Friday, August 29, 2014

Lost For Words, by Edward St. Aubyn: Literary Award Hijinks

In the grand tradition of the best literary satire, Edward St. Aubyn's Lost for Words boldly takes its place. That's how the character Sonny might describe this goofy novel that sends up the Man Booker Prize with equal parts snark and silliness. Sonny — an Ignatius Reilly-like fella, who is so distraught that his 2,000-page tome isn't longlisted for the Prize, he decides to assassinate the judges — is just one of a cast of grotesques, both judges and writers, who populate St. Aubyn's comic novel.

The question of the novel: What possible chain of events could lead to a cookbook (yeah, a friggin' cookbook) being considered for the Commonwealth's most prestigious literary prize? (It's prestigious, yeah, but it is now sponsored by the Elysian Corporation, a Monsanto-like outfit famous for its pesticides and GMOs.)

Well, start with five idiot judges, some of whom were appointed to the committee for reasons of pure cronyism, each of whom have their own agendas of vastly varying degrees of sophistication. Add a snafu whereby the cookbook is mistakenly submitted to the committee instead of a novel by a sexpot writer named Kathryn. And throw in a deadlocked panel, most of whom haven't actually read the books, and you'll see how it's not outrageous. (Well, it would definitely be outrageous in real life — but not so in the pages of this novel, where one of the judges even tells her daughter to lay her life savings on a wager of one of the five shortlisted novels. Which of course doesn't win.)

Some of the fun of this novel is the snippets of the nominees St. Aubyn includes. My favorite is one titled All The World's A Stage, written from the perspective of William Shakespeare. Ol' Billy gets in a battle of wits with a romantic rival, who, after Billy reveals he keeps a poem in his codpiece, tells him, "It is a naughty codpiece, for it hath naught in it." Burn! (By the way, another of the nominated novels is titled The Enigma Conundrum — John Le Carre couldn't have done better himself.)

These snippets are short, but allow you to get the general sense of terribleness of all these books. Sometimes they're a bit hit or miss, though, and can drone on a bit. As can the snippets of story told from the perspective of a couple of the characters, like a pretentious French writer named Didier, who is fascinated with paradox. But his pretension is just as boring reading it in this novel as you'd imagine it would be listening to this dude in real life. Another character — the only deserving author on the prize's long list – named Sam is a milquetoast lovelorn wuss, whose neurotic ramblings are also just as annoying to read about as they would be to hear in real life.

But so, if you've read and enjoyed other publishing industry satires like Steve Hely's How I Became A Famous Novelist or Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan, you'll probably dig this too. It's a really short, two- or three-sitting read, and mostly pretty fun. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Short Strains of World War II Story

I've made significant efforts over the past several years to get over my hesitation toward novels that are structured as alternating or intertwined stories. And for the most part, I've been able to overcome that tiny piece of reading neurosis — Jonathan Miles' Want Not was one of my favorite novels of last year, for example.

But then I'll read a story like Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is, by most measures (including its 4.27 rating on Goodreads), a very, very good novel. And I'll again remember why this type of storytelling has a tendency to be hit-or-miss for me.

Doerr's novel is the story of a 16-year-old blind French girl named Marie-Laure, who takes refuge in the coastal town of Saint-Malo with her aging great uncle during the German occupation of France. It's also the story of a teenaged German orphan named Werner, who learns how to build and fix radios at an early age, attends an elite German academy, and is sent to the front with a new device he helped invent, the purpose of which is to locate and eliminate enemy radio transmissions. And finally, and to a lesser extent, it's the story of an evil German named von Rumpel who is on the hunt all over Europe during the war for a massive, priceless diamond known as the Sea of Flames that carries with it a legend of immortality.

Amidst a main theme of the things that connect us and the things that divide us, these stories slide back and forth over one another to build up to the real-time action: All three characters wind up in Saint-Malo. In the opening scenes of the novel, the Americans are bombing the town, Werner is trapped in the basement of a hotel with another German soldier named Volkheimer, and Marie-Laure, who has the diamond in her pocket, is taking shelter in the attic of her great uncle's mansion. This all takes place in early August 1944, but the beef of the novel is how everything will eventually get to that point.

These snippets of story are told in not-more-than-two-or-three page sections. Obviously Doerr did this on purpose and for very specific reasons. One suggestion as to why might be that the shorter, almost poetic, pieces stitch his characters closer together structurally, as they eventually maneuver closer together within the plot of the story as well. As well, perhaps he wanted the whole novel to feel like short bits of memories that sort of bleed into each other.

But for me, the effect was that it pushed me further from the characters, and gave the story a choppy, jolting feel which is certainly not the tone Doerr intended, I'd guess. So really, it wasn't actually the intertwining story structure itself that kept me at arm's length, but that each strain of story is so short.

That may seem like an extraordinarily nitpicky criticism for such a generally well-received novel. So please don't get me wrong — Doerr's novel IS astonishing as a piece of fiction and masterful in its pure literary-ness. This is a writer who is as skillful at constructing sentences as any I've ever read. So I did my level best to get over my silly hang-up with the short pieces of story. I wasn't totally successful all the time, but if you're a fan of historical fiction of the uber-literary variety, this is certainly a novel for you.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Orfeo, by Richard Powers: Music and Microbes

Few writers could cross avant-garde classical music with bioengineering to produce an entertaining, hellishly smart novel. But if you've read Richard Powers before, you probably know he's just the writer to do it.

Powers' latest novel Orfeo (a nod to the Greek mythological figure Orpheus) tells the tale of Peter Els, a 70-year-old composer who goes on the lam when authorities discover an amateur biology lab in his house. Is he a terrorist bent on biological warfare? Or is just an old guy with a strange hobby?

From the start, we're pretty sure it's not the former, but Powers delves deeply into Els' life story to explain why it's the latter. We learn about Els's influences in classical music, both traditional and non — from Mahler to Mozart to Messiaen. (A 10-page anecdote about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of the World, composed in a Nazi prison camp, was one of the highlights of the novel for me. Absolutely fascinating.) And Powers writing absolutely flourishes when he's describing a piece of music. You're almost obligated to stop and Google the piece so you can enjoy it with him.

We go back in time to learn about Els' ambition, mistakes, divorce, retreat from the world, relationship with an antagonistic collaborator named Richard Bonner (himself an avant-garde choreographer), and how he comes to believe music can truly be immortal (and by extension, make its composer immortal as well). We constantly waver between empathizing with Els and scratching our head at the choices he makes.

But part of the point of this novel, also, is how expression and art — especially music — seem to terrify authority. (In addition to the Messiaen story, Powers also gives a brief aside about the Russian composer Shostakovich, and how his 5th Symphony was a response to criticism from Josef Stalin.) Els is living in a post-9/11 world where fear spreads as quickly as the altered bacteria he's supposedly culturing. Powers writes:
“To call any music subversive, to say that a set of pitches and rhythms could pose a threat to real power…ludicrous. And yet, from Plato to Pyongyang, that endless need to legislate sounds. To police the harmonic possibilities as if there were no limits to music’s threat.”
And that brings us to the notion of biocomposing — the practice of composing music from patterns in nature. But biocomposition isn't quite what Els is up to, and to tell you what he's really doing would be to spoil the ending — but needless to say, it's an ingenious idea. And the whole thing — as Els travels around the country, still on the run from authorities, righting wrongs from his past — leads to one last piece of performance art that may finally bring Els the fame and notoriety he strove for his whole life as a composer.

I am far from an expert on classical music, and even further from an expert on avant-garde classical music, but Powers writes in a such a way as to make his subject (whether a composer, a piece, or a piece's place in history) understandable. I learned a ton from this novel! There are, admittedly, a few instances when Powers seems to get bogged down by his own expertise, but on the whole, this is a fascinating, thought-provoking story. But if you know Powers' previous novels, you'd expect nothing less! 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Landline: Can a Magic Phone Save a Marriage?

You may have heard about the trick in this novel already, and it's a good one, to be sure: What if you discovered a "magic" phone that allowed you to talk to your spouse in the past? Would it offer you fresh insight into your current marital problems, or would it just make things more complicated, and possibly force you to realize things were actually broken beyond repair?

Those questions, and the magic phone gimmick that launches them, make Rainbow Rowell's Landline really intriguing and fun – but the soul of this novel is the very simple, yet impossible to answer, question: Is love enough?

If you think that sounds a bit ooey-gooey, you're not wrong. It is. This is part love story, part story of that love story beginning to fail. And so something like this may usually have been a solid pass for me, but I took a chance on this — well outside my comfort zone — because several Book Rioters read it for the July Riot Read, and most really liked it, even the dudes. And I loved it!

I loved it because Rowell is a super cool writer — her characters are awesome. They feel like people you may know, and while they're often neurotic and quirky, smart and witty, or mysterious and humorless, you still want to get a beer with them. Her dialogue is authentic and often funny. And the story keeps you guessing — you know what you hope happens, but you're never quite sure what will.

The two principles are Neal and Georgie, late 30s parents of two girls, who live in Los Angeles. Neal is a stay-at-home dad, and Georgie is a TV writer for a crappy prime time comedy. But when she and her longtime writing partner get an offer to pitch their own show, they jump at it. Only problem: Georgie was supposed to go to Omaha with Neal and their kids for Christmas with Neal's mother. Neal is pissed! So he takes the girls and goes anyway, and Georgie stays behind to work on her show. Is this the nail in the coffin for the marriage? Or will the magic phone (which doesn't appear until about page 70, and until you get there, you have to be a little patient) be the magic marriage-cure a magic phone should be?

If you're still on the fence, check out this list of books to try if you've loved Landline. For me, this was more a reverse-engineering process, as I really liked all four of these books (especially The Financial Lives of the Poets and Domestic Violets), so I figured Landline was a pretty "safe" calculated risk. And it panned out. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mr. Mercedes: King Goes Crime

Stephen King's new crime thriller (I guess that's the appropriate genre — it's often horrific, but it's definitely not horror) Mr Mercedes is certainly entertaining, a novel you can plow through (maybe a poor choice of words) in just a few sittings. But it also sort of feels like the kind of novel King can crank out in his sleep. There isn't a tremendous amount of depth or unexpected drama here — you know who the killer is from the opening pages — and so the only question is whether or hero will be able to stop said killer from committing his heinous encore act.

To fill in the details: The killer is a dude named Brady Hartfield, a late-20s fellow who works at an electronics store and moolights as an ice cream truck driver (you'll never trust your ice cream truck driver again after reading this novel). Brady lives with his drunk mother, with whom he has a massively inappropriate relationship. Brady is the eponymous Mr. Mercedes, the title psychopath who mauled down and killed eight people waiting in line at a job fair in a stolen Mercedes Benz.

Our hero is Bill Hodges, a former detective who had failed to solve the Mr. Mercedes crime before fading into retirement. But Brady reels him back into the case in the opening pages. Brady sends him a letter, chiding him about the crime, and endeavoring to guilt poor Bill into committing suicide. Brady had already been successful in this regard with the rich woman from whom he stole the Mercedes. She killed herself a few months prior after he'd needled her as well. Evidently, this sort of thing is a sadistic power trip for him.

But of course, Brady's best laid plans go awry, and he only succeeds in re-motivating Bill to solve the case. So together with a computer-whiz teenage neighbor Jerome, a slightly off woman named Holly, and a saucy rich minx named Janelle Patterson (who is the sister of the Mercedes owner), Bill races against time stop Mr. Mercedes from committing more mass murder.

At least one part of the novel struck me as extremely odd. One of the lessons Bill learns as he continues to run down leads, is that you shouldn't let your personal feelings about people influence the weight of their evidence. He and his partner had been annoyed with the whiny rich lady who owned the Mercedes, so they didn't believe her when she said she didn't know how the killer was able to steal her car without breaking in, and that caused them to look past what might have broken the case. Later, Bill is interrogating a neighbor, and amid a rant about aliens, she tells him she doesn't trust the neighborhood ice cream man. Bill writes her off as crazy, so he puts no stuck in what she says. If only he'd istened to her! But here's the problem: King often describes Bill as a hugely successful detective with a long, storied career of solving crime. If that's true, wouldn't this have been a lesson Bill learned many, many cases prior. This may sound like nit-picking, but this lesson is sort of one of the hinges of the novel. So it bugged me.

Overall, though, this is a good, fun summer read — not quite on par with King's more popular novels or my favorite novels of his (Duma Key, 11/22/63, The Stand, eg), but not terrible either. I'd give it three out of five stars.