"...things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to com"...things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully."
A Little Life is the story of four friends who meet in college. Ostensibly, it follows their friendship throughout the decades that follow, but the truth is two of those friends are peripheral for large swaths of the book. This is really the story of Willem and (especially) Jude. Willem is a sensitive young man from a broken home who wants to be an actor when we first meet him. Jude refuses to reveal his background to his friends, but they know whatever it was it was violent and dark. His legs are in splints that have been screwed into his bones as a result of a vague accident.
The book centers on Jude's story, particularly on (1) how he came to be so injured, and (2) how he deals with, or refuses to deal with, his past as he ages. He mostly refuses to deal with it. Since Willem is his best, most trusted friend, he gets a much larger percentage of time than any other character.
In the beginning the other friends, Malcolm and JB, have more of a part. In those early stretches I was enjoying A Little Life, even if I thought some of the characters--particularly JB--were a touch insufferable. But as the pages go on and JB and Malcolm fade into the background, the narrative becomes stultifying. It becomes apparent very quickly that although he will age, Jude will never want to deal with what happened to him. He will keep running and exhibiting shockingly self destructive behavior. Those around him will meekly tell him to get help, but they won't do anything to force him to get help. As someone who has dealt with abuse, depression, and helped others through tough spots in their own life, I found it infuriating. They'll get mad and make threats about how Jude needs to get help, but he knows very well they won't see the threats through. No one is really going to force him to do anything.
I really struggled with that. Because it's real: that does happen. But it was making me so frustrated. I had to keep reminding myself that I can't force my own experience or my own opinions on the book.
The bigger problem, more legitimate complaint I had with A Little Life is that it's far too long. Yanagihara doesn't get anywhere in a hurry. In many scenes it feels as though she's deliberately taking her time, drawing out the moment to make it last. Sometimes it feels as though she's taking her time to give you more, but to me the 'more' she was giving was never satisfying, never justified the extra pages. If you got into the character's heads a little more, or if something in the elaborate details she was giving revealed something you hadn't known or noticed before, I would love the sprawling, meandering form the narrative takes. Instead, nothing that is revealed is ever surprising--in fact, it tends to be Yanagihara stretching a point she's already made. The further you get into the book the more it feels like you've already ingested everything she has to say, and yet it's going to take so much more time to get to the conclusion. She's basically just poking a bruise.
The far more confounding issue I had with A Little Life is that for all this detail and poking, I never once felt close to any of the characters. Everyone other than Jude and Willem is a cypher anyway, but I always felt distant from Jude and Willem as well. My relationship with them was so dispassionate that I found I could put the book down for several days and not even miss them. After a month of reading this book, I found I still had more than 200 pages to go. That felt so disheartening--not because I was desperate to finish, but because it filled me with dread that this book was never going to end, and I didn't much care what happened anymore. I took it as a sign and put the book down. Out of curiosity, I did peek at the plot summary on Wikipedia, and it sounds as though the next 225 pages were just as insufferable about poking that bruise as the first 500. I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything by not continuing Jude's journey.
A Little Life is startlingly different from the experience I had reading her debut novel, The People in the Trees. The People in the Trees is a quarter as long as A Little Life, but I was compelled to keep reading it--savoring every page. It was also boundlessly creative and felt different. The characters in The People in the Trees were also difficult for me to relate to, but I was so invested in their story that I couldn't bear to put the book down until I was finished. It felt like I had discovered a thrilling new voice in Yanagihara. Now I'm not sure what to think. I will still be curious to follow Yanagihara's career, but not with the same impatience and sense of wonder I had before. It's disappointing.
“So much of life was the peeling away of illusions.”
I had been very much looking forward to reading this book, but unfortunately it has been quite a d“So much of life was the peeling away of illusions.”
I had been very much looking forward to reading this book, but unfortunately it has been quite a disappointment. The first hundred pages, about the childhood and teen years of Eileen Tumulty, fly by and are quite promising. But something curious happens as she becomes an adult, gets married, has a kid, and begins to struggle with the way her childhood dreams have turned out: the novel loses all momentum. Seriously, loses all momentum and becomes a tedious slog. I don't even really know how it happened, but unfortunately it did big time.
For one thing, after she gets married the focus slowly shifts away from Eileen and onto her husband, Ed Leary, and the shift just doesn't take. We spent so much time getting invested in Eileen's story, and author Matthew Thomas seems to take it for granted that he can just expect the same allegiance for her husband.
For another thing, Eileen's character loses her defining characteristic: her drive. And that makes her less interesting, too. It's a shame.
The end result is a rambling, overly long novel that doesn't really have any focus or characters you can rely on. Getting through the 600 page length takes far more work than it should, and that really is a shame because for a brief shining moment, We Are Not Ourselves really seemed to be going somewhere.
"The world is a blade and dread is hope cut open and spread inside out."
I was really excited to read this book for a couple of reasons. First, it has"The world is a blade and dread is hope cut open and spread inside out."
I was really excited to read this book for a couple of reasons. First, it has a fantastic jacket description. Second, I've lived in Missoula, Montana for a year now, so I loved the idea of reading a novel set in my new hometown. Third, I love the jacket design--which sounds shallow, but there it is. Fourth, I've heard good things about the novel from a couple of people now. And yet ... it hasn't gone well.
Fourth of July Creek is billed as a shattering exploration of America's disquieting and violent contradictions. It is supposed to deal with the complexities of freedom and anarchy--and I can't think of a better setting for this than Montana, where independence is not only valued but fiercely defended. These themes are meant to be reflected in the story of a social worker, Pete Snow, who gets tangled up with Jeremiah Pearl, a mysterious anarchist preparing for war in the backwoods of Montana. Pearl is a survivalist who believes the End Times are not just upon us, but already in motion.
That would make a fantastic novel, and Henderson has the talent to pull it off. Fourth of July Creek crackles with dangerous energy whenever Pearl makes an appearance. The problem is, for more than two hundred pages his presence is merely hinted at. Instead, we're treated to Pete's sad-sack life. You see, Pete is in his early thirties and can't seem to get his stuff together. His wife cheated on him, so he ran out on her and his daughter. Now he can't decide if he wants his ex-wife back or hates her forever. And in a twist that could be interesting but only really grates, the social worker is an inept and apathetic father. He has a history of a drinking problem that is becoming more and more essential to his makeup. The guy is a mess.
Most people might not have so much of a problem with this, but a curious thing has happened to me in the past year. I've become increasingly impatient with novels that essentially come down to "screw-up white guy can't get his life together."Because seriously, it's incredible how many of those books exist in the world--and how they continue to multiply. There are so many more interesting stories that could be told (Jeremiah Pearl's comes to mind). Add in the fact that Pete finds himself a love interest who comes down to the exact cliche you would expect for a guy like him. She starts out appearing strong and wise to his screw-up ways, then upon their second meeting inexplicably sleeps with him. Her actions make no sense because when it comes down to it the author doesn't understand her and doesn't want to understand her. So she's left fluctuating between strength, weakness, and potentially violent emotional instability. Add to this the fact that the only other female characters (including Pete's ex-wife are harpies, nags, and emotionally immature. His daughter is an exception, I suppose--aside from the emotionally mature part.
By the time I reached the novel's halfway point I was exhausted. And it had become increasingly difficult to care. If Jeremiah Pearl's story is going to be filtered through a character I find increasingly irritating, then why bother? So I put it down. Which is a shame, because I really think this had the makings of a great book.
In addition, the narrative is curiously fractured. Pete's narration is the focus, presented in the standard format. Then we have the tonally jarring narrative of his daughter, which takes the form of an interview. And gradually, the narrative of Cecil (one of Pete's cases, who was sexually abused by his mother [did I mention that all women are horrible in this book?]) becomes a thing. Maybe it all comes together in the end, but two hundred and fifty pages is a long time to ask a reader to be patient.
I'm going to be honest with you: I didn't finish this book. Don't thOlympic Melodrama Doesn't Even Make the Podium
I can't with this one. I just can't.
I'm going to be honest with you: I didn't finish this book. Don't think I ever will. The plot is nothing but ham-fisted emotional manipulation with poor writing, and it's insulting.
You have Kate and Zoe, two female cyclists getting ready for their final Olympics. Zoe inexplicably has rock-star athlete status and a tabloid lifestyle thanks to her previous gold medals. This is inexplicable because, really, put Lance Armstrong to the side and name one other cyclist--current or retired. Can't do it, can you? Thought so. Anyway, Zoe has dedicated everything to her craft. She's succeeded and wants one last gold medal before saying goodbye to the sport that has defined her life.
Then there's Kate. Despite the fact that she's naturally talented (probably even better than Zoe), Kate has no gold medals and no fame. While Zoe sacrificed her life for her career, Kate has repeatedly had to give up her career for her life. She has a husband and a daughter with leukemia (more on that later). Her daughter Sophie has indirectly kept her from the Olympics twice (first by being born, then by having her first bout of leukemia). Now Kate has her last shot at Olympic glory and what do you know, Sophie's leukemia is having a recurrence. Will she once again have to put her dream to the side? I choose to ignore her husband as much as possible, because his wooden presence and connection to both Zoe and Kate (which is not as shocking or as revelatory as the author seems to think it is) was nothing short of a snoozefest.
There's something going on between Kate, Zoe, and Jack (probably relating to an affair), but it's really too bothersome to care.
I might have accepted the cliched set-up, the stock characters, the mediocre writing, the reliance on cheap gimmicks to get the reader emotionally involved instead of actual character development--but the Sophie angle was my breaking point. It's a bridge too far to use a dying child to wring tears out of your readers. Emotional manipulation never sits well with me anyway, but this was particularly egregious. One could argue that Sophie raises the stakes for Kate, but in the end this character doesn't exist to teach you a life lesson or to further the plot; she exists to make you feel sad. There are real sick kids in the world, and they deserve better than to be reduced to a clumsily cloying presence in trifle like this. Sophie vomiting into her beloved Millennium Falcon toy to try to hide her sickness from her parents was the moment I broke up with Gold. It's a horrifying moment, to be sure, but it exemplifies what's terribly wrong with this book: it's an emotional reaction Cleave is exploiting, not earning. And, to me at least, it's beyond grotesque.
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-linersNot 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. ...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"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). ...more
The stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry reflect characters who are profoundly vexed, but not in a profound way. I Unmitigated, Unreadable Despair
The stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry reflect characters who are profoundly vexed, but not in a profound way. It seems that Ms. Gaitskill has contrived both them and their situations with the simple goal of shocking her reader. The stories are visceral, yes, but they lack substance, and the fact that Gaitskill herself seems to harbor nothing but disdain for her characters makes it impossible for the reader to feel anything for them either. That’s all that there is to this collection – a shame, because Gaitskill does seem like a talented writer, albeit one whose brain I would never want to pick over coffee. By the halfway point I began questioning the point in slogging through the rest of the collection, and when I was about seventy-five percent through I gave up. This is not something that I typically do. Yet I have no regrets.
I had decided to read this collection because I was interested in reading Gaitskill’s novel Veronica. Emphasis on was. Instead, I’ll be looking for a writer with a touch of empathy, whose goal is not to shock and appall for no purpose other than the joy of having shocked and appalled.
“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.