Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cornucopia of October Mini Reviews

It's been a helluva month — multi-day trips to four cities (Vegas, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New Orleans) in a span of 18 days. That's really good for reading, but not great for writing about reading. So here are a bunch of mini-reviews to catch you up on the half-dozen books I plowed through amidst bad airport food, better wedding food, and the best NOLA food. It's a pretty eclectic group. Enjoy!

Books I Loved
Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson — This utterly fantastic novel (one of my favorites of the year) is about a social worker named Pete Snow in the early '80s in rural Montana. When he meets a kid who seems to live in the woods with his father — an ardently anti-government roughneck — he does his best to empathize with the kid and his father amidst his own troubled family life. He's left his cheating, booze-addled wife and soon, his own teenage daughter runs away. This is a novel that will stay with you long after you've finished.

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell — I'm gearing up to tackle Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks by delving into his backlist a bit. This 2006 novel is a year in the life of a boy named Jason Taylor, as he tries to navigate hallway politics at his school, bullies, girls, fighting parents, and a stammering problem. It's an often funny coming-of-age story that includes plenty of Mitchell's flourishes of wit and profundity. There are so many highlight-able passages, but my favorite is describing February as "not so much a month as a twenty-eight-day-long Monday morning."

Books I Liked, With Minor Reservations
Brutal Youth, by Anthony Breznican —  This novel about a Catholic high school is absurd in both the good and bad senses of the word. The kids at the slowly failing St. Mikes have no qualms, no conscience, and no hesitation towards cruelty whatsoever. And neither does their evil pastor, Father Mercedes, who wants to close the school to cover up his own secrets. You have to suspend disbelief a bit to go along with some of the important plot points here. As well, you have to ignore a few first-novel foibles (everyone seems to have "meaty hands," e.g., and dialogue could use a bit of a spit-shine), but if you can do those, you'll be treated to a hard-to-put-down novel that will make you think back on your own crappy high school experience and thank your lucky stars you weren't at St. Mikes. 

Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell — This was a cool story about a creepy (but with a heart of gold?) IT dude who "eavesdrops" on the emails of two employees at the newspaper at which they all work. He finds himself falling in love with one of the two women, just from her cool, witty, quirky style. She also crushes on him, not knowing who he is — calling him My Cute Guy — even though they never talk. Rowell has given us a nice little irony here: The man falls in love with the woman sight unseen (not how it usually works), and the woman falls in, if not love, in infatuation with the man based solely on his looks (not how it usually works). My hesitation with this novel is that the male characters are terrible — they're silly steroetypes (the IT guy plays Dungeons and Dragons, and lives with his parents, and the girl's boyfriend is a slacker rockstar who won't marry her because he loves her too much ... groan) that only vaguely resemble real people. But overall, it's a fun, quick plane read.

Books I Thought Were Good But Not Superb
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood — I'm glad I finally read this terrifying dystopian novel about what happens when women are merely objects for breeding, but it was a bit of a slog for me, frankly. I think that's partly due to the fact that I'd known a lot about it already, so it kind of felt like I was just reading to fill in the gaps, which I realize is a silly reason not to like a novel.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers — Eggers' is always a must-read author for me, and his latest is a strange all-dialogue novel about a guy who kidnaps various people and has conversations with them, with the goal of trying to make sense of his life that has gone off the rails a bit. It's all just okay. However, there's a long section about police brutality and unnecessary violence that is really interesting in light of the recent Ferguson situation. It's a one- to two-sitting read, so worth checking out if you're a die-hard Eggers fan, but it's probably a pass if you're not.

Monday, October 6, 2014

THE DOG and I AM PILGRIM: Two Mini-Reviews

Joseph O'Neill's new novel, The Dog, is a strange little piece of fiction — it's about an unnamed mid-30s lawyer who, having just participated in a spectacularly messy break-up with his girlfriend of nine years, moves to Dubai to take a job with a family conglomerate that may or may not be totally on the level. But the real story on this novel is its dense, ultra-logical (dude's a lawyer, after all), digression (and parenthesis)-laden prose. It's a style you're going to either love or hate. I loved it, much as I did O'Neill's previous novel Netherland. (I remember thinking after reading that novel that O'Neill reminded me of an Irish Philip Roth. In this novel, he's closer to an Irish David Foster Wallace.)

The story itself, which takes place in 2011, is largely portrait of Dubai — and its massive contradictions. For instance, Dubai is a place of ridiculous wealth and excess (even as it's still reeling from the effects of the financial crash), but it's still ruled by strict religious law. Dubai is a fascinating place, and O'Neill, through his narrator, delights in pointing out all its foibles and its hypocrisy — often at length.

Our narrator actually spends most of his days sending emails (both real, and hilariously, in his mind) to his employers, trying to cover his own ass in case what the rich sons who run the conglomeration of companies are up to isn't exactly legal. Sometimes he has to book Bryan Adam's for one of the guy's wife's birthday. Sometimes he teaches the guy's spoiled 15-year-old son how to do Sudoku. Sometimes, he visits prostitutes — and then spends pages justifying this splurge.

There's a mystery here, too — what happened to a guy who lives in building who it's discovered has a secret Dubai wife (in addition to his other wife back in Chicago)? Has he run away with Wife No. 2, or has some other more sinister fate befallen him?

Again, despite the fact that this novel made the Booker Prize Long List, it's probably not a novel most readers will enjoy (and given its meager 3.3 rating on GoodReads, most readers clearly haven't). But I dug it — I liked how O'Neill could use these ridiculous hundred-word sentences that would include five parentheticals, and tease out an argument about something as relatively mundane as porn. If you liked DFW's essay on whether lobsters can feel pain, you may like this novel, too.


And then, on the opposite end the spectrum prose-style-wise: Terry Hayes' impossibly long thriller I Am Pilgrim. This novel was recommended to me earlier this summer by a bookseller at a Maui Barnes and Noble when I stopped in to pick up Stephen King's new novel, Mr. Mercedes. So I was excited about it, both because it recalled when I was in Maui, and also because any comparison to King deserves at least a glance.

The verdict? It's a decent plane read, but it's definitely a turn-off-your-brain-and-suspend-disbelief-and-overlook-silly-coincidences-type novel. The story is about a secret agent who we see in the first scene investigating a mysterious murder — the killer apparently used tactics spelled out in our hero's book of investigation techniques penned before going into hiding. This really bugs him. Then there's a radicalized Muslim who wants to destroy America. There's another mysterious murder in the Turkish resort town of Bodrum. And so our hero — Pilgrim, eventually — has to race against time to solve murders and save the world from terrorism.

Again, it's just okay. Clocking in at well over 600 pages, it actually seems longer than that. Many of the subplots and much of the background information Hayes gives could be easily condensed or cut altogether. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The New Dork Review of Books Turns FIVE

If the blog were a human, it'd be heading off to kindergarten soon, playing in its first teeball league, and probably reading at a junior high level. Right?

Five years ago today, I launched this thing — and even way back then, I wasn't above making a joke at Dan Brown's expense. Good times.

This is post No. 385 since this thing launched, which frankly, is hard to believe. It's also hard to believe I still haven't gotten that cease and desist order from the blog's namesake: The New York Review of Books. Everyone be cool, and maybe they'll never find out!

But here's to 385 (at least) more! There have been some lulls, more so lately, I realize. I've always said that when this starts to feel like work, I'll quit. But most of the time it doesn't yet, so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past. Or something.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

(By the way, today is also Book Riot's 3rd birthday. To celebrate, Riot New Media is launching a new product site called Panels. If comics are your thing, check it out. It promises to be awesome.)