Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Heart Broke In: Dysfunctional British Wankers

You've probably never heard of British novelist James Meek. It's okay. I hadn't either until a really positive review of his new novel, The Heart Broke In, showed up in The New Yorker several months back. Then, I saw a review on Goodreads comparing Meek to Jonathan Franzen. I was sold — as you know, I love the Franzen, and I'm a sucker for a good dysfunctional family story.

The result? Just okay. The characters that inhabit Meek's only-400-page-but-probably-still-way-too-long novel certainly don't seem to like each other much. Indeed, their morals consist basically of the following: All's fair game, as long as you don't get caught. In the opening pages, we see 40-year-old Ritchie, an ex-rock-star-and-now-reality-producer embroiled in an affair with a 15-year-old girl, who was a contestant on his TV show.  The only thing that stops him from continuing the affair, his 3rd such extra-marital dalliance, is the thought that this time his wife has promised to leave him and take their two kids if she catches him again.

Meanwhile, his mid-30s scientist sister Bec has muddled through an almost misanthropic, bed-hopping love life, even as she makes a brilliant breakthrough in the cause to cure malaria. She takes up with another scientist, a dude named Alex, a socially inept man-child who used to drum for Ritchie's band, and has had a several-years crush on Bec.

But it all threatens to come crashing down when a newspaper editor named Val, who, early in the novel, Bec had agreed to marry and then decided against it, finds out about Ritchie's underage affair. He blackmails Ritchie by threatening to reveal the story unless Ritchie can bring him some dirt on his sister. Will Ritchie betray Bec to save himself?

If you don't like novels in which you don't like any of the characters, this is definitely not for you. But that, I can abide. My issue here is that the novel just seemed a bit bloated— there are too many side stories and distractions, and I was often bored with the tangents, and looking forward to getting back to the heart of the matter. Part of the point here is that it's often difficult to tell what the true motivation behind our decisions may be — even for ourselves. Is it an ingrained sense of morality? A conscience? A sense of not wanting to be publicly shamed? A staunch belief that the ends justify the means? They're interesting question to ponder, but it's sometimes hard to keep your readerly eye on these prizes.

However, if you are a sucker for soapy novels with a whole lot of bloody Britishness, you'll certainly enjoy this. And the dysfunction of Bec and Ritchie's relationship with each other and with their own relations is really entertaining. There is definitely some Franzen in this novel, but on the whole, it's a "meek" imitation.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

10 Best Books I've Never Read

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

Comedy genius Jimmy Kimmel recently provided us with his list of the 11 best movies he never saw. Most of us have a similar list for books, as well, don’t we? And probably with similar reasons as Jimmy’s. (eg, Fight Club: “I’m sure this is a great movie, but it seems like a lot of the people who really, really love it are dickheads.”)

If you don’t have such a book list, it sure is a fun thought experiment. So, here are the 10 “best” books I’ve never read (yes, the word “best” takes on several different meanings over the course of this list).

10. Ulysses, by James Joyce — If I’m ever tempted to perform electroconvulsive therapy on myself, perhaps I’ll take a deep breath and read this book instead. It could be therapeutic, in a masochistic way. Or, if I’m ever tempted to read this book, perhaps I’ll take a deep breath and perform electroconvulsive therapy on myself instead.

9. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen — In vain have I struggled, etc., etc.

8. The Twilight series, by Stephenie Meyer — I’m sure these are great books, but the people who really, really love them are…um…(if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all).

7. Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo — I actually have no idea what this book is about. Strange, huh? I always assumed the title referred to those who are reading the book.

6. Midnight’s Children/The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie — Anyone else hear “magical realism” and run screaming in the other direction faster than Usain Bolt with a cheetah taped to his back? No? Okay, then.

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez — I was going to read this, but I only have about 55 years of solitude left. (I’m really, really sorry for that one. There’s four more, but you can stop reading now, if you want. I totally wouldn’t blame you.)

4. Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs — If I wanted to read a heroin-fueled indecipherable, incoherent mess, I’d just pick up Toni Morrison. (Wait, what?)

3. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand — I shall pursue my individual happiness, as is the only true and moral purpose in life, by never reading this book.

2. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman — People who love this book seem to be the same people who, when they were teenagers, earnestly thought that saying “naked lady” three times quickly would actually result in a naked lady appearing.

1. The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling — *ducks* …  Someday, I’ll read these — perhaps when news finally breaks that the 8th book is imminent.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sutton: Myth Meets Memory

For most readers, there are a handful of writers who could write treatises on advanced paint-drying or introductory grass-growing or intermediate shirt-wearing, and you'd still be riveted. For me, J.R. Moehringer is one of those writers. I've loved his journalism, his memoir, and his not-so-secretly ghost written autobiography for Andre Agassi.

Sutton, about real-life bank robber extraordinaire Willie "The Actor" Sutton, who stole more than $2 million over a 30-year career, is Moehringer's first novel. And it's just as fun to read as the rest of his stuff.

The story begins with Sutton's release from jail on Christmas Eve, 1969. Sutton agrees to tell his life story to a young journalist, and lays out a plan to visit all the important New York sites of his life over the course of one day. So we flash between the story of Sutton traveling around New York with the journalist and a photographer, and these actual important events — his poor childhood in Brooklyn, falling in love with a girl named Bess, the hopelessness during the early 1920s that led him to rob his first banks, and a series of arrests and jailbreaks.

Beyond just the straight smash-and-grab fun of this story, there are two other notable aspects. First, Willie Sutton is a sentimental cat, constantly reminiscing about places and people. And so that leads into par of the point of the novel: Asking readers to question how much we can trust his memory of events, and, by extension, how much we can trust events as they're laid down on the page by Moehringer. That's not to say Moehringer sets out to tell the story unreliably— it just means that the delineation of myth and memory is often not a solid line.

As well, after Sutton is put in jail for the last time in 1952, he briefly becomes kind of a folk hero in New York. (When asked why he robbed banks, he supposedly unleashed the famous line: "Because that's where the money is.") He spent his life "exacting revenge" on the evil, unethical banks that caused a vicious cycle of economic collapse and recovery. There's certainly a nod towards modern times in the way Moehringer portrays the banks and the catastrophe they create for the "common" folk.

Finally, if Moehringer's goal is to make a criminal likeable, he certainly succeeds — and not the least because Sutton is a bookworm. It's maybe a pander to readers, but I still really dug this detail. In his first stay in jail, he meets a former newspaper editor named Chapin who explains to him the value of books. I absolute love these lines:

Sutton: "I love to read sir. I always have. But when I walk into a library or bookshop, I get overwhelmed. I don't know where to start.
Chapin: "Start anywhere."
Sutton: "How do I know what's worth my time and what's a waste?"
Chapin: "None of it is a waste. Any book is better than no book. Slowly, surely, one will lead you to another, which will lead you to the best. Do you want to spend your life planting roses with me?"
Sutton: "No sir."
Chapin: "Then—books. It's that simple. A book is the only escape from this fallen world. Aside from death." 
There's a bit of trick at the end of this novel — harkening back to the myth vs. memory theme —and it's my least favorite part of this story. But overall, if you're looking for an immensely well-written, fun-to-read fictional biographical novel, Sutton is just the thing.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

We Live In Water: Jess Walter's Short Short Stories

Jess Walter's first collection of short stories, We Live in Water, is populated with a cast of characters who you wouldn't exactly confuse with a wine and cheese crowd. These folks are drug dealers, drug addicts, homeless panhandlers, cheaters, scofflaws, and gamblers. There's even — in one of my favorite stories in the collection, "Virgo" — a newspaper editor who changes the daily horoscope to exact revenge on an exgirlfriend who religiously reads hers. 

While most of these characters aren't exactly folks you'd want to have a beer with, most of them are intensely fascinating — even if we only get to hang with them for a tiny little while. Indeed, the 13 stories that comprise this collection (and actually, three of them are less than 3 pages each, and include a recurring character) are all fewer than 20 pages — most are about 10. It's tough to say whether these stories will be memorable in the long-term, but I can sure tell you they're fun to read while you're reading them.

My favorite story in the collection is titled "Helpless Little Things," about a drug dealer who travels between Seattle and Portland. (In fact, all of the stories in the collection are set in the Pacific Northwest, many of them in Walter's hometown of Spokane.) The dealer recruits two college-age kids to help him with a scam — soliciting donations for Greenpeace, which, of course, they just pocket instead. But, boy, does the dude get quite the comeuppance. It's a just an awesomely fun story.

"Wheelbarrow Kings" is about a couple of meth-heads who try to sell an old TV at a pawn shop. "Anything Helps" is about a homeless guy who panhandles enough money to buy his son the new Harry Potter book. You're starting to get the idea, yeah? These characters are often really sad — sometimes funny — but usually, in some way, sympathetic.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the story "Don't Eat Cat," which came out as a Byliner Original last year, is also included here. It's the one story in the collection that doesn't quite fit the rest, but it's still solid; s a unique take on the zombie story. Kids becomes so disillusioned with life, they take a club drug that turns them into zombies. The main character, diagnosed with cancer, tries to find his girlfriend in the zombie city to tell her he's dying. It's sad and profound — but also entertaining as hell.

If you're a Jess Walter fan, I think you'll love these stories (for the most part), too. I sure did.