Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The New Dork Summer Reading List

Last week on Book Riot, I ruminated about what exactly a "summer read" is. My brilliant conclusion: It's a book you read between June and September (hey-yo!).

But, actually, since damn near every media outlet is doing a similar list, here is a bunch of books on my list for this summer. As you can see, I really am confused (much like the Chicago Tribune) about what a summer read actually is. 

Stuff Out This Summer
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (June 5) — So far, the buzz-book of the summer. It's a mystery about a failed marriage. Looks fantastic! 

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (June 12) — After I finished The Zero not too long ago, Walter is rapidly moving up my "favorite writers" list. Can't wait for his new one!

Office Girl, by Joe Meno (July 3) — Chicago author Meno's follow up to his strange family tale The Great Perhaps includes illustrations and photos to highlight his late '90s tale of mid-'20s artists. 

One Last Thing Before I Go, by Jonathan Tropper (Aug. 21) — Two words: Woo. Hoo!  

Stuff I Already Have
Arcadia, by Lauren Groff — Hippies? Yes, please. 

The Newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger — A story about a mail-order bride? Also, yes, please. 

Home, by Toni Morrison — This may be a one-sitting read, it's only 150 pages. Of course, I can't not read America's only living Nobel in Lit's latest. 

The Darlings, by Cristina Alger — I'm a sucker for stories about intriguing people doing intriguing things in New York City. This should scratch that itch.

HHhH, by Laurent Binet — After I read James Wood's review of this in The New Yorker, I immediately bought it. It's strange story of WWII with the author's own comments mixed in. Sounds like a highly original novel. 

Plane Reads and Classics and Such 
A fair amount of traveling this summer means I'll have time to finally finish up the Vince Flynn Mitch Rapp series, and the leisurely summer evenings mean I'll try a few more substantial novels, too, including, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, and Underworld, by Don DeLillo.

What's on your summer reading list? 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Swamplandia!: A Murky Mess

Karen Russell's Swamplandia! was one of three finalists for this year's Pulitzer (the Prize, which, ultimately, was not awarded). But, for the life of me, I can't figure out why this novel was even in consideration. Russell writes elegant, often very clever sentences. However, these sentences add up to a story that leaves the reader wondering the age-old question: "Is this a story that really needed to be told?"

It's a story that's as slow-moving and dense as the swamp the characters inhabit. Frankly, it's just dull — perhaps you have to be a Floridian to make sense of the "swamp legends" that form the cornerstone of this novel. Perhaps it's just a bad book.

Anyhow, the story is about the Bigtree family who run an alligator-wrestling amusement park on an island in the swamps of south-west Florida. When the mother dies of cancer, and a new theme park called the World of Darkness opens nearby, Swamplandia! slowly fades, throwing the remaining Bigtrees — father, Chief; son Kiwi (17), daughter Osceola (16), and our narrator, daughter Ava (13) — into chaos. Chief disappears to the mainland for an indeterminate period of time — apparently, this is normal. And then, Ossie disappears to chase a ghost lover  who died in the 1930s on a dredging ship (it's as nonsensical as it sounds). Kiwi goes off to work at World of Darkness in the hope of earning enough money to save Swamplandia!, and Ava goes off into the swamp with a creepy guy called the Bird Man to try to find and save Ossie.

The narrative alternates between Ava's story (told in the first person) and Kiwi's (told in the third). Part of the point, I think, is that none of these kids are adequately prepared for the challenges of the real world, and therefore, they do things like go off with ghosts and strange men. The supposed drama of the story (though I could not convince myself to care) is the impending conflict between Chief and Kiwi, who is sure Chief has mismanaged Swamplandia!, and only he (Kiwi) can save it. At once, we're supposed to follow along breathlessly with Ava to find out if she'll locate and save Ossie in (from?) the swamp.

I haven't had such a viscerally negative reaction to a book in a long time. Much of that reaction stems from some silly, too-convenient, and then just sickening, plotting in the second half of the novel. I'm honestly perplexed what people who like this novel saw in it (with the possible exception of Russell's sentences). Please tell me! What did I miss here?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Do You Read Long Series Before They're Finished?

The following post appeared on Book Riot a couple weeks ago, and drummed up quite the discussion (41 comments!). So I wanted to repost it here, in case you missed it — to get New Dork Review reader opinions as well. What say you?

The No. 1 reason why people won’t read The Song of Ice and Fire series is not because they’re not interested in fantasy novels (which you might expect would be the case). And it’s not because the books are too long, or violent, or offensive to their delicate sensibilities regarding sex. Nope. The No. 1 reason is that folks don’t want to be left hanging, waiting until 2020 (or whenever) for the notoriously slow
George R. R. Martin to finish his series. Readers are friggin’ impatient — and rightly so!

We hate waiting for books, almost than we hate waiting for anything else in the world. And I’m with you — for my entire reading life, I’ve had the same policy: Must wait until finished in order to begin.
But you know what I’ve realized? That that is silly. And you know why? Because at its most fundamental level, it’s just an excuse, a rationalization. And if you really think about it, it’s not a good one.

Let’s take Martin as an example again — even when all seven of those novels are out, if you’ve been waiting until they’re finished, are you really going to sit down and read 7,000 pages of dragons and sword fights back-to-back-to-back? Probably not. Even for shorter series, and even if it’s comforting knowing all are parts are in the world, do you ever really read all parts back-to-back? I sure don’t.

Furthermore, when’s the last time you heard someone say, “You know what, I’m not going to see (insert title of enormous summer blockbuster movie) until all movies in that series are out.” That sounds pretty illogical, right? Why are books different? Because you spend more time with a book? Why should that matter?

And I don’t buy the argument that if you read one in the series now, you won’t remember the characters or what happened in the last book, and it’ll ruin the next book. Easy solution: There’s this magical new invention called the Internet. You can find a summary of the last book there. Or better yet, start your own reading journal so you’ll have your own thoughts on what happened in the last book and the specific themes, character interactions, etc., that resonated with you, personally. My own reading journal is up to 500-single-spaced typed pages now. It may seem a tad OCD, but I can tell you my specific impressions of every book I’ve read since May 2001.

Due to my what-I-now-realize-is-kind-of-silly policy, I own more unread books that are part of unfinished series than you can shake George R.R. Martin’s beard comb at — from Diana Gabaldon to Jeff Shaara to Ken Follett to W.E.B. Griffin. I always stored ‘em up, telling myself I’d read them on that glorious near-future day when the series is finished. I hate waiting for book as much as the next person, but my recent experience of reading A Game of Thrones (as well as, believe it or not, The Hunger Games) has made me realize how much I’m missing out on really good books like, say, Fall of Giants with this illogical personal reading policy. And that’s what’s really got me re-thinking it.

So you know what? It’s officially off the books! It’s a momentous day! And I feel like a weight has been lifted. How liberating!

And, now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the library to find a copy of The Passage. Cheers!

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Family Fang: Performance Art is Still Art?

Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang has drawn rave reviews from just about everyone who's read it. The quirky story about a quirky family of performance artists who treat "doing art" as the most important thing is original and inventive, and Wilson writes with real flair and humor. So it doesn't make a lick of sense that I couldn't find my way into this story. But I just couldn't. 

The story alternates between the present day — daughter Annie (Child A) is a semi-famous movie star whose life is imploding, and Buster (Child B) is a little-read novelist who has just been shot in the face with a potato gun while on assignment for a freelance magazine piece — and the episodic detailing of the family's past performance art pieces. One example of such piece: They entered six-year-old Buster in a girl's beauty pageant — and when he won, they instructed him rip off his wig and reveal that he's a boy, while the rest of the family applauded and took pictures.

But now, back in the present, both Annie's and Buster's lives have screeched off the rails, and they reconvene at the family's house in Tennessee. At first parents Camille and Caleb are thrilled, until they learn that Buster and Annie aren't interested in "making art" anymore. So Caleb and Camille tell their kids they're "going to make art" — and when their van is discovered with a pool of blood nearby, Annie and Buster have to decide whether they're really dead (they suspect not) or whether this is just part of another piece of elaborate performance art.

Caleb's and Camille's philosophy is thus:
"Art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it."
I think my problem with the novel was that I took this overriding philosophy too seriously — from the start, I kept thinking how silly it seemed. And it is silly — but I'm not sure I realized it was supposed to be silly until I was too far in. Also, I wasn't as enthralled by the various "performance art pieces" as other readers seemed to be. They seemed to be just pranks taken way too seriously.

That's actually probably part of Wilson's point — that art taken too seriously winds up being ridiculous. And that's a sentiment I surely agree with. For me, unlike for most readers, it wasn't enough to save this novel. So I'm willing to allow that this is a good novel — just not one I got along with particularly well.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sophie's Choice: The Saddest Thing I've Ever Read

Stingo, our narrator, in William Styron's National Book Award-winning novel, Sophie's Choice, begins with admirable intentions: 
"I have thought it might be possible to make a stab at understanding Auschwitz by trying to understand Sophie, who to say the least was a cluster of contradictions."
But then later, near the end:
"No one will ever understand Auschwitz." 
Not just himself, NO ONE will ever understand Auschwitz. Such is the magnitude of the lessons Stingo learns from what happened during that fateful summer in 1947. Appearances are deceiving, and the more you learn about the people you thought you loved and trusted, the less you really understand them. It's a cynic's view to be sure, but one can hardly blame Stingo for cynicism given the story he tells us.

Stingo, a 22-year-old Southerner-transplanted-to-New-York, has just been fired from a soulless editing job at McGraw Hill, and has moved to Brooklyn to write his great Southern novel. There, in the same boarding house, he meets Sophie, a 29-year-old Polish refugee, and Aucshwitz survivor (even though she's not Jewish — she was rounded up and taken to the concentration camp in 1943 for stealing a ham to feed her malnourished kids). Sophie's beau is the brilliant, eccentric Nathan. The three become fast friends — and Stingo begins to harbor a forbidden love for Sophie.

As Nathan becomes more eccentric, and Sophie reveals more and more details about her past life, as well as the last year of her life with Nathan in New York, Stingo struggles to make sense of it all. The cold, black-and-white logic of psychology competes with both his feelings for Sophie and also his (and anyone's) inability to understand what the lasting effects of Auschwitz have been upon her. Codependency? Alcoholism? Masochism? All of those are just words, and all fail spectacularly to capture what is really happening inside Sophie's head.

This is, quite frankly, the saddest novel I've ever read — and one of the most intense. It's a story that doesn't exactly move along at the speed of light (Styron, the quintessential mid-century New York intellectual, writes rather densely), but it's absolutely fascinating nonetheless.

Many people are probably more familiar with this story from its early-80s film, and Meryl Streep's Oscar-wining role as Sophie. I wasn't. At all. So I'm still blown away at, first and foremost, the story itself, and secondly, how carefully each section of story is revealed — and how what you learn about the characters shapes how you view past events. I loved it, but I won't recommend it for probably 90 percent of readers. If you try it, spend some time gearing yourself up first.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Zero: Walter's Novel of 9/12

Brian Remy is a New York City cop. He was on the scene when the towers collapsed on 9/11, narrowly escaping himself (even though his son is telling people he died). And Remy has just shot himself in the head — but he can't remember whether he did it on purpose, or accidentally. Indeed, he can't remember much of anything — he sort of "wakes up" between gaps in his memory and has to piece together what he's been up to. Conscious Remy is good, "unconscious," off-the-page Remy is bad.

So the story revolves around the fact that he's in a constant struggle to figure out what he's up to — helping a government agency infiltrate a terrorist cell? tracking down a woman who may or may not have died in the attacks? — and we're as much in the dark as Good Remyis. "...and Remy found that he was smiling, not exactly remembering, but wanting to, and thinking there's not much difference, that the best memories might be those you don't remember."

Much, much more than just a study of a fascinating character, though, Jess Walter's novel The Zero looks at the absurdity of the culture and paranoia in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and how frequently the focus was removed from the victims and their families — for selfish gain, for politics, or for any other reason. Remy's affable partner Paul explains, even though he knows he shouldn't mention it, how awesome it is that 9/11 happened because he is treated as a hero and gets to show celebrities around Ground Zero. Paul even gets to appear on a box of cereal — "My agent says I was lucky to get the marshmallows," he tells Remy.

Remy and his struggle with his fractured memory are really a symbol of the underlying post-9/11 fractured culture (even though 9/11 appeared on the surface to be a unifying event). "Maybe this was not some condition he had, but a life, and maybe every life is lived moment to moment. Doesn't everyone react to the world as it presents itself?"

Remy's enduring memory from the day — described bone-chillingly in the opening paragraph — is of paper, fluttering to the ground. And it's an image Walter returns to frequently. Example: "He remembered smoke and he remembered standing alone while a billion sheets of paper fluttered to the ground. Like notes without bottles on the ocean, a billion pleas and wishes sent out on the wind."

But for all that seriousness, the novel's often cleverly and subtly funny. At one point, Remy writes himself a note that says "Don't hurt anybody." But then bad self responds, "Grow up." A scene near the beginning of the novel in which Walter has Remy's son Edgar explain why he's telling people Remy's dead is, in a word, genius. And other details are so sad they're funny — like lawyers for 9/11 victims' families charging an increased fee in the settlement negotiations with the government, because "these are difficult cases...emotionally" for the lawyers.

I loved this novel — for its imagery, its comedy (and ability to toe the line between funny and appropriately respectful), and its inventiveness. It's alternately chill-inducing and laugh-out-loud funny. And it's only when you get to the end, that you realize just how smart and well-put-together this novel is. Highly, highly recommended!

(The Zero was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, the year Richard Powers' The Echo Maker won. I've read that book. It's solid, but this MUCH better.)