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 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."