Here we have a rather intense exploration of desire and passion masquerading as a coming of age story. Conflating the two t...more"Between always and never."
Here we have a rather intense exploration of desire and passion masquerading as a coming of age story. Conflating the two tropes actually works quite well: at what point in life are one's passions so inflamed as during the burning years of adolescence? When one first dips a toe into the waters of sexuality, then recklessly dives in? I'm mixing metaphors, but you get the point. This is desire of the all-consuming variety. The kind that leads you to desperately attempt to blur the line between where you end and the other person begins (hence the title). The places it goes may be a little weird (perhaps too strange for some readers) but the power of the journey is undeniable. The ultimate message (that that line can never really be bridged) is rendered with beauty, heartbreak, and a hint of tragedy.
It is the mid-80s. Elio is the seventeen year-old son of an esteemed academic who spends summers on the Italian Riviera. It is there that twenty-four year Oliver comes into his life. A post-doc teaching at Columbia University, Oliver has come to work on a manuscript about Heraclitus (natch) with the kind guidance of Elio's father. It doesn't take long for Elio to develop an unexpected crush on their houseguest. Crush is actually an understatement. This is nothing less than unbridled passion: a hot, all-consuming fire that Elio is powerless to fight. Wondering whether or not Oliver feels the same way is torture. Like, physically painful. "I’d lie on my bed wearing only my bathing suit, my entire body on fire. Fire like a pleading that says, Please, please, tell me I’m wrong, tell me I’ve imagined all this, because it can’t possibly be true for you as well, and if it’s true for you too, then you’re the cruelest man alive.”
It turns out Oliver does feel the same way, and the two begin a torrid affair that plays out like a fever dream. Even the relatively mundane moments in their interaction have a heightened heat, a throbbing tension that only escalates Elio's desire. Each moment they are together feels “like coming home, like asking, Where have I been all my life?” Of course, it won't last, but not because of any cliched melodrama. There is no betrayal, no obstacle arranged by an outside party. Passion that strong is destined to lose its intensity, Aciman seems to say, but never its power. Years later, when Elio recounts this story for us, he will still feel flush with desire all over again. In that sense, the summer Elio and Oliver share will last eternally. It will forever link them. Even if they aren't together, the power of memory will reunite them. in this sense, Call Me By Your Name is almost an elegy for a moment in time that simultaneously was never meant to last, yet lives on eternally.
For more Great LGBT Book Recommendations, please visit the LGBT Books page on my blog. (less)
One of my common gripes as an avid reader is that there are so many books out there that are utterly fam...more "People are locked up in all sorts of ways."
One of my common gripes as an avid reader is that there are so many books out there that are utterly familiar. The concepts are essentially the same, so the best you can hope for is a clever author who will put a new twist on an old classic. My favorite thing about Room is that it feels totally original.
Jack is five years old, and the only life he has ever known is Room--an 11x11 space that Jack has never been outside. The only people he has ever had contact with are his mother and Old Nick (his father and the man holding them captive). For Jack's mother Room is a prison cell she and her son need to escape, but for Jack it's home. She tells him about the Outside, but for him it only exists in theory. Stories about the real world are like fairy tales for young Jack. But all this comes to an end when Jack and his mother escape, and Jack is thrust into a world he doesn't understand or even want to be a part of.
Emma Donoghue tells the story through Jack's eyes, and her commitment to understanding his worldview and conveying it to the reader is astonishing. To be honest, though, there were many times I longed for Donoghue to change points of view. I desperately wanted to hear the mother's story--to see through her eyes and understand what she had been through. How does a woman who has been kidnapped and held prisoner for years find the strength to carry on? How does she accept having a child in such harrowing circumstances--especially considering that the father is the man responsible for her torment? Where does she find such incredible reserves of strength and resilience? Because Jack is a child he doesn't understand the fierce maternal instincts at play, or how extraordinary the protective bond between them is. His mother's story is hinted at but not entirely told.
Having said that, I understand why Donoghue chose to stick with Jack's point of view. Jack's narrative is the very reason Room is so compelling, and why it feels so original. It wouldn't be the same otherwise, because anyone familiar with Tarzan or The Jungle Book knows the truth is that the story isn't entirely original. Donoghue is just an exceedingly clever author putting an incredible twist on a familiar story.
But while the narrative is exceptional, the plot is somewhat flawed. In order to tell the story she wants to tell, Donoghue has to incorporate a lot of plot twists that feel forced. It's as if she keeps asking herself "what would Jack do or feel if ..." then contriving a scenario that would answer that question--plausible or not. I'm willing to forgive this in Donoghue's case, however, because the journey is worth suspending a little belief.
"If you are not used to governments or the law or society or even history being on your side, then you have to believe in your luck or your star will...more"If you are not used to governments or the law or society or even history being on your side, then you have to believe in your luck or your star will die."(less)
Not Quite When Harry Met Sally One thing is certain: David Nicholls is an adept humor writer. There are plenty of amusing moments and sharp one-liners...moreNot Quite When Harry Met Sally One thing is certain: David Nicholls is an adept humor writer. There are plenty of amusing moments and sharp one-liners to be found in "One Day." Another mark in Nicholls' favor is that he understands how complicated life can be. His characters screw up (sometimes repeatedly), do unlikeable things (and quite frequently), and so his novel is lifted above standard romantic comedy offerings. I can certainly see why so many people enjoy this book so very much. But if I'm being completely honest I must admit that I am not one of those people, despite the good points I just mentioned.
My main problem with this book is that Nicholls takes the disagreeable components of several characters a little too far. Dexter (or Dex, as he is frequently called) goes from being the person you like "in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek, love-to-hate kind of way" (in the words of his agent) to someone you (or at least I) can't abide somewhere around the hundred page mark. It's one thing that some of the minor characters are irritating, but it's quite another when you just can't stand one half of your romantic pair. Dex is the kind of self-involved, pleasure-seeking guy you are meant to love anyway because his charisma is winning and his heart, well, might just be filled with good intentions, even if they rarely-to-never get realized. He's the kind of guy who would actually take the time to wonder that "he wasn't sure that struggle suited him" when pondering a career path. Indeed, the only reason he wants a career at all is so that he can have a line to impress women with (and since "Hi, nice to meet you, I'm an astronaut" isn't in the cards he'll just have to fall back on television). This much is amusing, but when his self-absorption leads him to angrily think to himself that "he has better things to do" then be at his beloved mother's deathbed, it goes too far.
Disclaimer time. I am not callous. I am well aware of how difficult it can be to deal with a parent's serious illness because I have personal experience in the matter. I am also well aware of the fact that Dex thinking he has better things to do is meant to reflect his inability to emotionally process the impending death of his mother so soon after he has graduated from college. Here's my problem with this: in the first hundred and fifty pages of the novel it becomes abundantly clear that Dex is meant to be on a long path to recovery. Not just from his own self-absorption, but from the more literal excessive drinking and drug use that begin to plague him immediately after graduation. OK, I have two problems with this--the first is that when things continue in the same vein I just wished he would hit rock bottom so we could get to the healing, already, but since there were still three hundred pages left it was apparent that absolute rock bottom was a ways off. By the time he gets left alone with a baby and predictably can't keep away from the liquor cabinet I just wanted to throw the book across the room. The second, and much larger of my problems with this novel, is that it is clear that it is up to poor, sweet Emma to save him.
This isn't, at heart, a story about Dexter and Emma--or it is, but only insofar as Emma is the only person with the capacity to affect real change in Dex. In the end, the love story in One Day is secondary to Dexter's story. Emma is reduced to (eventually) acting as the vehicle for his recovery. So her story stagnates. She can't fall in love, because if she did there wouldn't be any room for Dexter in her life. Who, after all, needs so much unnecessary drama anyway? We are meant to believe that Emma can't fall in love because she has already fallen, irretrievably, for Dex. I'm sure this point just screams to the romantic in a lot of readers that like this book. Well, I'm a romantic, too (believe it or not at this point), and this just didn't do it for me. Emma's total love for Dex is inexplicable. It doesn't make sense. And I'm well aware that life itself rarely makes sense, but this went overboard to me. They have nothing in common. You can tell me that opposites attract as much as you want, and I will believe you, but I still won't see how Dex and Emma could ever be considered a matched pair. And the fact that Emma is expected to wait around just to save Dexter when he's ready isn't romantic, it's insulting.
I can't discuss the ending here, but I will say that I found it to be EXTREMELY manipulative. I might have been more willing to forgive my complaints about this book had it ended differently. But I don't want to give anything away for anyone who wants to read this book, so I will say no more.
If you are a fan of Nicholas Sparks you will probably love this. I have seen frequent comparisons to When Harry Met Sally, a movie that I absolutely adore, but I don't think they hold true. Harry and Sally are clearly meant for each other, even when they bicker upon first meeting, and I see no such chemistry in Dex and Emma. There are also many comparisons to Same Time Next Year, but as I have neither seen the movie nor read the play I cannot say how they stack up.
As I said in the beginning, I can see why so many people have enjoyed this book and are undoubtedly looking forward to the movie version. I just don't get it. (less)
"Life offers more mysteries than there's time to solve. I fancy myself a thinking man, but I haven't solved a single one." Let's begin with the obvious...more"Life offers more mysteries than there's time to solve. I fancy myself a thinking man, but I haven't solved a single one." Let's begin with the obvious and say that Joseph Epstein is a great writer. I knew this from several essays I had read, and I was interested to see how his writing would translate to fiction. The answer seems to be that his writing's form remains impeccable, but his narratives are disappointingly lifeless to a degree. This is a harsh criticism on my part, and perhaps lifeless is far too strong a word. It's just that even though I enjoyed Epstein's observations I never really felt engaged by his characters or the situations they find themselves in.
Those characters are pretty uniformly intellectual people--academics who have devoted their lives, in varying degrees, to literary pursuits, with varying degrees of success. This is where Epstein's stories shine: capturing the vanities, disappointments, and confusions of academics. The burning shame and envy of the ambitious academic whose talent is vastly inferior to his or her drive. The bewildering ways in which academic smarts can be so wildly different from street smarts. The ways that intellectual drive can alienate you or leave you disconnected from other parts of the world. The fierce competition, the jealousies, the loyalties, etc. Epstein turns through all of the various topics relating to his theme with the ease of a man who has seen them all, alternately condemning and praising the various ways of academics. He seems to love his "high-IQ misfits, blessed with dazzling minds or imaginations but unequipped to take life straight on," but he never fails to see them for who they really are. One group might be derided for lacking "perspective, discrimination, distance, above all moral judgment," and so on. But they always have a quiet dignity. They are noble, working for recognition and respect instead of money. Take the character in one story who "occasionally published poetry in magazines with more contributors than subscribers." Her dogged perseverance is admirable, even if her inability to let her daughter set her own goals in life is decidedly not.
Epstein also has a sharp wit that comes out a little too infrequently for my taste. In one story a character describes his neighbor's daughter by noting that "boys seemed to take no interest in her, and in their crude adolescent way no doubt referred to her (I hoped only behind her back) as a dog or a pig," blissfully unaware that the "crude adolescent" remark was actually his own invention. It's a biting, amusing, and remarkably subtle dig on Epstein's part, and I just wish that there had been more moments like that. Because those moments really let you into the story and interact with the characters (even if it is only to pass judgment), and by and large I found the stories to be impenetrable. The only story I felt engaged in was "Casualty," the second entry in the collection, about one professor's lengthy relationship with an alcoholic colleague. That leaves a whopping thirteen tales that I felt estranged from, which I don't think I need to tell you isn't exactly the best reading experience in the world.
Still, Epstein's writing is superlative. Personally, I think it's better suited for essays. I think I'll continue to read him in that form instead (Snobbery: The American Version is a must read). (less)
It's very odd that this book is the first in the Rizzoli & Isles series because the Isles portion of the equation is notably absent. Like, she doe...moreIt's very odd that this book is the first in the Rizzoli & Isles series because the Isles portion of the equation is notably absent. Like, she doesn't appear at all. And Jane Rizzoli is a minor character. Go figure.Instead, Thomas Moore (Rizzoli's original partner) is the central detective. He's investigating a chilling series of murders in which the victims are systematically tortured and killed with highly precise surgical methods. Rizzoli and Moore quickly establish a connection between their case and a series of earlier murders that ended when Dr. Catherine Cordell somehow managed to escape and kill her tormenter. Moore ends up racing against time to protect Cordell from the copycat killer and uncover his sinister origins.
Like I said, it's an odd intro to a series centered around Rizzoli and Isles, but it's a solid mystery thriller. Anyone who enjoyed Thomas Harris' The Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs would feel pretty at home here. After Michael Connelly's The Poet, this was one of my go-to book recommendations for people looking for a gritty mystery novel when I worked at Borders. People were seldom disappointed.
My minor quibbles include that Moore fits a little too closely in the cliche of hardened male detectives so common in mystery thrillers. He's basically a Harry Bosch clone. Rizzoli, a dedicated female cop trying to make it in an incredibly male-dominated field whose hardened exterior masks emotional neediness, was a much more interesting character. Small wonder she got the series. There's also a tired love triangle between the three leads, which is a mystery thriller cliche I would love to see done away with. Strong female characters are undermined when they just can't help but fall for the hardened male detective character.
For more Rizzoli & Isles, check out my blog post comparing the book series and the TV series. (less)
Clunk! From a financial perspective, it makes perfect sense that this book, originally published in 1992 under the title Gridzbi Spudvetch! , is bei...more Clunk! From a financial perspective, it makes perfect sense that this book, originally published in 1992 under the title Gridzbi Spudvetch! , is being given a second life nearly twenty years later. Its author, Mark Haddon, has since achieved literary renown as the author of 2003’s book club favorite The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and the lesser known but equally enjoyable A Spot of Bother . It’s been nearly four year’s since the latter’s publication, and with no new adult novel on the horizon (for the time being), it makes sense to haul a title out of the archives before people forget about Haddon. Similar action was taken with Yann Martel after the roaring success of his Life of Pi , when The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios – an older collection of short stories – was repackaged for the public. Adult fans of Haddon’s ‘previous’ novels are bound to feel intrigued. Toss in the fact that Boom! was actually written for the young adult market, which is enjoying strong sales in a comparatively bleak market for books, and everything seems perfect. For both Haddon and the publisher, of course.
The problem with repackaging these older titles is that they inevitably seem hopelessly amateur compared with the author’s current work. In Martel’s case, Facts was the work of an experimental author struggling to find a voice; essentially throwing ideas out on paper to see if they worked. Unfortunately, more often than not they didn’t. For Haddon, well, he had ten extra years of writing expertise by the time Curious Incident hit bookshelves, and boy does it show. Which is odd because in the forward Haddon claims to have extensively edited the old manuscript to fix all the wonky writing and plot holes (as well as to update the technology to incorporate cell phones and iPods). I say this claim is odd because the sound that would best describe Boom! is rather a deafening Clunk! Clunk goes the dialogue, stilted and unnatural (and oddly enough featuring dated references to Snakes on a Plane, among other pop culture dinosaurs, for something that was allegedly worked over to be up to the minute). Clunk goes the plot, which awkwardly lurches forward and still features an unseemly amount of plot holes. Clunk goes Haddon’s sense of humor, so sharp and biting in his two adult novels. Indeed, if Haddon intended to snatch some of the audience of the bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, then Jeff Kinney has absolutely nothing to fear, because this book lacks all of the wit and whimsy that makes those so enjoyable.
Is Boom! an awful read? No. It’s harmless. But it’s also imminently forgettable; had the publisher left it out of print I doubt anyone would have missed it very much. Its major crime is that it won’t appeal to either Haddon’s adult audience or the young adult audience it aims for. Both sets are better served waiting for something new.(less)
Newspaper Blues When reading The Imperfectionists , I couldn’t help but be reminded of Joshua Ferris’ sublime Then We Came to the End , and this re...more Newspaper Blues When reading The Imperfectionists , I couldn’t help but be reminded of Joshua Ferris’ sublime Then We Came to the End , and this review is going to reflect that a great deal. I tried not to compare them too much, since each book deserves a chance to stand on its own merits, but in the end I just couldn’t stop myself. Why? Because I couldn’t shake the thought that everything The Imperfectionists does, Then We Came to the End did better.
Both novels are centered around the flawed employees of an unnamed company; here a struggling international newspaper based in Rome, there an advertising firm in Chicago. And right here the difference between Rachman’s style and Ferris’ becomes clear, for the newspaper’s lack of a name comes off as unnatural and forced in Rachman’s narrative, whereas in Ferris’ it felt organic. Clearly Rachman is going for the same quality of universality – the idea that this newspaper could be any newspaper – but it just feels contrived.
The employees of the paper are given their own chapters to tell their stories, making The Imperfectionists feel like a collection of interlocked short stories more than a novel. It’s a unique approach, and it serves the story well. The problem is more in the characters themselves. Their problems are usually shallow and all too frequently deal with issues of codependency in their love lives. By the time a third character allows themself to be trampled on by their partner one must, rightly I think, wonder if Rachman has any other tricks up his sleeve when it comes to writing about relationships. Surely the characters in Ferris’ novel are petty and shallow, full of jealousies and silly squabbling, but in that novel you can see how their behavior is part of a larger story: that the soulless corporate world they live among is slowly bleaching away their humanity. There is no such bigger picture in The Imperfectionists . Rachman gets some points for subtly hinting at how his characters are adrift in an era of globalization that is swallowing them up (most of the staffers are Americans living in Rome, where they have failed to learn the native language or enjoy any of their surroundings), but the overwhelming impression he seems to be going for is that traditional newspapers are in trouble. Sadly, he doesn’t do much with this idea in the end, since this unnamed newspaper has stubbornly refused to adapt to the times. It doesn’t even have a website.
Finally, while The Imperfectionists has some amusing moments it lacks the acid wit of Then We Came to the End . It occurred to me after I finished this book that I might have liked it better had I not read Ferris’ novel, but I don’t think that that is true. To me, The Imperfectionists is one of those books that is strictly OK but, for one reason or another, garnered a lot of attention from critics (who probably appreciate the stabs at meaning regarding the state of modern journalism). I’d advise you to pick up Then We Came to the End instead.
And if you like that one (I'm sure you will), pick up some of Tom Perrotta's books as well.(less)