Bizarre, profound, and gorgeously written, the thirteen stories in Steven Millhauser’s collection will transport the reader to a world that is strikinBizarre, profound, and gorgeously written, the thirteen stories in Steven Millhauser’s collection will transport the reader to a world that is strikingly similar to our own, but where impossibly strange things are dangerously possible. A lonely, ignored woman literally vanishes into thin air after preparing a cup of tea one night. In the titular story, a group of teenagers experiment with laughter as a potentially deadly new drug whose high they cannot resist. A miniaturist becomes obsessed with creating invisible, pristine pieces of art. A tower rises higher and higher into the sky until it finally pierces Heaven itself. A historical society courts controversy by obsessively recording the details of the present (or, as they refer to it, the New Past). In each installment Millhauser skirts the line between fantastic and mundane, sane and insane, to create a collection rich in depth and profundity.
“A book is a dream machine. Its purpose is to take you out of the world.” If this was indeed Millhauser’s intent, he succeeded with aplomb. Each story is grounded in the real world’s sensibilities, but Millhauser’s wild imagination and prose style weave in just the right amount of oddness. I can see that for some, his quirks and outlandish twists could be seen as irksome, but I found myself enthralled with every story and each new take on his themes.
“For we are no longer innocent, we who do not see and do not remember, we incurious ones, we conspirators in disappearances.”
If the stories in the collection’s last segment, “Heretical Histories,” are a touch weaker than the rest, they still stand head and shoulders above the majority of other offerings in the fiction section this year. The stories in Dangerous Laughter are a towering achievement, and Millhauser pulls them off with panache – making this very likely the best new book of 2008.
Also recommended: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Garden of Last Days, and Purple America. ...more
When it comes to getting at the heart of complex human relationships, Julia Glass is something of an expert. Three J “You can’t predict what lasts.”
When it comes to getting at the heart of complex human relationships, Julia Glass is something of an expert. Three Junes, her debut novel, claimed the National Book Award back in 2002 for its soaring portrayal of the McLeod family in all of its complicated, quintessentially human glory. There are some who scoff at the apparent simplicity of it, but I would argue that they have overlooked the careful craftsmanship that went into such an intricate, if subdued, novel.
Her second novel, The Whole World Over, was something of a disappointment for me. Where Junes had felt spot-on and unerringly sympathetic, The Whole World Over felt like it was trying too hard, and not succeeding. Its cast was too sprawling, its emotion too cloying, and its page count too long for such a meandering narrative. The conclusion was top-notch, but not necessarily worth slogging through the rest of the book to get to.
So it was with trepidation that I picked up I See You Everywhere, her third novel. My hesitation started with the plot; it examines the drastically different lives of two sisters – a premise fraught with cliché. Countless writers have mined the same territory ever since Jane Austen did it so well in her classic Sense and Sensibility. It seems, at first, that nothing will be different here. We have elder sister Louisa representing sense. She’s responsible, intelligent, and too tightly wound to really enjoy the beauty of life (which is ironic because she makes her career in the art world). Then there’s free-spirited Clem taking on the role of sensibility. She’s earthy, moody, emotional, fiercely determined and yet seemingly care-free – in every sense the yin to her sister’s yang. They are “as different as white chocolate and seaweed, the Milky Way and a tropical reef.”
Starting in 1980, when both girls are in their early twenties, and progressing on to 2005, the sisters take turns narrating their story. The first hundred pages or so are dully predictable, particularly marred by the sense that Glass is far more enamored of Clem than she is of Louisa. In the first chapter Louisa comes across as startlingly unlikable, an uptight fuss-budget who only attends her great-aunt’s funeral to lay claim to a broach she coveted as a child. Her short temper and mean-spirited jabs at her sister make it seemingly impossible that one could ever find her even remotely sympathetic, especially in contrast to Clem, who comes across as warm and cuddly – a wee bit self-involved, yes, but deeply caring in many respects. Glass seems to admire Clem’s free spirit and wandering attentions. Indeed, the majority of Glass’ lavish description is devoted to Clem. She’s the one who inherited the “daring gene,” the cynic who would rather “be pleasantly surprised than fatally disappointed,” the nomad whose spirit is destined to be “dispersed but never contained.” Louisa just can’t compete, even when subsequent chapters make her a much more likable and sympathetic character.
But there is a marked shift in the second half of the book, which sheds cliché and takes a startling turn toward the dark. Slowly but surely it becomes apparent that it is actually Louisa that Glass sees as the more noble creature. Less interesting, perhaps, but better prepared for the world – even when it seems determined to overlook her in favor of her more glamorous sister.
In one chapter Clem describes herself thusly: “I’m not afraid of the dark, of heights or thunderstorms or solitude. What I’m afraid of is a particular kind of pointlessness. Fear of futility. Futiliphobia.” What Glass explores are the consequences of that fear in a person as determined (reckless?) as Clem, who literally wanders the earth without allowing herself to grow roots anywhere, to become attached to anything.
But what Glass is really exploring is the fragility of what ties us all together. As sisters, Clem and Louisa share a lifelong bond – even when separated by thousands of miles, in arguments and in times of joy. They frustrate each other, amuse each other, and much more – but mostly they rely on each other. But how lasting is that bond? How deeply is it ingrained, and can it be let go?
As in Three Junes, Glass excels at character study here. A novel that could easily have succumbed to pointlessness and banality ends up soaring, all thanks to her prodigious gifts when it comes to characterization. If only the first hundred pages weren’t weak in comparison to the rest of the novel.
Still, it pleases me to say that Glass has rebounded from The Whole World Over and finally written a novel that is, in my opinion, Junes-worthy.
“You love the life you’ve lived, there is no other.”
For a scant 154 pages, “Black Water” packs quite a brutal punch. Oates will have you squirming i “You love the life you’ve lived, there is no other.”
For a scant 154 pages, “Black Water” packs quite a brutal punch. Oates will have you squirming in discomfort as you read about Kelly Kelleher, who after a car accident on page one spends the entirety of the novella trapped in a car underneath the titular black water, helpless and alone and waiting for help that very likely will not come. She has been abandoned and left to die by her companion, an unnamed but familiar Senator whose reckless driving got her into this mess, and who left her behind in his haste to exit the sinking vehicle.
“Black Water” is, as many undoubtedly know, based on the 1969 accident in which Ted Kennedy left young Mary Jo Kopechne to drown while he ran to get – not the police, not an ambulance – his lawyer. But Oates astutely doesn’t use a sledgehammer to drive in her point, she simply focuses on the plight of Kelleher, an innocent woman trapped and flashing back on her life and the circumstances that led her to this place as the water slowly overtakes her, and allows the story to speak the volumes that it has to speak on its own.
Happy reading? Absolutely not, and I imagine that this will turn off a lot of readers. But one would be hard pressed to deny the power and intensity of Oates’ writing. Entertainment Weekly recently named this one of the top fifty books of the last twenty-five years, and I can see why. I think “Black Water” will be haunting me for a long time to come.
I had never read Joyce Carol Oates before, but after this I will definitely be checking her out again – and soon.
“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” is the odyssey of Sam Pulsifer, a perpetual but completely accidental ne’er do well. His life s“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” is the odyssey of Sam Pulsifer, a perpetual but completely accidental ne’er do well. His life story is rather convoluted, so suffice it to say that he snuck into the Emily Dickinson home one fateful night, eager to check out the veracity of several spooky stories his mother told him growing up, and unwittingly started a mighty conflagration that reduced the historic landmark to rubble and killed the amorous couple he did not know was inside. Fifteen years later, Pulsifer has gotten out of prison and started his life anew in a new town. Everything seems to be going well, until Thomas Coleman, the son of the couple he accidentally killed, shows up on his doorstep eager for revenge. And someone starts torching the homes of famous writers in New England, causing the police to investigate Pulsifer. And the life he has worked so hard to build starts coming apart at the seams.
Brock Clarke is a capable enough writer, and he certainly has a great deal of wit. The problem is that he has too much of it, and he just can’t seem to stop showing it off. He suffers from a serious case of ‘too-muchness’. Each chapter is drowning in absurd plot twists and cock-eyed reasoning that digs Pulsifer deeper and deeper into his own private hell. And it gets very painful by the halfway point of “Arsonist”. Just look at the title of this novel; it’s kind of cute and amusing, if a wee bit pretentious. Now imagine getting beaten over the head with that kind of humor for 303 pages and you have an idea of what it is to slog through this book.
It’s relentless!! The plot gets so ridiculously contrived by page fifty that you’ll have a headache from slapping your head and asking “he did WHAT?” after Pulsifer’s latest egregious misstep. Honestly, bumbling doesn't begin to describe him -- even Inspector Clouseau would think Sam Pulsifer is insane, and that says a lot. Making what by all rights could have been a light-hearted romp irritating and painful.
When it comes to mystery novels, Dennis Lehane is one of the best. In novels like Gone, Baby, Gone (the basis for the film) and Mystic River (alsoWhen it comes to mystery novels, Dennis Lehane is one of the best. In novels like Gone, Baby, Gone (the basis for the film) and Mystic River (also the basis of the movie) Lehane masterfully constructed twisty thrillers both compelling and unnerving, ones that stab deep into the darkest depths of human nature. Then he got bored.
In retrospect, Mystic River was Lehane’s first departure – from the Kenzie-Gennaro series that he had made his name with, and boy was it a successful venture. Emboldened, Lehane’s next work, Shutter Island, delved deeper into the realm of psychological thrillers than his previous novels, but in this reader’s opinion that is where he started to slip up. The plot was predictable and the dialogue stilted, portending the bigger mess that was to come.
Five years later, Lehane is unleashing his passion project: a sweeping historical epic set in the harsh life of Boston post-World War I. Every page of this hefty tome screams of ambition and hard work. Just how sprawling is The Given Day? The cast of characters is mapped out after the title page to help the reader keep everyone straight.
Don’t get me wrong – Lehane is an deft enough writer and a smart enough man to pull this off, and I’m sure that many readers will enjoy this book very much. But darned if it doesn’t creak under the weight of all Lehane’s lofty ambitions; The Given Day suffers from a serious case of too-muchness. He is so eager to cram in as many big historical events as possible that it no longer feels so much like a plot as an excuse to cover as many topics relevant to the era and setting as possible. Racism, crime, immigration, and politics are all small potatoes to the history that Lehane presents in order to define them. To wit: you’ve got a nation reeling from WWI, a world getting ready for WWII in the not-all-that-distant future, the bombing of the Salutation Street Station, a flu epidemic, a World Series marred by a baseball strike, a police strike, and many more – making it no surprise that the novel weighs in at over 700 pages. And I haven’t even mentioned the cameos by real-life people (Babe Ruth! J. Edgar Hoover!). We witness all these events through the eyes of Danny, a policeman, and Luther, a black man on the run from gangsters who eventually finds work in the home of Danny’s parents. The plot doesn’t progress so much as it bends and twists in order to contrive a way for them to be present at each of these intensely historic moments.
Then there’s that stilted dialogue popping up again, this time because Lehane needs his characters to do a great deal of exposition for each big event and to explain how they feel about it. He also uses the dialogue to sprinkle in bits of the research he did, like when one character remarks that “this house leaks like Hudson tires.” Conversation doesn’t flow naturally – it comes out sounding forced and, at its worst, cheesy.
With all this stuff going on, the characterization also suffers. With the exception of Danny and Luther alone, everyone on the two-page character list never becomes anything more than a two-dimensional cipher meant to come and go and behave as the plot requires them to at that moment. Unfortunately, Danny and Luther are so bland that even with their extra dimensions they fail to leave any significant impact. And they behave so predictably that it actually becomes trying to continue following their exploits. When Danny goes undercover with radicals and pro-union police officers, one might wonder if he may find himself torn between his high-society family and the plight of the working man, and gee whiz, you’d be right).
Lehane is a gifted writer. I just wish he would go back to doing what he does best. As such, this is not a novel for fans of his previous fiction, or even for serious bibliophiles who will perhaps be unable to forgive the stilted dialogue and plotting. But if you like historical fiction, and especially if you are a fan of Pete Hamill’s Forever, you will probably enjoy this book.
"The Mysterious Benedict Society" owes a large debt to Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. It is written in the same Dickens-meets-Roald-Da"The Mysterious Benedict Society" owes a large debt to Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. It is written in the same Dickens-meets-Roald-Dahl style (although it does emphasize Dahl's whimsy over Dickens' occasional bleakness). It features an oddball cast with a broad spectrum of eccentricities and unique physical features. The plot even centers around a group of kids from orphanages attempting to foil the dastardly plans of a villain who seeks to exploit them in his mad quest for domination.
There are good qualities to be found. The first hundred pages or so are very charming, managing to capture the better aspects of its inspirations with ease. Stewart is certainly a capable writer with a great imagination and sense of wit.
But once the titular group has been established and sets off on its first mission things begin to go downhill at an alarming rate. First, things start to get a little too quirky (The villain's dastardly plot for world domination is what now? Wait, another bizarre character/situation/setting for our intrepid heroes to contend with?). Second, said quirks become limiting and mildly irritating (could Constance please stop grumbling for just a second? And while the use of narcolepsy is only slightly amusing at first it gets tiring when both the group's benefactor and the villain keep passing out at key moments. Stewart really should have re-thought that as a character trait). Third, you realize that the book is overly long and overly complex. Yet somehow, despite the myriad twists, turns, and complications, the M.B.S. is remarkably capable of making incredible logical leaps to figure out what is going on. For crying out loud, how long is this charade going to get dragged out, anyway? Then comes the hot mess of an ending. I don't want to spoil anything for those who intend to read this book, so let's just say that the realizations come a little too easily, the escapes are a touch too clean, and the happy endings aren't tacked on so much as beaten in with a sledgehammer. Yet Stewart must also have realized that if he intends this book to become a series he can't tie everything up too neatly, so naturally things are open-ended enough to allow for a sequel. Which is now available in bookstores everywhere ...