Thursday, January 31, 2013

Winter's Tale: Long, Overwrought, Tiresome

Chances are, if you've read Mark Helprin's 1983 novel Winter's Tale, you loved it. It's even mentioned sometimes as a "favorite novel of all time." This, sadly, will be a dissenting opinion. I haven't not finished a novel since 2002, but this one nearly broke that streak. Finish it, I did, though. And I was relieved beyond measure when it was over. I don't mean to sound jerkish, but I really had trouble understanding the allure of this.

Here's what seems to be point of the book, as a character says near the end:
"He knew that, in the eyes of God, all things are interlinked; he knew that justice does indeed spring in great surprise from the acts and consequences of ages long forgotten; and he knew that love is not broken by time."
Another theme seems to be that we can't understand everything in the world through our senses, or science, or logic and reason. Okay. Fine. But it took us nearly 700 pages of flying horses and "cloud walls" and giant mysterious ships and people returning from the dead and incredibly descriptive descriptions (redundancy intentional) of New York City to get there.

If you're not familiar, Winter's Tale is often categorized as a "magical realist" novel, so weird stuff is always happening. I can dig it, and that wasn't my problem with the book. My problem was that it just felt incredibly overwrought, and ultimately, just tiresome. I really struggled with it. It reminded me of a Thomas Pynchon novel, without near the quirkiness or humor. It had a bit of the feel and scope of a Charles Dickens novel, only without the super intriguing characters and interesting, page-turning story.  Or, if you like, it felt like a David Mitchell novel, but without near the smarts.

On the plus side, I really did enjoy the first 200 pages — which starts in the early 20th century and tells the story of an orphan thief named Peter Lake, who grows up with a tribe across the Hudson called the Baymen, but then is set adrift in New York City as a teenager. Eventually, during a robbery, he falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the city's newspaper mogul. Peter has various adventures in the city, including dodging the evil gang leader Pearly Soames, and his gang of Short Tails, who keeps trying to kill him and his beautiful white horse Athansor. But then, the story jumps forward to right before the turn of the 20th century and tells the tale of a number of New York residents, who all came to the city with their own unique origin stories and expectations of the city. And then Peter Lake comes back to life. And so does Pearly Soames, whose mission, for some reason, is still to kill Peter.

So, in a case like this (the only other example from my reading I can think of where I was so annoyed by a book everyone else loved is Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian), where I'm clearly in the minority, I'm hoping you can help. What is the allure of this book? Why did you love it? What did I not see, or understand?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tenth of December: Playful With Perspective

This is not a book review. The reason? I have no idea how to review a short story collection. I can tell you I really liked most of these stories. They made me think, they made me feel things, and they're entertaining as hell. I can tell you I left this collection as a new evangelist for George Saunders. But, as a collection, is it good? How do you tell? I guess maybe you judge that on questions like, is there a common theme? Do the stories share similar elements? Is there a message?

In the 10 stories that comprise Tenth of December, there actually does seem to be a theme — Saunders loves playing with perspective, both that of his characters and his readers. The two prime examples of this are the two stories that bookend the collection, "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December." Both tell a story from different characters' points of view to give the reader a more holistic emotional picture of emotionally jarring events. They're both incredibly entertaining

But Saunders also seems interested in stories that ask us to consider the moving target of morality, and the factors that cause morals to be manipulated. In "Escape From Spiderland," probably my favorite from this collection, a guy is being experimented on with new pharmaceutical drugs that make him fall in and out of love with different women. Then, to test if there are any lingering effects from the love drugs, he has to decide which of the women to hurt. The conclusion is shocking. This is just a mind-blowinglingly good story.

My second favorite in the collection, "The Semplica Girl Diaries," is about how hivemind and the need to keep up with the Joneses can change our collective moral compass. Imagine a world, not unlike our current one, where people take lottery winnings and irresponsibly buy stupid crap instead of paying their bills. Now imagine the stupid crap they buy are human decorations for their lawns — poor people from third-world countries who come here to be Semplica Girls and send money back to their families. What's crazy is how not crazy it seems in this fictional world. It's a brilliant story, and one that will probably make you more than a little uncomfortable.

It's no coincidence that the four stories mentioned so far are the longest —they were definitely the most resonant with me. The shorter stories, like "Puppy," about only seeing what we think we should see, and "Home," about the absurdity of convention when we don't have all the facts (People telling a soldier "Thank you for your service," but he's done something really wrong and we never really find out what it is) are still entertaining, but just with not quite the punch of the others. And I actively disliked the story "My Chivalric Fiasco" about a dude who works in a Medieval Times-like place and starts talking as if he actually is in medieval times.

But overall, I can't recommend this more highly. And now, I'm off to look into Saunders' other collections. (Any suggestion are welcome!)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

START HERE: A giveaway!

UPDATE 1/30: The two winners, based on a drawing are James Schneider and Megan Biggins. An email is on its way with your spoils of victory.

I can't tell you how many times I've had the following conversation with readers:

Friend/Acquaintance: "I've noticed you're rather a big David Foster Wallace fan."
Me: "Yes, yes I am."
F/A: "I've never read him."
Me (quietly removing F/A from my contacts): "You don't say."
F/A: "What would you suggest I read first?"
Me (quietly undeleting contact): "Well, let me tell you..."

Any reader who has a favorite author(s) has no doubt had a similar exchange — it's one of the most fun bookish conversations because it's an opportunity to share your expertise. And so, with that in mind, Book Riot put together its first published book, titled START HERE: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors. The book — with contributions from amazing novelists like Joe Hill and Erin Morgenstern, as well as several Book Riot contributors (including this guy**) — gives short, easily digestible "reading pathways" to get started with authors you may want to read, but haven't.

Book Riot is making available two ebook copies of START HERE for a giveaway for New Dork Review readers. All you have to do is post a comment below with your name, email, and preferred format (epub, pdf, Kindle, etc). Deadline to enter is next Tuesday, Jan. 29th at midnight, EST.

Even if you don't have an ereader — START HERE would still be a useful tool to keep on your computer for reference. I've read the book cover to cover, and added many, many books to my reading list — Alice Munro, Italo Calvino, Bernard Malamud, etc.

Good luck!

(And if you don't win, or can't wait to find out if you've won, you can always buy the ebook for only $2.99 at B&N or Amazon or other places.)

**My chapters are on David Foster Wallace (natch!), Richard Russo, and Zadie Smith.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Truth in Advertising: When Disillusionment is Funny

Here's a test to see whether you'll like John Kenney's debut novel, Truth in Advertising; if you find the following funny, you will. In the opening scene, our narrator, 39-year-old advertising copywriter named Finbar Dolan, is on the set of a diapers commercial. Gwyneth Paltrow is starring as the mother. When the casting agency sends over a black baby to be Paltrow's son, Fin's art director Ian quips, "Chris Martin is not going to like this." (Just so we're clear, Kenney's not saying Chris Martin is racist. The joke is that Chris Martin would be pissed that Gwyneth had a fake love child that clearly isn't his.)

Me? I thought that was hilarious — and it's a good indication of the type of humor in store for the next 300 pages. Truth in Advertising is what would happen if Mad Men had sex with Jonathan Tropper. It's sarcastic, it's soaked in pop culture, and surprisingly, it does more than a bit of heart-string tugging, too — to use a phrase Fin (Kenney) would probably hate, but use in a commercial anyway.

Indeed, Fin has come to be rather disillusioned with his job ("The irony of advertising — a communications business — is that we treat words with little respect, often devaluing their meaning.") and the industry as a whole, and his defense is sarcasm. He often jokes about the earnestness of the "true believers" who say things like "Exciting things are happening in diapers these days."

With Fin's professional frustration as background, the story moves on to several plotlines. Fin's father — who he hasn't seen in 25 years — is near death. Will Fin go see him, since none of his three siblings (who have drifted apart, too) seem to be willing? And will old wounds be reopened? Is he in love with his best friend at the agency, a woman named Phoebe, even as he's still dealing with the emotional fall-out over the wedding he cancelled only eight months before? When the opportunity arises to develop a Super Bowl commercial for a new eco-friendly diaper on a super-crunched timeline, everything converges to create quite the pressure cooker for Fin. With hilarious, but heartfelt results.

Again, I loved this novel. It's not exactly a noodle-bruiser, but it is a lot of fun. Kenney, who periodically writes the Shouts & Murmurs column for The New Yorker (oh yeah, and also spent 17 years in a Manhattan ad agency), is every bit as funny as Tropper or Joshua Ferris. Yes, this novel will no doubt not be able to escape comparisons to another comic novel about an advertising agency, Then We Came to the End, but it's just as good — and may, actually be better. At any rate, if you like Tropper, Ferris, etc., you'll definitely like this, too. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sweet Tooth: Story Of a Scandalous Reader

As the conventional wisdom goes, when writers are out of ideas, they write stories about writers. But what about a story about a reader? That's fairly fresh, isn't it? Ian McEwan's new novel Sweet Tooth is, indeed, about a reader — one who happens to work for the British Security Service (MI5).

It's the early '70s, and the Cold War is in full weary swing. MI5 concocts a scheme to "sponsor" writers they think will write novels that illustrate the futility of communism — an operation codenamed Sweet Tooth. It's a tried-and-true method in the "war of ideas," as they've learned from their intelligence counterparts across the pond. Serena Frome, early 20s, gorgeous, lover of books, and new to the service, is tasked with "running" a promising writer named Tom Haley. Her mission is simply to convince him to accept money from a front literary Foundation, and then keep tabs on his progress as a short story writer, journalist, and (it's hoped) novelist.

One problem: She immediately falls in love with him. Even bigger problem: Her immediate supervisor Max at MI5 may be in love with her. So how will Serena keep the secret of who she actually works for from Tom, maintain her relationship with him (because, you know, they are genuinely in love!), and keep Max at bay?

If all that sounds very intriguing, it is! And the intrigue is heightened by the fact that McEwan writes in the first person (i.e., Serena is telling us her story) — a bold choice, to be sure. But the issue here is that it takes more than half the novel just to get to that point. Meanwhile, McEwan gives us a ton of background on Serena's childhood and time studying "maths" at Cambridge. Then, we detour into the story of a professor at Cambridge named Tony, with whom she Serena has an affair (he's married...scandalous!). And then, as she begins research to lure Tom into Sweet Tooth, we get several long summaries of Tom's short stories. And finally, British politics find their way in here and there, infusing the very slowly building story with a bit more dull. Yes, all this is relevant to what McEwan eventually has in store for us — but that doesn't mean any of it is incredibly interesting.

Contrary to what you may have heard, this is not a spy novel, nor is it a "Cold War thriller" as a blurb on the back suggests. It's much more of a slow-burn than a white-knuckler — a story about a reader's relationship with a writer she first admires, then loves...with a bunch of Cold War stuff thrown in to dress up that kernel of plot. McEwan pulls you along just fast enough that you're not willing to give up before something important happens.

Sweet Tooth ties with Solar as my least favorite McEwan novel. (I loved both Atonement and Saturday.) But McEwan diehards may enjoy Sweet Tooth much more than I did — his dry wit and sharply observed descriptions are definitely on display here. And, as always, he's got something up his sleeve. But to me, that wasn't enough to save this one.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

HHhH: What Should Historical Fiction Be?

Laurent Binet's 2012 novel-like piece of writing, HHhH, is the story of Nazi monster, Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed the Butcher of Prague, and one of the main authors of the Final Solution. It's also the story of his assassination by Czech and Slovak freedom fighters. And, uniquely, it's the story of how Binet wrote the story itself.

Not really fiction, not really history, HHhH is a combination of and meditation on both. Binet tells his story in 257 "chapters" ranging in length from several pages to a single sentence. Binet's question for himself is this: When writing what is ostensibly a story, even though it's something that actually happened, can details be invented to help readability, drama, intrigue, etc.? He quickly decides the answer is "no," because doing so is a cop out, and unfaithful to history. Fiction should never win out, he says. To Binet, the issue, and what would be anathema to him, is turning the historical figures into run-of-the-mill "characters." And he doesn't want to do that, especially for Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the two men who kill Heydrich in Prague in May 1942, and who he comes to respect immensely.

This internal debate Binet has with himself is epitomized in a single detail: He doesn't know for sure whether the Mercedes Heydrich was riding in the day he was killed was black or green. He obsesses over this detail. Should he include that detail if he doesn't know for sure if it's accurate? Does it matter? Why does it matter?

If this sounds neurotic, and not-at-all interesting, you'll have to trust me that it actually very much is. Indeed, watching Binet argue with himself, and even at times admitting when he was wrong or when he couldn't resist making something up, is fascinating. Whether or not you agree with his theory (and if you love fiction, you can't, necessarily, because it pretty much renders all fiction moot), you'll enjoy the discussion.

And that's not even to mention the story itself, which is by turns riveting, and as dull as your 9th grade history class. Binet tells us about Heydrich's early life — but only briefly. He's more interested in Heydrich's climb to be Himmler's right-hand man. (HHhH stands for "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich," which, translated is "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.") Binet also spends a lot of time on pre-World War II geopolitics — why Hitler hated Czech president Edvard Benes so much that the mere mention of Benes' name would lead Hitler into a rage in which he'd drop to his knees and chew on the carpet. (HHhH is chock full of tons of these bits of amusing trivia.)

The story really kicks into high gear in the second half, though, as Binet picks up the story of the two assassins, sent from London (where Benes had sought asylum after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia) to score a victory for the Resistance by murdering Heydrich. The chronicle of the assassination, the escape, and the last stand in a church in Prague (this isn't a spoiler; it's included on the jacket copy) read as fast as any adventure story or spy novel you could find.

So, if, like me, you're a fan of historical fiction, history, fiction, the philosophy of writing fiction, or any combination therein, you'll probably dig this. Despite a few sags in the middle, this is a great read!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The New Dork Review of 2012

Just when you thought you were finished with 2012 lists, and looking bright-eyedly towards 2013, here's one more. You can handle one more, right? I'll be brief.

My Five Favorite Books of the Year
5. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett / 11/22/63 by Stephen King -- I couldn't decide between these two 2011 novels I read early in 2012, so they both get a shout out. Both are excellent!
4. Office Girl, by Joe Meno -- A short, simple novel about hipsters in Chicago, this story took me by surprise in terms of how much I liked it and how it's stayed with me.
3. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, by Jonathan Evison -- A warmhearted, but hilarious, novel about getting your life back together when you've hit bottom, this was a hugely underrated 2012 novel.
2. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn -- Not exactly an upset here, but this story of marital betrayal made Gillian Flynn a household name - and well-deservedly.
1. Arcadia, by Lauren Groff -- Just a beautiful, brilliant book.

The 2012 Stat Sheet
Goodreads tells me I read 52 books, and a total of 21,303 pages.

Three Least Favorite Books of the Year
3. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, by Mark Leyner -- The title of my review for this head-scratcher of a piece of fiction is "WTF?!" ...and I stand by that.
2. A Hologram For The King, by Dave Eggers -- Even though this found its way onto the National Book Award finalist list, I thought this parable of mid-life crisis and America's place in the world didn't quite "meet its fourth quarter projections."
1. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James -- Yeah, I read it, only to have the right to make fun of it. It is preposterously awful. But Book Rioter Rebecca and I sure had a lot of fun skewering it.

Favorite Bookish "Call Me Maybe" Parody
The nice folks at Chicago's Open Books made this thing. It is awesome.

Classics Read in 2012
4. Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin -- I'm still smack-dab in the middle of this one. More later...
3. Underworld, by Don DeLillo -- Everyone's right - the first 60 pages of this novel are the height of American writing about baseball. And there are other passages in this novel that are just breath-takingly profound.
2. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck -- This, somehow, was the first time I'd read Steinbeck, and this fantastic story gives me two of my new favorite characters in literature (Lee and Samuel).
1. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron -- This novel will haunt me forever. I had no idea what I was getting in to when I picked this up. It is the saddest thing I've ever read. And I loved it.

Favorite Under-the-Radar Books
2. A Partial History of Lost Causes, by Jennifer DuBois -- About chess, and Russian, and family, and (no joking) finding the meaning of life.
1. A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava -- Never mind that Fifty Shades dreck, this novel is actually the 2012 self-publishing success story. It's long, with tons of digressions, and it's not always the simplest read, but it's just a fascinating novel that's hard to put down, once you can talk yourself in to picking it up.

Favorite Non-Fiction
2. The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer -- I'd put this great memoir off for so long, simply because the title was so off-putting. But I'm glad I finally conquered my nit-pick and read it. It's great!
1. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, by D.T. Max -- Of course, I read (and totally dug) the first full-length biography of my favorite writer. Of course I did.

And now, for no particular reason, here's Gangnam Style.

Happy Reading in 2013!