Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Time Traveler's Wife vs. 11/22/63

Check out this ranking of all 62 of Stephen King's novels — agree? disagree? I'm not surprised The Stand is #1. But I am shocked that 11/22/63 is only #24 — it should be much, much higher. But I assume it's the old "not enough time has passed to adeqately rank its place" argument is at work here. And but so, the rankings reminded me of the chart below I did a few months ago for Book Riot.

The Time Traveler's Wife wins by a nose. Agree? 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Uncollected Thoughts on A Game of Thrones

Yep, you talked me into A Game of Thrones....and I'm glad you did. What took me so long to read it? Same hesitancy as everyone else who hasn't yet read it — I'm not normally a fan of fantasy novels. But while these novels are undeniably geeky — they include the swords and dragons and mysticism and people saying things like "on the morrow, I'll break my fast" — it's easy to see why it's crossed the nearly uncrossable barrier from the parents' basement to the mainstream. It's a really engrossing story, and really well written.

Here are few uncollected thoughts about the first novel (and I do plan, at some point, to continue the series). They contain a spoiler or two, so you may want to skip this if you haven't read them (or seen the HBO series, which I just started watching, too). 

Too obvious symbol/foreshadowing — The one thing that drove me most nuts about the novel is the scene right at the beginning where Eddard and his family find the dead mother direwolf and its six pups. The mother has been killed by with the antler of a stag (the sigil of house Baratheon). And GRR Martin even has a guy say "It is a sign." Duh.

Arya is awesome! — Of course, she (and Robb, too, I guess) is the one character we're supposed to unreservedly root for. And we do! She was my favorite character, as her burgeoning rivalry with her sister adds intrigue to some of the "down" parts of the story — like the trip from Winterfell to King's Landing, etc. I want to read the next novel just to find out what happens with Arya.

Check your cultural absolutism at the gate — Yep, there's a lot of incest — some of it intentionally sinister and a fulcrum for the story (Cersei and Jaime), other times it's just mentioned in passing. There is also a lot of young girls doing things young girls in our culture wouldn't (Daenerys). And my gods, is it a violent novel — you get your head chopped off just for breaking a silly oath! As with any literature, though, understand these are all facets of the fictional world we're in, and so holding these details up to modern standards is ridiculous. This should go without saying.

Apparently, there is no evolution in the Seven Kingdoms — I thought it was funny how the culture and technology seems not to have changed in the Seven Kingdoms in several thousand years. They're still guarding the Wall with dudes with swords, they're still doin' it with their sisters, and they're still hoofing it around on horses. C'mon, it's been several thousand years! Somebody have a new idea, already! Maybe the characters exaggerate when they say "for thousands of years, it has been thus" or whatever, but c'mon, can't these folks evolve a little?!

The communications ravens are the one thing that doesn't fit — Telepathy? Okay. Underground "transporting" tunnels. Sure, I'd even buy that. But using messenger ravens to communicate over long distances seemed like a stretch — like kind of a sloppy solution to a plotting problem. You're in a fantasy novel, but the "fantasy" still has to have its own rules. And this one seemed like a stretch to me. Or am I nit-picking?

Steep freakin' price to cross a bridge — Close to the end, Robb Stark and his army are trying to cross the bridge at The Twins to outmaneuver the Lannister army. And his mother Catelyn has to negotiate the price to be allowed to cross. And the price is that Robb has to marry one of the keeper's daughters and Arya has to marry one of his sons. Just to cross a freakin' bridge?! My gods, man.

You could tell when GRR Martin was hungry — One thing I really enjoyed about the novel is the detail — of the clothing, the terrain, and most notably (and kind of humorously), the food. A lot of people told me, in their recommendation to read the book, that it's "literature under the guise of fantasy," or that "it's more historical fiction than fantasy," and it's these details that really make that accurate.

So, there you go — and now I'm off to have flagon of ale.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pairing Contemporary and Classic Novels

Every time a reviewer exclaims that Popular Modern Writer is the new Popular Classic Writer, you can almost feel the earth wobbling on its axis from all the cringing. Sure, such analogies are basically a lazy way to describe a writer's work (both the contemporary and the classic), and they usually only work on the most cursory level...but I dig 'em! Such comparisons are fun to think about, aren't they?

To me, they work in the same vein as "If you like X, then you'll probably like Y." And since recommendations are the backbone of the bookish social community, what's wrong with thinking about the modern in terms of the classic?

What's more, and now to the heart of the matter, such comparisons can demystify the classics to readers who may have been terrified that they're stuffy and boring. So, if you have a classics-averse reader in your recommendations purview, here are a few suggestions for modern--->classics comparisons.

If you're a Richard Russo fan, Charles Dickens is your man — The fact that Russo is a big Dickens fan makes this comparison a lot easier. But in terms of content, both novelists write tales dissecting the life of the lower crust of society. And they're both awesome.

If you're a Twihard, check out Jane Austen — Tawdry love triangles, anyone? Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice is often cited as the best literary love triangle story of all time, but her Mansfield Park includes a doozy as well.

If you like Nathan Englander, you'll probably enjoy Saul Bellow Maybe a bit of deep cut for the casual reader here, but I get the sense that many younger readers are afraid of Bellow. I'm not sure why that is. So, my advice is to try Nathan Englander first (especially his latest collection titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank), and if you like him, you'll also like Bellow. (And here's a tip: They're both freakin' awesome!)

If you loved The Hunger Games, then you're remiss if you haven't yet read Margaret Atwood — Atwood isn't exactly "classic literature," like these others, but she will be in time, I'd bet. The strong female characters navigating Orwellian dystopias tie these two writers together. Atwood is smooth and easy to read, and so YA readers will have no problem digesting her frightening tales of the future, like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood.

If The Help made you feel ALL THE FEELINGS, so will Toni Morrison —  The Help's treatment of race relations is fascinating, but it doesn't plumb the same depths as much of Morrison's work, so this is by no means meant to be an accurate comparison. But if The Help was intriguing to you, Ms. Morrison's work will blow you away. Beloved is, simply put, one of the best novels of the 20th century. And if you've never read Morrison, now's a great time to check out her back titles (as our Book Riot MC Rebecca is doing) because she has a new novel coming out May 8. And we'll be celebrating.

What would be on your contemporary to classics comparison list?

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot last week.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Sugar Frosted Nutsack: WTF?!

My advice on this one: Read the title of Mark Leyner's supposedly comic, radically "experimental" (are you frightened?), purposely absurd novel, giggle a few times, and then put the book back — that is, unless you're a glutton for literary punishment. This novel is like a 250-page inside joke...that you're not privy, too. It's like Leyner threw his spaghetti plate of jokes at the wall, and they ALL stuck (even the ones that don't work). It's like if Tom Robbins, Thomas Pynchon, and Christopher Moore got together and did ecstasy, and wrote down their drug-addled conversation. It might be funny at times, but it'd also be a largely incoherent mess.

Yes, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, but on the whole, the thing makes you want to punch Leyner in his own sugar frosted nutsack. If you do decide to read this, do so in small chunks — and be sure to warn your family what you're up to.

Here's the deal: The "novel" is a meta-meta-fiction about an epic titled (what else?) The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, which chronicles the life of one Ike Karton, a 47-year-old butcher who lives in New Jersey. Each time The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is performed — and it's done so frequently by what Leyner refers to hundreds of times as "vagrant, drug-addled bards," everything that happens in that actual recital of the epic must be included in the next recital of the epic. So there's a lot of repetition here to make that point, and also to purposely annoy the reader.

Oh yeah, and so there's also a collection of gods, who we meet at the beginning of the novel and who live on the top floor of the Burj Khalifa (the world's tallest building) in Dubai, pulling the strings of the world (one great Leyner line: "Fate is the ultimate pre-existing condition"), having sex with each other and humans, and doing a hallucinogenic drug called Gravy (which they sometimes sell to Ike's daughter's boyfriend). One of the gods, named XOXO, often messes with reality (and, hence, the epic) by etching people's brains (figuratively...or is it?) with a periodontal curette.

So part of the point of this meta-mess (other than to alternately piss you off and make you laugh), is that it seems to be some sort of send-up of organized religion — how the Bible, doctrine, religious ritual came to be. There's also a whisper of Zen here — only that which can be observed is real. And there are a lot — and I mean a freakin' LOT — of jokes (did you know Dick van Dyke's real name is Penis van Lesbian...but he had to change it for showbiz sake?)...and wildly off-beat tangents...and just general goofiness.

So, two stars — one for the title itself, and one more for the rest. Enjoy at your own risk!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

State of Wonder: Vivid, Riveting

This doesn't happen often with novels, but Ann Patchett's State of Wonder literally gave me chills. The novel's not frightening, or particularly sad, or anything like that. What it is, simply, is just chill-inducingly good.

As a bit of background, it's taken me just over a month to go from zero to a nearly-slobbering-all-over-myself-holy-crap-she's-awesome Ann Patchett fan. After her appearance on The Colbert Report, in which she laid the smack down on the evils of Amazon (it's worth a watch!), I bought State of Wonder from her Nashville indie bookstore, Parnassus Books, so I could get a signed copy. In the meantime, I read her short memoir on the writing life titled The Getaway Car — which is so good it made me want to quit my job immediately to write a novel. And then, I finished State of Wonder. And it's incredible.

State of Wonder is about a 42-year-old pharmacology researcher named Marina, who must travel to the Amazon jungle to try to learn two things. First, she has to determine how eccentric 73-year-old researcher Dr. Swenson, in the employ of Marina's pharmaceutical company Vogel to develop a fertility drug, is progressing. Second, she must find out what happened to the her colleague Anders who died trying to complete a similar mission.

What's most striking about this story is the number of times the theme of modern vs. primitive emerges and than intersects with other themes, like love, family and loyalty. It's a relatively fast-moving story (most of the time), but it definitely behooves you to slow down and think it through. And when you stop to think and then realize how intricately constructed it actually is...chills.

The other hallmark of the novel is the vividness of Patchett's writing — we all learn in creative writing seminars that to describe adequately, you must appeal to all the senses. Patchett is in the Hall of Fame in this regard. We know what her boat smells like, what noises the insects in the jungle make, how the stars look at night, etc. Hers is a style so elegant and smooth, it's hard to believe she's describing (and putting her readers smack dab in the middle of) one of the most wild, untamed places in the world.

I hadn't realized until I finished the novel that there are widely varying opinions — a lot of people loved it, but a lot of people were annoyed by it; said annoyance seemingly stemming from Marina as a character, as well as what some considered implausible plot twists. I didn't see it that way at all. I'm firmly in the "loved it" camp — especially regarding the supposedly strange ways the story veers. Will Marina find the truth about Anders? About the drug? About the Kurtz-esque Dr. Swenson?

Five stars. Very highly recommended.