Thursday, January 30, 2014

Oyster, and Short Reviews of Two Short Story Collections

I've been a subscriber to the new Oyster service for just over a month now, and I can report faithfully the following: It's pretty awesome. If you're not familiar, the easiest way to describe Oyster is as a Netflix for Books. You download an app on your tablet or phone, pay $10 a month, and you get unlimited access to any book in Oyster's catalog.

The books available are mostly backlist titles and classics, but I can assure you (as Book Riot editor Jeff did in his review here, and Rioter Jeremy did in a follow-up review here) that you'll easily find plenty to read to make $10 more than worth it. My queue is now more than a dozen titles long — books I actually, truly want to read — and so reading just three books a month from Oyster means you're paying $3 a book, and that's a deal that's hard to beat! And no doubt, books will be added more and more as Oyster is able to make deals with publisher. It's a cool thing, and I'd highly recommend giving it a try (the first month is free!).

And but so, the first Oyster book I read was was Jonathan Miles' Dear American Airlines, which I discussed a couple weeks ago. The next was Ben Fountain's collection of short stories titled Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. If you read and enjoyed Fountain's National Book Award finalist Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which I certainly did, you'll most likely dig this 2009 collection. The stories take you all over the world, from Haiti, to Malaysia, Columbia, 19th century Austria, and...wait for it...Sierra Leone. The stories are mostly about normal people rubbing up against corrupt, violent power in corrupt, violent countries. A fisherman in Haiti tries to report drug dealers to the police. A down-on-his-luck pro golfer unwittingly helps a businessman bribe corrupt generals in Malaysia. And, in probably my favorite story in the collection, a kidnapped ornithologist in the Columbian jungle hopes ardently for rescue, then might get it, but at what price?

These stories are straightforward, easy-to-read pieces of fiction perfect for short sittings or breaks between novels. Some are sad, some are funny, but you'll definitely learn something new about the exotic settings in each of these stories.

Finally, my third Oyster book was Between Friends, by Israeli writer Amos Oz. Several years ago, I read Oz's memoir/novel titled A Tale of Love and Darkness, about his childhood in newly founded Israel. I really loved it and had been meaning to read some of his fiction. Well, here we are (and a perfect example of why Oyster is great for readers) — this 2012 collection of inter-related short stories takes place on a kibbutz in the late 1950s. Each of the eight stories follows a different character, with cameos by the others peppered throughout — it's kind of like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, except on kibbutz.

These are really simple, quiet stories about every day life. But every day life on a kibbutz is still exotic to a modern reader, and one of the themes of these stories is whether the kibbutz system — a socialist ideal — will remain ideologically rigid, or will it adapt to changing times and the changing sentiments of its members. What's more, does the ideology of the kibbutz trump basic human emotion — like the need to care for an aging parent, the desire to leave a failed marriage, or the hope to see the world? As Oz writes about one of his characters, a sad bookish young man, "His reading was leading him to the simple conclusion that most people need more affection than they can find.” That's a morose sentiment, to be sure, but one that rises to the surface frequently in this collection. Another character, a caring, loving woman who has been jilted by her husband echoes: "(She) said to herself that most people seem to need more warmth and affection than others are capable of giving, and none of the kibbutz committees will ever be able to cover that deficit between supply and demand."

I really enjoyed this collection — it's one of those pieces of fiction that seems fairly basic, until you really stop to think about what the writer's up to. And then you're amazed that so much could be accomplished with so few words (this collection is eight stories, each only about 15 pages). Highly recommended!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dept. of Speculation: On Grief Bacon and Bed Bugs...and Marriage

Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation (out today) is a really hard novel about which to write anything coherent. First of all, it's not really a novel — it's closer to a long short story. As well, it's closer to a piece of modern art in words than it is a novel. And like a painting you stare at with relaxed eyes until meaning reveals itself, as you read these short snippets of text, of quotes from philosophers and scientists, and of actual story, an affecting tale of a marriage in trouble rises to the surface. Then, before you know it (it's only 176 pages, and it's really much shorter than that), it's over and you're paging through it again to remind yourself what a truly unique book this is.

The story is about a woman living in New York City who marries a musician. The nameless woman is a published novelist, but has failed to produce a second book, and is ghost writing a memoir of a cheesy failed astronaut to help pay the bills.

They have a daughter. They get bed bugs in their small NYC apartment. The woman's sister and friends husbands have affairs.

"She says every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string.”

Her husband has an affair. The wife nearly loses her mind. She reads an adultery book, and they go to counseling, which she dubs The Little Theater of Hurt Feelings. They work at reconciliation. They reconcile.

And that's it. But that's SO not it.

One of the measures of a really talented writer, a writer I'll read no matter what s/he is writing about, is one that can describe something in a way no one has before. And that's what Offill does here. She describes this relatively mundane story of a marriage in crisis in a way that's never been done. And that's what makes this novel really notable.

When Offill is telling about the bed bugs, she includes snippets about astronauts feeling trapped and confined to convey how the wife and her husband felt in their apartment. She includes short lines of philosophy to capture a mood. And she includes a description of the German word kummerspeck, which literally means "grief bacon," but is used to describe overeating due to emotional trauma (my favorite part of the novel). She makes jokes, "I have an intern. All of my life now appears to be one happy moment." She includes actual jokes ("Why couldn't the Buddhist vacuum in corners? Because she had no attachments.") She tells anecdotes. She yells at us. She whispers to us. It really is just mesmerizing.

If you've never heard of Offill or this novel, I'd highly recommend it, just for a reading experience you won't find every day. Again, because this is very short, it's rather a low-risk, very high-reward prospect. This is one of the first highly buzzed novels of 2014, and my guess is that you'll find it is, indeed, rewarding.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lexicon: Words Rule the World!

Here's an idea: What if words — everyday words, yes, but also special, exclusive-to-a-few words — were more powerful than even the most powerful weapon? What if they could be used, quite literally, AS a weapon to try to rule the world? Seems like a bit of a pander to book nerds, doesn't it? Of course, yes. But in Lexicon, Australian novelist Max Barry pulls off this premise with alacrity, wit, and no shortage of thrills.

Emily Ruff is a precocious 16-year-old San Franciscan living on the street, earning money from cheating on magic tricks, when she's recruited for an exclusive east coast boarding school where she slowly learns the art of persuasion. Graduates of this school are called poets, and are given names of other poets like Eliot, Yeats, and Woolf, commiserate with their ability. She learns about the 220 categories of personalities in which every person fits, how to quickly identify a person's category, and then, how to use particular words to persuade. But when tragedy strikes at the school, she's banished to a small town in Australia called Broken Hill where she spends several years in exile waiting for permission to return. But soon, she repeats a past mistake — committing the ultimate sin of the ultra-logical school in which she's supposed to be loyal: She falls in love.

Meanwhile, a dude named Wil is kidnapped at the airport in Portland, and survives a violent scene. He and mysterious fellow named Eliot begin a mysterious cross-country roadtrip, where Wil is constantly under threat of being shot in the head. Eliot explains that he's kidnapped Wil because, evidently, Wil is the lone survivor of a disaster in a small Australian town called Broken Hill, and Eliot wants to know how. But Wil doesn't remember any of that, and thinks he's been confused with someone else. Who is Wil, really? How is he related to Emily's story (we know early on Broken Hill is part of the connection)? And just as importantly, who is Eliot, and what is he after?

Several strands of story in different times blend quickly together — it's a deft juggling act Barry pulls off to purposely disorient us. And admittedly, it's frustrating at times — because things happen with the presumption that you understand them, and so you think you may just have missed something. But you have to trust that Barry will explain what's confusing. He does, trust him. Everything makes sense eventually. It's just that through parts of the middle of the novel, you're not sure where you are in time — before or after events that have already been explained.

This is a quick, fun, genre-defying read. When I wasn't mad at it for confusing me on purpose, I really enjoyed it. And I was really relieved when everything started to make sense again, because I'd been afraid I'd totally missed something — or just didn't understand it. That feeling is the worst! But when everything does come together, I definitely applauded Barry for the inventiveness both of the premise and of the storytelling. Many other readers have as well — it landed on Book Riot's Best of 2013 list.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Luminaries: "There is no truth except truth in relation."

I am utterly awestruck by Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. It's a feat of storytelling unlike anything I've ever experienced with a novel before — a meticulously constructed plot that circles itself, folds back upon itself, but then ultimately snaps to a satisfying and coherent conclusion, like a piece of origami or an ornate string trick.

That is to say, it's not an easy read. But as I wrote yesterday for Book Riot, I like a challenge! The Luminaries isn't difficult because it's incomprehensible. It's difficult because Catton asks a lot of her readers in terms of keeping plot lines and characters (some of whom have aliases) straight in your mind. I took notes (which you can access here, if you're interested in taking on this novel) to try to keep everything straight — and it actually worked.

Let me give you some more specifics. When the novel opens, it's January 1866, and we're in the small gold rush town on the West coast of New Zealand called Hokitika. A guy named Walter Moody has just come ashore hoping to hit it big. He stumbles upon a meeting of 12 men at a hotel, and they begin to tell him a story.

The story is about a drunk hermit named Crosbie Wells who was found dead two weeks prior in his cabin amidst a massive fortune of gold. On the same night, an opium-addicted whore named Anna Wetherell was found face down in a mud puddle, and subsequently arrested for trying to kill herself. Each of the 12 men at the meeting is connected to both of these events, as our several other characters, including a shady ship captain named Carver and a smarmy politician named Lauderback. Each has his own perspective on what may have happened and why, but each man's motivation for solving the mysteries is different because of each man's own interests, desires, hopes, and perhaps most importantly, pasts.

Along the way, strings are slowly untangled, more characters are introduced, a love story becomes evident, more plots are revealed, and each of the 12 men learns the others' involvement, and tries to decide who to trust and who to suspect. At one point, a character tells another: "You say only a weak mind puts faith in coincidences. But a string of coincidences cannot be a coincidence!"

That's the rub — what appears to be coincidence (or misfortune or serendipity) surely is not. At about the halfway point of the novel, many of the pieces fall into place, and you kind of just put the book down and wonder how Catton did this. And then you still have half a novel to go! It's amazing. It really is.

I realize that doesn't give you an incredible amount about the plot, but it really is impossible to summarize in fewer than about 5,000 words. And this doesn't even take into account another aspect of the novel — the fact each chapter starts with an astrology chart (one example is pictured to the left), with each character on the edges, and the placement of the sun, moon and planets. Each character's personality traits and part in the plot is somehow related to these charts, I assume. But I'm not going to lie, I didn't spend any time trying to figure this out. It was enough to keep the plot straight.

Even a Booker Prize judge, in this fantastic, insightful interview published on Book Riot — this novel won this year's Booker Prize, the longest novel ever to win, and Catton at 28 years old is the youngest novelist to win — acknowledges that this novel takes a few re-readings, each with a different focus, to wring out all the meaning.

So I don't know exactly whether to recommend this or not — despite its genius, it's a novel that probably has limited appeal. Readers who try to speed through it will likely be frustrated and annoyed by it. Whatever the opposite of a beach/plane read is, this is it. For me, I enjoyed the two weeks I spent with it, but I enjoyed it more so because I was in awe of how the story was constructed than that I was captivated by the story itself.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Three Short Books, Three Mini-Reviews

I'm doing some catching-up from holiday reading, and while I was reading The Goldfinch and (just finished) The Luminaries, I took on some shorter, lighter reads as well. Here are a few thoughts on three novels I finished in the last few weeks:

1. You Are One of Them, by Elliott Holt— I had a strange reaction to this novel. It's a fascinating premise — two American girls in the early 1980s write letters to Yuri Andropov, one gets to go to Moscow to meet him and becomes famous, then she dies in a plane crash a few years later, and the other girls tries to find out what really happened. I loved this book while I was reading it — especially the middle-section of the novel taking place in the mid-1990s when the second girl travels to Moscow to try to find out what happened to her friend. Perhaps she's actually still alive? But this short novel felt way too short and, frankly, a bit slight. I wanted much more of it! And the "big reveal" is revealed in a conversation, which seemed like a missed narrative opportunity. Many readers have loved this novel — it even found it's way on to a few Best of 2013 lists. I liked it well-enough, I just wish there were more to it.

2. Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone — I first read, and fell under the thrall of, Robert Stone in college. His novel Damascus Gate blew me away, and since then I've read most of what this guy's published. This, his latest novel, is about a college student named Maud at a high-falutin New England liberal arts college. Maud is having an affair with her literature professor, and when Maud dies tragically (not a spoiler; see the title), the consequences are far-reaching. Her ex-NYPD-policeman, ex-drunk father struggles to come to terms. Her ex-nun counselor Jo struggles to makes sense (and of her strange past, as well). And her lover Brookman struggles to put his family and career pieces back together. Many reviewers have said the subject of this novel felt "beneath" a supposed master of American letters, like Stone. I didn't care about that. But, as opposed to Holt's novel above, there was too much in this novel that felt superfluous, which is strange for a fewer-than-300-page story. Still, if you can abide the digressions, it's a quick read, with mostly fascinating characters.

3. Dear American Airlines, by Jonathan Miles — Given how much I loved Miles' second novel Want Not, I had to try his 2008 debut, about a 54-year-old dude named Bennie Ford who is stuck at O'Hare on his way to his daughter's lesbian wedding in California, and pens a long complaint letter to the airline, in which he digresses into his sad, but true, life story. Poor Bennie is so disillusioned, but his self-deprecation makes for a read that makes you laugh as often as it makes you want to strangle him. One of the highlights is an anecdote about his lover Stella having dumping him, and he returns to their shared apartment blitzed out of his gourd, only to find he's locked out. And he realizes, even in his drunken stupor that he can't stand in an alley in New Orleans and yell "Stella" to a second floor window, because what a cliché. Miles is at his best in the present and cracking jokes — when he has Bennie complaining about particular aspects of air travel: comparing O'Hare to purgatory (just perfect!), complaining about the "O'Chairs" that are purposefully designed to make people uncomfortable, and suggesting a Vegas-roulette type system for determining whether planes get to fly. All that's great that's good. The bad is that Bennie includes parts of the Polish novel he's translating (a failed poet, he now makes a living as a translator) in his letter, and these sections just don't quite fit with the rest of Bennie's letter. I mean, I get the point — there are parallels between the character in the novel and Bennie. But these parts were really dull and hard to follow — and didn't add much to the story. Still, I'd definitely recommend this if you, too, loved Want Not. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Goldfinch: One Helluva Yarn

Chances are, if you haven't already read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, the "it" book of 2013, you have a pretty good idea whether or not you still will. I won't try to talk you into it if you haven't — you probably have a good reason (unappealing subject, too damn long, you're worried it's been overhyped) — but I will tell you this: It's a helluva yarn. You could do much worse than spending a week or so immersed in Ms. Tartt's 771 pages.

It's a perfect winter read, one you can wrap yourself into and forget about the snow-covered arctic tundra outside. It's a huge novel with complex themes and its own philosophy ("Life is catastrophe," i.e.), but first and foremost, it's just an absolutely riveting story. Even if you don't think too deeply, even if you just want to be entertained, you certainly will be.

Theo Decker is our protagonist, who we meet in the opening pages in a hotel room in Amsterdam, having befallen some as yet unknown calamity. Quickly, we back up to Theo as a 13-year-old New Yorker headed to a disciplinary meeting at his school with his mother. With an hour to kill, they stop into a museum to see a new exhibit. You know what happens next: An explosion at the museum kills his mother (and several others), though he's hurt, he survives. But before he escapes the museum, at the behest of a dying man, Theo takes a famous painting, The Goldfinch (which, of course, is a real thing).

The novel, then, continues on into four distinct periods of Theo's life — New York, Las Vegas, New York II, and Amsterdam. People flit in and out of his life, as he flits in and out of theirs. But the one constant is the painting — and how it reminds him of his mother, and who he is. That, however, belies the intrigue in this story, and twists and turns the story takes — a drug-fueled cross-country busride, a hundreds-thousands-dollar antique furniture scam, a drug-addled best friend named Boris who is loyal but dangerous, a beautiful red-haired girl named Pippa, and a family of New York bluebloods who have their own massive troubles. I'm telling you —it's a crazy ride. 

Some readers have complained that the novel meanders a bit — which, necessarily in a nearly 800-page novel, may be true — but when you're along for this ride, you can't think about what might be "superfluous" and what's not. Just go with it! Some readers have also complained that the second New York section — starting at about the halfway point of the novel — is "slower" than the rest. And that's true (the Vegas section, you'll discover, is a frenetic Irvine Welsh-esque booze-and-drug coming-of-age bonanza, and the Amsterdam section that concludes the novel is like something out of a Scorsese film), but it was also my favorite part. It so atmospheric, and so much fun to watch Theo make the decisions (both good and bad) that will lead everything that happens next.

So, like many readers before me, I loved this book. If you're on the fence, give it a go — start it on a cold winter Friday night, and you might be finished before work on Monday. You may even forget to shower/eat/socialize/feed your pet. It's pretty engrossing. And well worth the hype.