes, which is a commendable quality in a protagonist, even one as ignorant in matters of the heart as Gunnar is. Overall, it's a breezy read not to be taken too seriously, because, really, it can't be.

Three-and-a-half stars.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Oryx and Crake: Where's the Love?

The blurb on the back cover describes Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake as "at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future." It's certainly the latter, but I must've missed the former. What love story? This is a safe bet: You'll never hear me complain about the lack of love story again, probably — but for a novel to set itself up like that, and then fail to deliver, was disappointing.

But, let's accentuate the positive: The dystopia Atwood imagines is, indeed, very compelling — the novel tells the story of childhood friends Crake and Jimmy. Crake is a scientific genius who fits in well with the decaying, stratified-by-class world that finds nothing ethically wrong with bio-engineering animals — and, eventually, humans. The story jumps back in forth in time — alternating between Jimmy and Crake's coming of age and early adulthood, and the post-apocalyptic world in which Jimmy (who now calls himself Snowman) finds himself. He's all alone, except for the "Crakers," the genetically engineered humans who think Snowman is a god, and how it came to be that way is the thrust of the novel.

So, what's the love-story angle, then? It starts like this: One day, when Jimmy and Crake are in high school, they're trolling around the Internet, looking for porn, as high school boys do, they come across a beautiful eight-year-old girl who, for reasons that Atwood never fully explains, deeply affects Jimmy. The girl (surprise, surprise) is Oryx, and she haunts his dreams. He loves her from the start. And for the life of me, even when she finally appears in the flesh in the novel, I couldn't understand why. What's she supposed to be a symbol of? Why is Jimmy so obsessed with her? Why does it matter?

Atwood is an elegant writer — this is actually the first time I've read her — once she gets going with this story (and it does take a while — a lot of the first hundred pages shows us Snowman lying around going, "Uh, this sucks,"), it really hums along. I read the last 200 pages in two sittings.

Perhaps because for me this was an effort in "branching out," I didn't enjoy this as much as most readers seem to. Again, the inventive dystopia and the idea of scrubbing ethics from science were intriguing enough to keep me turning pages quickly. But I just couldn't find my way totally into this. So, three stars from me, but I won't hate you if you hate me for not enjoying it.

On to The Year of the Flood...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

11/22/63: Time Travel Done Right

Sure, Stephen King's 11/22/63 is first and foremost a time-travel novel. Jake Epping, mid-30s divorcee, steps through a wormhole to 1958, and endeavors, at the behest of his dying friend Al, to stop the Kennedy assassination. But this is also a thriller of the highest order, a love story that might wring tears from even the most emotionless jerk, and a glance back to and an examination of American culture in the early '60s.

And it's all friggin' awesome!

This is the first book I've finished in 2012, but it's going to take a lot to knock it from its pedestal as a favorite of the year. Yes, it's that good.

(One second...I'm trying to get this gush under control.)

Okay. So what does Jake do in the intervening five years between when he steps out of the wormhole on a sunny, warm September day in 1958 and the late-November day that changed the world? To me, that's the most interesting part — Jake basically gets a second chance at life, just as he's hoping to provide a second chance for the last half of the 20th century not to be so horrible. (Working theory: If Jake can prevent the Kennedy assassination, by extension, it'll also prevent MLK's death, the Vietnam War, and the bring about a quicker end to the Cold War.) He goes to Texas and teaches English, and tries to shadow Lee Harvey Oswald to find out if he's really the sole shooter or not. Will history be changed as Jake and his buddy Al expect, if Jake is successful? That's the question that hangs over the novel, and gives it a huge sense of page-turning immediacy.

There is a definitive answer, and it's part of what makes this novel a huge success: A carefully crafted, wonderfully insightful ending. It's such a departure for King, who has a tendency to head off the reservation with crazy ending. (see: Under The Dome) Not so, here. You'll love it, I promise you.

The only negative thing I've heard from readers about this novel (other than that King has sold out because there are no monsters or killer clowns, criticism which is absurd to me.) is that King takes his time getting to the Kennedy part. Jake spends the first half of the novel trying to prevent a murder of one of his present-day GED students (a janitor at his high school).

Yes, on the surface, this is a bit of detour to the "meaty" Kennedy parts. But I loved this back story because it gives the reader a chance to really understand how King's time-travel "universe" works. Often, the success or failure of a novel is dependent upon how well it follows its own rules. And with time-travel, that's always tricky. And it can be boring, if the author takes up several chapters continuously discussing and reviewing the rules. But King nails it — he assumes the reader knows the basic "rules" of time-travel and only slightly tweaks those for his own purposes. And so the novel just sings right along.

It's really superb. I can't recommend it more highly. Five stars.

(Finally, if you're interested in a comparison of my two favorite time travel novels of all time — now that this one has taken one of those spots — check out my post on Book Riot today.) 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Few Items of Bookish Interest

I'm about two sittings away from finishing Stephen King's new novel 11/22/63. You'll get a review next week, but here's a preview: It's approximately 1,398 better than Under the Dome.

In the meantime (the only downside of my penchant for reading long novels, especially during the winter, is the long gap between reviews), here are three literary items of relative importance.

1. The 2012 Tournament of Books list announced — The ToB (as those hip to the lingo call it) is one of the best bookish events of the year. If you're unfamiliar, the tournament consists of a March Madness-like bracket of match-ups pitting two novels against each other — a judge carefully selected from the literary community makes the call (and publishes his/her reasoning) and the winner moves on. I've only read three (The Art of Fielding, The Tiger's Wife, The Marriage Plot) of the 16 on this year's list (and, incidentally, wasn't a huge fan of two of those three), so I've got some work to do before the winner is announced March 7. What's your pick to win? I'm rooting for The Art of Fielding, but I think The Tiger's Wife may take it. 

2. USA Today's Bestselling Books of 2011 — Not surprisingly, The Help is No. 1. A little bit surprisingly, all three Hunger Game novels are in the top 10 and all three Millennium Trilogy novels are still in the top 13. It's not until #47 that a literary fiction novel actually published in 2011 makes the list — The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain.

3. The Joy of Books — Thanks to my friend Jeff for pointing out this nifty little stop-action video of a bookstore organization project.

(Finally, if you're interested, here are links to my two Book Riot posts this week: An op/edit about how print is here to stay, which sparked a great conversation in the comments, and a look at my Top 5 Miscast Literary Roles.)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

12 Books I Can't Wait For In 2012

After perusing both The Millions' Most Anticipated list and The Atlantic's 15 Books To Look Forward To list, it's pretty clear there is, indeed, a lot to look forward to in 2012. Here are 12 books from those (and a few other) lists I'm especially geeked about.

12. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander (Feb. 7) — I read something recently, which of course I can't find again, in which Colum McCann said Englander is the best short story writer alive. High praise! And since I loved Englander's bizarre little novel The Ministry of Special Cases, this volume of short stories will be a high priority. 

11. Wild Thing, by Josh Bazell (Feb. 8) — Bazell's Beat The Reaper was awesome! Uh, that's awesomely disturbing, actually. Can't wait for this follow up.

10. Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru (March 6) — British Indian novelist Kunzru's last book, My Revolutions, was fantastic. So, again, I'm excited about this follow-up.

9. Hot Pink, by Adam Levin (March 13) — This is a collection of short stories by the genius, DFW-esque writer who wrote one of my favorite novels of 2010, The Instructions

8. Farther Away: Essays, by Jonathan Franzen (April 12) — This probably won't have quite the same publicity run-up as Freedom did a few years ago, but I'm junkie for anything this guy writes. So this volume of essays is exciting.

7. The Newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger (May 1) — Since she occupies a spot on the Top 10 Hottest Female Writers list, I should probably check out her new novel...in case, you know, I ever meet her in a bar or something.

6. In One Person, by John Irving (May 8) — I'm a huge Irving fan. This is my most anticipated novel of the year.

5. Home, by Toni Morrison (May 8) — When an American literary institution like Morrison publishes a new novel, you just have to read it.

4. Canada, by Richard Ford (May 22) — Frankly, I was bored to tears by Ford's The Sportswriter and Independence Day, which are supposedly his two seminal works. But this one sounds different enough from those two that I'm willing to give him another shot.

3. Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (June 12) — If this is even a third as good as The Financial Lives of the Poets, Walter may take a few more steps up my "favorite authors" list.

2. Office Girl, by Joe Meno (July 17) — I've never read Chicagoan Meno, but he's always been high on my list, and this novel sounds especially intriguing.

1. Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe (sometime in the fall) — It's been eight years since Wolfe's last novel, the apparently underwhelming I Am Charlotte Simmons. Hopefully the wait's worth it for this long-rumored story about Miami.

What are you looking forward to in 2012?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Last Werewolf: A Bit on the Contrived Side

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan, is a bit of a contradiction. On one hand, it rigidly follows its own rules regarding its protagonist: Jacob Marlowe, a 200-year-old werewolf living in modern-day London. That's a good thing, and readers should be more than willing to accept (and be intrigued by) Jake's "supernaturaledness." But then, after some initial stage-setting, the plot spins off wildly and more than a bit convolutedly, making the reader have to suspend disbelief where s/he shouldn't have to. So it's the stuff (Jake is a freakin' werewolf) we couldn't really expect to believe that works, and the stuff we're supposed not to question that doesn't. And that's why I closed this novel thinking, "good attempt, but no." 

We get Jake's "rules" right from the start: Each month, "the Curse" causes him to change to his savage, lycanthrope form, feeding on a human victim. The rest of the month, Jake spends in his human form having deviant sex with prostitutes, chain smoking and drinking expensive scotch.

As the novel opens, we learn that Jake is, officially, the last werewolf. The second-to-last has just been hunted and killed, and since humans seem now to have become immune to "the Curse" — and werewolves aren't able to "change" others to their kind anymore — Jake's carrying the torch by himself. The problem is, he's lost his will to live; he can't find meaning in life anymore. And so he plans, much to the chagrin of his long-time friend Harley, to let the hunters take him down, too.

But, suddenly, fate — or what seem like fate, but is, at best, convenient coincidences, and, at worst, terrible contrivances — intervenes. Jake is knocked out of his misanthropic comfort zone and must re-evaluate what he truly believes. If that sounds too movie-trailerish, then you sort of get the idea. In fact, Jake is constantly comparing what's happening to how it would play in a movie — if this were a movie, I could simply invent a deus ex machina to solve such-and-such problem, for example. But the problem with the novel is that just about every plot hinge actually does feel like a deus ex machina, including the denouement, which feels like it's right out of a crappy Michael Bay-directed movie.

I will say this: Duncan writes with a real flair for the dramatic (though often bordering on overly sensational or hyperbolic). And he's often witty and profound. As well, the "action" sequences here are riveting. But they're too few and far between. In the space between are all sorts of reflections on making meaning out of life and whether it's worth going on. Dull.

This is certainly an inventive story — fitting nicely into the up-and-coming genre of "literary monster novels." But, it all feels too convenient; a hard trick for a supernatural werewolf novel. Three stars.