As an actual advice manual, How to Talk to Girls would be a spectacular failure. The advice it offers isn't very detailed or specific, and is kind o...moreAs an actual advice manual, How to Talk to Girls would be a spectacular failure. The advice it offers isn't very detailed or specific, and is kind of obvious (do you like a girl? Talk to her!).
The book's saving grace is that it was written by a nine year-old, which makes its attempts to tutor young boys in the ways of impressing young girls somewhat adorable. One could, of course, wonder how much of the book's cutesy childish prose has been carefully crafted by an editor, but that would be cynical and would ignore the charm behind the book's conceit. It's a guide to dating for nine year-olds -- why take it seriously, anyway? The illustrations capture an "aw-shucks" kind of charm perfectly suited to this novelty.
I would not recommend How to Talk to Girls as an actual instruction manual; I wouldn't even recommend it as a children's book, to be honest. What it works as is an interesting, slightly amusing novelty for grown-ups to laugh at and enjoy.(less)
Lump of Coal is essentially a picture book, re-teaming the wit and whimsy of Lemony Snicket with the admirable illustrations of Brett Helquist, his...more Lump of Coal is essentially a picture book, re-teaming the wit and whimsy of Lemony Snicket with the admirable illustrations of Brett Helquist, his collaborator in the Series of Unfortunate Events books. The illustrations, to me, are the main appeal here, but the story isn't without its charm as the titular character goes in search of a purpose in life. It's fluff, not as impactful or lasting as great picture books like Corduroy or Harold and the Purple Crayon, but it is a well executed and amusing story that tells a unique holiday story from an unexpected source.(less)
Bizarre, profound, and gorgeously written, the thirteen stories in Steven Millhauser’s collection will transport the reader to a world that is strikin...moreBizarre, 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. (less)
This book looks absolutely amazing if you watch the preview that is running online for it. I had high hopes that it would be this years "Gallop" (an i...moreThis book looks absolutely amazing if you watch the preview that is running online for it. I had high hopes that it would be this years "Gallop" (an interesting, inexpensive gift-ish book high on visual flair), but I was pretty disappointed when it arrived in the bookstore I work in. Some of the pop-ups are unexpectedly fussy and fragile. A couple of pages even have difficulty closing without crushing the pop-up once you have opened it, meaning that our display copy was trashed within an hour of its arrival in the store. It looks great, but the functionality aspect is a little lacking.(less)
When it comes to getting at the heart of complex human relationships, Julia Glass is something of an expert. Three J...more “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.