Friday, February 20, 2015

In The Light Of What We Know: Dense, Dazzling, Exasperating

Last May, James Wood, the New Yorker's venerable, but often grumpy, literary critic gushed and raved about Zia Haider Rahman's 2014 debut novel, In The Light of What We Know. He called it "dazzling" and "full of knowledge," and I thought, "Hmm...definitely worth a try."

I should've known any novel Wood raves about would be like this: in a word, dense. Plane/beach reading, this is not. The story is essentially a conversation between two really smart fellows — one, Zafar, is telling the other, our unnamed narrator, his story. It's 2008, and we're just on the onset of the financial crisis — our unnamed narrator is a banker, and when his good friend Zafar, who he hasn't seen in many years suddenly shows up on his doorstep in London wanting to tell him his story, it's a welcome distraction from his failing professional life.

Zafar's story involves a beautiful, mercurial woman named Emily, his experiences in Afghanistan in 2002 at the outset of the war, and several snippets of other stories that explore culture, class, and race (he's Bangladeshi, but people are constantly mistaking him as Pakastani or Indian, infuriating him, and negating the sacrifices of his countrymen during the horrific war for Bangladeshi independence in 1971).

The central question of the novel is this: How can we really know anything? Zafar had studied mathematics at Oxford, and is a huge fan of Kurt Godel, and his Incompleteness Theorem. But this question of how we know what we know (if we can know what we know) is also explored through language, religion and faith, and love.

Zafar's story is fascinating — and along the way, he provides us all sorts of tidbits of trivia, interspersed throughout his philosophical meanderings. He's an unusual fellow, to be sure — but insanely smart (as, no question, is Rahman himself).

So it's an often exasperating, sometimes truly though-provoking, periodically entertaining, and ultimately pretty satisfying novel. It took me about three weeks to get through these 500 pages, and I was glad when I finished — I felt like I'd truly accomplished something just by reading this.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Glow: A Drug-Fueled Romp in South London

It's still early, but Ned Beauman's zany romp of a novel Glow is my favorite 2015 book so far. Beauman is one smart dude — and this novel reads a bit like what would happen if Tommy Pynchon (yeah, I call him Tommy. It's cool, we're boyz, remember?), Haruki Murakami, and Irvine Welsh all collaborated on a novel.

I loved Beauman's previous novel The Teleportation Accident, and while Glow might not be quite as good in total as that effort, it is definitely in the same vein — and you can almost see him giggling at his laptop as he writes. Believe me, it's just as much fun to read.

So the plot here is nuts: A guy named Raf, who lives in South London, is afflicted with something called "non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome." It basically means he's on a 25-hour clock instead of our typical 24, and so he can't hold down a regular job or have normal relationships. He spends most of his time traversing the London drug and rave scene with his buddy Isaac, where, in the opening pages of the novel, he meets a beautiful, exotic woman named Cherish.

From there, boom goes the plot. Explosion outward, and to try to summarize it is a fool's errand. It includes a nefarious American mining company that has done untoward deeds in Burma, and is now trying to track down the producers of the new "it" party drug called Glow. There are mysterious foxes. There is a gay Serbian mobster, and a gay Burmese chemist. And there is a scruples-less public relations guy named Fourpetal who switches sides as frequently as an ecstasy-head tells you he loves you.

I will readily admit Ned Beauman isn't for everyone, and I'm not saying that to try to convince you I'm a smarter or more discerning reader than you. Quite the contrary — I enjoy Beauman's stuff because it appeals to my love of mixing high- and low-brow; insightful, profound writing and complicated plot mixed with blow job and fart jokes, e.g.

If you are a fan of more accessible, less zany Pynchon or Chuck Palahniuk or Irvine Welsh, I think you'll really dig this novel, too. It's quite the fun read.

Friday, February 13, 2015

New Dork Review of Books, Post No. 400

This is the 400th New Dork Review of Books post — woohoo, indeed! But really, 400's only about a medium-important milestone — worth acknowledging, but let's not get crazy. We'll party like it's 1999 when we get to 500.

And but, for now, let's just quickly review the books from this week — since there was a rare flurry of activity this week!

Monday, Feb. 9 — The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Tuesday, Feb 10 — Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby

Wednesday, Feb 11 — The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

Thursday, Feb 12 — Praying Drunk, by Kyle Minor

Good times this week! Next week, look for reviews of Ned Beauman's new novel, Glow — which, if you liked his first two novels, Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident (the latter, I loved!), you'll really like this one too — and Zia Haider Rahman's rather dense "novel of ideas" In The Light of What We Know. This one's taken me nearly a month to finish, and so there's lots to write about.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Praying Drunk: Losing My Religion

I picked up this collection of stories by Kyle Minor for a few reasons — first, the title. "Praying Drunk" makes me laugh. Secondly, it's included on Powell's shortlist of the best short story collections of the 21st century (so far) — which, any time a book is mentioned on the same list as Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace, and Jhumpa Lahiria, you take note. This one definitely delivered.

The collection starts with two decent stories, but then really gets your attention with the third one, titled "The Truth and All Its Ugly." It's about a drug addict father, who, after his wife leaves him, proceeds to get his teenage son hooked on drugs as well. And then the troubled son blows his brains out to exact revenge on his mother having left them. But, wait! A twist! The father and mother reconcile in their grief, and thankfully, since they'd had their son "scanned" when he was a baby, they're able to buy a clone. But it's just not the same as the real son. It's a crazy story, really fun to read, and probably my favorite in the collection.

The kid who commits suicide reappears in many of the stories in the collection (as does an uncle who also killed himself) — from the minister's sermon at the funeral during which he describes a rockin' biscuit recipe, to the last story, a somewhat solemn piece titled "Lay Me Down in the Bluegrass" that details the suicide's effect on the family. It wasn't truly until this last story that I realized how much I enjoyed this collection, and how well it all fit together.

A long story titled "In a Distant Country" anchors the collection — it's a story told entirely in letters about a evangelical missionary in Haiti who falls in love with and marries a much younger volunteer who has come from Florida. Then, revolution — the Duvalier family flees, and chaos ensues, which turns out poorly for this missionary and his wife. Then story continues in letters to describe the aftermath and the search for the young woman. It's a fascinating, really inventive story.

There's a story about couple told entirely in dialogue where the man is trying to understand the woman's religious devotion. There are stories that are Q&A, one of which is about disillusionment with religion (a theme throughout the whole collection) and the other is a conversation with a guy in heaven — it turns out people do a lot of drinking in heaven.

Finally, apropos of nothing in particular, I just liked this instruction in the photo below. It made me laugh, and I had good feeling this collection was for me. If you're a fan of quirky, somber, inventive, funny short stories, you'll probably dig this collection, too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: Ode To Bookstores and Book People

In Gabrielle Zevin's popular novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, our eponymous protagonist is a cantankerous indie bookstore owner on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. In the first scene of the novel, we see him at his lowest: Being a total jerk to a sales rep from a small publishing house. She's new to the job, and has had the gall to pitch him a touchy-feely memoir, which is not at all to his taste. A.J.'s the kind of dude who isn't happy unless he's miserable — but it's not all his fault. His wife was killed in a car wreck, and now, his valuable Edgar Allen Poe manuscript has been stolen.

That's a pretty heavy start to what actually turns into a terrific, light, feel-good novel that reads like an ode to books, bookstores, and book people. There's plenty of bookish Easter eggs sprinkled throughout — an argument about Infinite Jest, a woman who wants a refund for The Book Thief because she doesn't like a novel narrated by Death, and several descriptions of A.J.'s favorite short stories.

Indeed, near the end of the novel, A.J. describes a Roald Dahl story titled "The Bookseller" as a "bonbon" — and that's exactly what this novel is. A short, sweet serving of a story about books and the people who love them. There also is a mystery, some infidelity, car crashes, and a child named Maya whose parentage is of some dispute. But those parts are really just the decorations.

It's a novel that falls just barely on the right side of precious. In fact, if you're in a bad mood when you read, you might be tempted to be cynical and call it too fluffy. But read it in a good mood, and you'll be delighted, I think.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Funny Girl: Life Imitates Art Imitates Life

Nick Hornby fans, I think, will be pleased with his latest novel, Funny Girl, about a woman who becomes a TV comedy star in 1960s England. There is slapstick. There's wit. There's uber-Britishness. And, of course, there are scenes of absolutely hysterical dialogue.

We follow young, comely Barbara as she leaves her small-town home to make it in show business in London. Barbara is a quit-witted Lucille Ball aficionado who enjoys messing with people who underestimate her comedy chops (or her intelligence) — think Amy Poehler reacting to mansplainers here.

In one scene early in the novel, Barbara is on a "date" with a man who she is hoping to use to buy her a TV (she's broke, working at a fragrance counter in a department store, and desperately misses being able to watch I Love Lucy). Barbara and this philandering fellow are supposed to meet another couple, but everyone's shocked when the other guy shows up with his wife, instead of a young "date" like Barbara. There'd been some crossed signals about what type of night on the town this was supposed to be. Everyone's embarrassed, but Barbara decides to have fun with the awkwardness — pretending she doesn't know her date is married, and doing everything she can to make the scene as uncomfortable as she can for everyone involved, especially the other guy's wife. It's high comedy!

She sees such "acting" as practice — and it's not long before her practice pays off, and she's cast in a show about, incidentally, a young woman named Barbara who moves from a small town to London and marries a man totally her opposite. (The real Barbara now has changed her name to the more dynamic Sophie Straw..."Straw," her agent tells her, because it makes men subliminally think about a roll in the hay.)

One of the funniest scenes in the novel involves a table read with Sophie/Barbara and her leading man, a semi-famous British actor. The scene is about their wedding night, and the writers have decided to challenge convention for comedy, making the man a virgin and the woman not. But the leading actor takes exception — and after some hemming and hawing, he admits the reason he's uncomfortable with the scene is that he thinks he's too good-looking for the audience to believe he's a virgin. Indeed, this frequent blurring of the line between art and life — but for comic effect — is one of the strengths of the novel.

My hesitancy to give this a full glowing review is that it's about 100 pages too long for a comedy novel — we spend a ton of time at the end catching up with all the characters years later. And it just seemed a bit superfluous. But for the most part, this is a funny, breezy read, which, as I said, long-time Hornby fans will definitely like.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Girl On The Train: Do We Finally Have the "Next Gone Girl"?

(A quick note: In the next few weeks, you'll see a flurry of posts on this poor, neglected book blog. Rather than doing a two or three posts with a bunch of mini-reviews, which feels more like busy work than thoughtful writing, I think it be more fun to do a bunch of mini-posts over the next few weeks. I hope you enjoy!) 

(Oh, one more thing — as of today, links to books on the blog will be to RoscoeBooks's website — my place of part-time employment. If you're considering buying the book, I'd consider it a solid — and should we ever meet in person, buy you a beer — if you buy the book there. Cheers!)

I don't know what's more surprising, that publishers and reviewers are still, 2.5 years after its publication, using the "next Gone Girl" tag to describe books, or that in the case of British writer Paula Hawkins's The Girl On The Train, it's actually a pretty decent description. Hawkins won't be confused with Gillian Flynn in terms of her writerly chops (I think Flynn is in a class by herself in this regard), but Hawkins's twisty, turny thriller is certainly the best "next Gone Girl" yet.

The girl on the train is Rachel — an early 30s divorced woman who is rather a train wreck (terrible, but you can't look away, etc.). She drinks. She lies. She lies about her drinking. And she's been fired from her public relations job but takes the train into London everyday anyway to hide the fact of her unemployment from her increasingly worried flatmate. Much of the story is told from Rachel's perspective, as she tries to come to terms with her divorce — she is still obsessed with her ex-husband who has remarried a woman with whom he was having an affair while he and Rachel were married. Rachel often drunk-dials him. And then, after a particularly drunken evening, she becomes obsessed with trying to find out what happened the night our other narrator, beautiful, troubled Meg, disappears.

There's infidelity, a murder investigation, unreliable narrators, a mysterious red-haired man, and an accused, distraught husband. And what's more, there is cruelty between characters not often seen outside the pages of a novel. These people are utterly horrible to each other! It's certainly not the kind of novel you'll want to read if you must like your characters in order to like the novel.

The place where this novel diverges most from Gone Girl is its ending — both hurdle to a conclusion, but the way they wind up is very different. I'll just say I liked Gone Girl's much more.

Still, while it takes a little bit to gain momentum, this is an up-real-late-to-finish-type thriller that really makes you glad your own life is relatively stable — definitely worthy of its praise.