This was my first short review for CCLaP, as well as my first-ever provided-by-the-publisher ARC. I would give this a solid 3.5 if GR would allow such...moreThis was my first short review for CCLaP, as well as my first-ever provided-by-the-publisher ARC. I would give this a solid 3.5 if GR would allow such things but will settle for elaborating on my original review at some point in the undefined future.(less)
A thought: Surely if David Mitchell's fabulousness extends to his abilities to translate Japanese, he should be the obvious choice to translate any an...moreA thought: Surely if David Mitchell's fabulousness extends to his abilities to translate Japanese, he should be the obvious choice to translate any and all future Murakami works, yes?
(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Thanks muchly to Lori for providing me both the digital version of this book an...more(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Thanks muchly to Lori for providing me both the digital version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.)
If you're looking for a breezy, feel-good tale, The Man Who Watched the World End is probably not for you, nor will it be your kind of novel if you prefer endings that are neatly packaged with bright, optimistic bows that herald the joys awaiting a story's characters beyond the last page; however, if you like your fiction to be character-driven and insightful even as it teeters on the brink of society's obsolescence, then Chris Dietzel has written the book for you.
The novel begins as humanity's reign is ending. The children comprising mankind's final generation are alive only in the biological sense. They grow older but are human marionettes: silent, immobile, helpless to care for themselves, kept alive by the loving kin or kindhearted strangers upon whom they are wholly dependent. Decades later, these Blocks (so named "because it was as if their condition obstructed them from the world") and their siblings are the last proof of man's existence, reduced to pockets of senior citizens cohabiting in group settlements (though, if our narrator is indicative of the outliers, a handful are watching their and society's clocks run down in the familiar imprisonment of crumbling homes in derelict neighborhoods) as nature reclaims all that the elderly remnants of a once thriving species no longer have the youthful vigor to defend.
We see very little of this, as the reader's glimpse into the quieting world is a three-month period captured within one lonely old man's lovingly, diligently maintained diary. It is through the eyes of this man -- who, along with his Block brother, is the last human occupant of the otherwise abandoned and symbolically named neighborhood of Camelot -- that the audience bears witness to the conclusion of our earthly chapter. Since the world is ending not with a bang, not even with a whimper but a slow exhalation, there really isn't a whole lot to see other than one man's daily ritual of tending to the brother for whom his love becomes increasingly unyielding, hoping for a southward ride from a passing convoy on its way to one of the communal-living sites, and watching the local flora and fauna take back what man has only temporarily claimed. But this is not a story of man vs. nature, man vs. self or even man vs. improbable odds: It is, simply, an account of one man's life that turns flashbacks into a supporting cast and exposition into thoughtful narration.
The elderly gentleman tasked with narrating the end of society as he witnesses it carries the story almost entirely on his own: his brother is in a waking coma, his last remaining neighbors fled right before the novel's beginning, and the animals surrounding his house are more interested in his future carcass than his breathing companionship -- including the wild dogs and feral cats born of domestic pets so many litters ago. All he has are his memories, which are equally parts familiar and tinged with a foreign sorrow, as he was among the last wave of normally functioning children and grew up knowing that most babies born after him, like his brother, would never be shaken from their unresponsive silences.
As he reveals more of his past self and present worries, he paints a picture of a bygone era that is just recognizable enough to be eerie: His memories are just like any of ours, composites of his internal and external memories with a few of his parents' own that have stuck with him over the years, but interspersed with the sense that doors previously unknown to mankind were suddenly slamming shut forever as he and the rapidly diminishing number of "normal" children became the last to tackle the once-joyous milestones of growing up.
It is in showcasing such memories that Dietzel's attention to detail may shine the brightest, as the far-reaching impact of a species poignantly aware that it has no future was something he obviously (and successfully) considered from all sides. From baby items suddenly becoming a defunct business to the government finally summoning the foresight to ensure the last hiccup of humanity will at least be provided for in what should have been its grandchild-rich golden years, the international ripple effect of newborns lacking discernible brain functions is terrifying in both its implications and the ways in which Dietzel summarily dismantled familiar infrastructure. The secondhand glimpses of a world that has seen the last Hollywood film, the final World Series, the disbanding of governments, the emotional ramifications of tracking the youngest "normal" person, and the annihilation of the hope that keeps us moving forward are hard to watch even as past events, but Dietzel writes so matter-of-factly and compellingly that each memory becomes the ultimate example of how our very human curiosity forces us to ogle unfolding tragedy.
There are a few weak spots in what is an otherwise impressive debut novel. The greengrocer's apostrophe -- my sworn enemy -- popped in to say hullo a few times ("Dalmatians and Rottweiler's united"; "if the Johnson's just now decided...") and there were a few homophone issues, like "feint breaths," "slightly older then myself" and "faired better," that drove me a little batty. Less frequent were simple editing issues, such as "the last four decades years" and "He couldn't help but be letdown." Aside from a comparatively few lapses in mechanics, the biggest problem I had with the story itself was the government's Survival Bill, which "provided the last generation of functioning adults with resources to take care of themselves and their Block relatives." As a reader, it sometimes seemed like an easy way to sidestep the survival issues a vulnerable society would face in a more brutally overt end-world scenario; as a writer, though, I understood that tacking on the additional responsibility of a people left to fend for themselves without food, electricity and a reliable internet connection in increasingly hostile terrain would only detract from story Dietzel wanted to tell.
But for every one pitfall, The Man Who Watched the World End had a dozen more successes. It shows an incredible awareness of the human condition, of how loneliness and constant reminders of our fading presence in a world we once lorded over can affect everything from a single man to an entire desperate, dying species. The metaphors were resoundingly spot-on: I couldn't help but read the Block phenomenon as a cautionary tale foretelling the long-term dangers of what happens when children of Helicopter Parents grow up without any idea of how to function outside their protective bubbles, and having the narrator reside in Camelot -- a name nearly synonymous with so much promise and so much lost -- was a subtle yet effective touch.
The Man Who Watched the World End is a tribute to humanity's prodigious knack for optimistic denial and its inability to believe that its end is not only possible but also inevitable. It is fraught with hopefulness and helplessness, a celebration of how the past and present can be powerful motivators in the absence of a future, and a touching example of how the strength of family in all its incarnations can often be enough to keep an individual going against the harshest of odds.(less)
I've stuttered since first grade. My relationship with that part of myself is oceans better than it used to be, though that doesn't mean I'm completel...moreI've stuttered since first grade. My relationship with that part of myself is oceans better than it used to be, though that doesn't mean I'm completely at peace with it. The little girl who was too afraid to assert herself for fear of sputtering all over the difference between what she wanted to say and the tangled ghost of approximation she had to settle for quickly supplanted the even younger girl who had no problem hamming it up with improvised songs and dances on home videos; the adult she grew up to be, on less fluent days, automatically apologizes for stuttering and will feel a wave of relief no less powerful than the countless ones before when her conversational partner says they've never noticed. The wild dream of unblemished speech is just not a realistic one after a certain point, so acceptance is the only viable option: Realizing that one merely chooses to live in fear of their own voice and can just as easily choose not to is a moment nearly as empowering as sudden fluency.
Speech therapy was presented as an option exactly once, in what felt like an ambush when my elementary school's speech therapist pulled me aside during class a year later. Not being able to withstand the internally embellished embarrassment of a public outing as someone needing to be fixed while also imagining all the ways I could be reprimanded for interrupting class, I insisted I didn't need help just to end the inquisition as quickly as possible; I now have to assume that academic professionals wouldn't let a clueless seven-year-old have the last say, and that my parents (who, after asking my pediatrician how to treat my stutter, summarily ignored his advice and chose to make fun of me for years to come -- which did have the benefit of making the surprisingly few schoolyard jabs roll right off my otherwise too-sensitive self) or whatever teacher initiated this encounter didn't see the worth in pressing on.
The first time I decided I was ready to try speech therapy was in high school. I only wound up seeing the school's specialist a handful of times, as the sessions pretty much involved me reading aloud from whatever book she had available and her declaration that I didn't have a problem. At that point, after nearly a decade of living with a stutter, I knew my own patterns well enough to be frustrated with a seemingly optimistic prognosis: I have good days and I have bad days, with the problems mostly flaring up at double consonants or when speaking on the phone, and rarely occur when a book or a script supplies my every word.
I doubt I'll ever work with someone to "fix" the way I talk just as much as I doubt the possibility of shedding the verbal flaw I've sported for more than two decades, as I am now more interested in what I can do to encourage understanding but have been unsure of what exactly my options are. So when I stumbled upon an article about this book, I had two immediate reactions: "I absolutely need to read this" and "I absolutely should have written this." (Later, "Why wasn't I interviewed for this?" would come, but fleetingly and only half seriously.) I have never spoken to another stutterer and certainly never had a chance to ask the probing and probably eagerly invasive questions I've been dying to lob at someone else who knows what it's like to live with an invisible hand at one's throat: This book was that chance. Here is someone offering up not only her own experiences but also those of so many others.
Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice is a story in two parts. It is an unflinchingly honest account of its author's nearly lifelong battle with her stutter as well as a study of how the condition manifests itself in others, the schools of thought proposing various coping methods and solutions to hide behind, and the search to understand just what exactly causes this particular speech impediment. It is the need for inner reflection happening in tandem with outward-focused curiosity that turned Katherine Preston's debut into exactly what I expected a stutterer's memoir to be, as the affliction makes it impossible for a person to remain in ignorance of how his or her faltering speech affects and is perceived by every single person who serves as our audience. To stutter at an early age is to find out what happens when childhood's blissful lack of self-awareness is replaced, with a callous prematurity, by adolescence's almost paranoid perception of harsh scrutiny.
It is a book fraught with disappointment, frustration and embarrassment, but also determination, hope and self-discovery. Stuttering is, as Katherine quickly points out, not a fatal disease but it is a decidedly unexplored and misunderstood one. It is a condition that is unpredictable and humbling, that lays the afflicted vulnerable to the slings and arrows of society. It is a childhood bully who tends to retreat by adulthood, though not all of us will reach the wonderland of fluency: "Statistics will later break us into two groups," Katherine writes. "Those who "recover" and those who don't."
Katherine traces her journey with an unwanted passenger whose mission it is to mangle her every word -- her phonetic renderings of a voice made exasperatingly arrhythmic brought to mind another stutterer, the estimable David Mitchell, and his personification of the impediment through the inimical Hangman -- from its first appearance at the age of seven through the already daunting terrain of adolescence to finding a place in the adult world that will accommodate her years of accrued baggage. It is a personal voyage so punctuated with objective reflection and the slow growth of inner strength that any stutterer would be proud to call it their own.
For all my knee-jerk self-reproachment at having been beaten to the punch in terms of penning the definitive stutterer's memoir, Katherine's is by no means the path we all have followed. Despite her numerous attempts to find "success" in speech therapy, her gradual shift in knowing that she would give anything to divest herself of a speech impediment that makes simple verbal communication grounds for a panic attack (let's not even approach the unique horror the prospect of phone calls brings) to realizing that the hurdles such a condition has helped her overcome and the resolve it has instilled in her is empowering and paved with tiny victories but it is her own path to self-acceptance and hers alone, though her milestones and breakthroughs and jumbled emotions are all stops along the way that I can't help but believe are common to all stutterers' experiences.
The part of me that read this book in the hopes of recognizing echoes of myself and feeling a little less alone for it was dizzyingly satisfied. Katherine is roughly the same age as me and began stuttering around the same time I did. She, too, is a rarity among rarities, being a female stutterer who carried the disorder into adulthood. She is able to examine her younger self, her fears and her insecurities with a clinical eye and an improbable amount of heart. Reading about her early retreat inward, her horror over being seen as something broken, her struggle to overcome a speech impediment that overshadows all she is and is capable of every time she ventures a spoken thought offered me a sense of empathetic kinship that is usually reserved for the beautifully damaged fictional characters I've come to favor. Like me, she is no stranger to deploying an arsenal of thesaurus-gleaned stutter-friendly synonyms to dodge the words that are habitual problems. She adopted accents and affectations to gloss over verbal traps. She was reluctant to identify herself as a stutterer, preferring to ignore that which plagued her until she finally had to learn all she could about the foe within. Later, having realized that she could make her written voice do all the things her spoken one couldn't but being unsure of how to make it as a writer, she tried her hand at journalism.
It was what Katherine and I shared that made the differences in just our two stories appear so divergent, though: It was so easy to sympathetically nod along when she was navigating familiar territory that being jarred from it had the strange sensation of an out-of-body experience, or seeing the same role played by two different people. She emphasizes her parents' unflagging support and willingness to help her "get better" without pushing her beyond her comfort zone and reducing her to incurable disfluency, and I couldn't help but envy her of that. Her tales of speech therapy, the brief spurts of hopeful fluency that sputtered into the resurgence of the stutter she thought she had finally put to rest, were genuinely surprising, as I had always fancied that corrective measures were the ticket to speech unencumbered. And, because I can't help it, yes, I compared the severity of my stutter to those both reprinted and spoken of in this book, and was profoundly grateful that my worst days are what someone else wakes up hoping for.
The bravery Katherine embraces in exposing that which has been the most fiercely guarded part of herself is incredible. She digs into old diaries and painful memories to pinpoint relevant stopping points along her journey, which read as an offer of trust to the reader rather than cheap bids for congratulations. As an adult stutterer, I found it reassuring that someone was so open and detailed about this things so few people truly understand; as a younger stutterer, I imagine I would have found relief in knowing that someone else has trod this path before without letting the all-too-easy giant-in-chains excuse keep her down.
It is that honesty and refusal to sugarcoat her life as a stutterer that makes Katherine such a perfect voice for those who have yet to embrace their own. She examines how stuttering twists the things most people take for granted, like being able to supply one's own name quickly and effortlessly or making a joke without fearing that the punchline and timing will be ruined by an inopportune loop of repetition, but it is her straightforward examination of how a stutter affects one's professional path that nearly had me giving myself whiplash by nodding in such vigorous assent. "It turns out that careers are a sticky subject for stutters," she writes as an introduction:
Many advocates argue that any job is possible. They have a point. I have met stutterers in every career that, at twenty-two years old, I had assumed were nigh on impossible. ... Their hearts were in the right place, but there was one rather large problem. They gave me the distinct impression that any job was possible as long as there wasn't a discernible speech impediment. I could have anything I wanted as long as I didn't stutter obviously. ...
If you have the advocates on one hand, you have the realists on the other. They appreciate the sentiment that no job is impossible, but they refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. Instead they take to emphasizing the degree of the stutter. What may be possible for a mild stutterer is not always possible for someone who stalls on every word.
Katherine is able to take a step back from a condition she knows all too well in order to consider the non-stutterer's vantage point, to recognize the severity of each stutterer's impediment. She is a narrator who is remarkably adept at sidestepping the pitfalls of judgement in favor of considering all sides before attempting a thoughtful, logical assessment.
Out With It is engaging and insightful, showcasing its author's curiosity and capacity for overlooking the worst of a situation in order to focus on its benefits. While it's obviously got loads of appeal for stutters in particular, the gist of the story is making peace with one's imperfect demons and learning to look outward. Katherine's book "is not one of deliverance" nor does it have that moment where she is "magically fixed as the curtain drops" -- and it's all the better for delivering one of the book's unexpected messages: Recognize the difference between being grateful for what you have and settling, and know when wanting to be better becomes the same as demanding too much.
Katherine bemoans how she was in her twenties when Hollywood finally presented a stuttering cinematic hero in The King's Speech, and how there are few role models for stutterers beyond those who have successfully hidden their impediment to land some some of societal prominence. In unloading so much of herself in a book that's less of a memoir and more of a promise that someone has not only shared those moments of seemingly insurmountable mortification but also overcame all those same hurdles to become what she knew she was meant to be, I can't help but believe that Katherine Preston is filling that once-absent role all by herself.(less)
While waiting for my white whale of novel--Joseph McElroy's Women and Men--to emerge from the murky depths of the internet with something akin to a realistic price tag in tow, I've settled for introducing myself to the writer's more readily available works the way one "settles" for Guinness when the bartender has never even heard of Three Philosophers. I finished McElroy's debut novel, A Smuggler's Bible, nearly a month before picking up Cannonball, his ninth and most recent offering: Reading two bookending extremes of a writing career in quick succession produced the effect of watching a new acquaintance transform into an old friend as endearing quirks became welcome habits, as a whisper of what will come crescendoes to a thundering boom of masterful storytelling.
Discernible plots emerge like a developing photograph's slow cohesion: a young man forges a symbiotic friendship with a younger immigrant of incredible talent before enlisting in the Iraq war, only for their paths to cross one more fateful time in that Fertile Crescent; recently discovered scrolls that may or may not be genuine accounts of Jesus from a contemporary's vantage point are revealed to posses great religious or political significance; familial ties are questioned, strengthened and redefined, especially in terms of when a friend becomes a brother, a father becomes a foil and a sister becomes an object of desire.
Cannonball is not written in the most invitingly accessible of styles--the plot is rendered in a first-person narration that initially feels like a shuffling slideshow of non-sequential images and impressions--but it is by no means impenetrable. This is a book that divulges its secrets in ravenous gulps rather than ladylike sips: Patience and greedily lapping up the book in 50-page guzzles are rewarded with a better sense of its pace and disjointed recollection.
McElroy is a writer whose plots and characters exist to move a thesis toward its inevitable elucidation. His books are not simply vehicles transporting his characters in linear, predictable joyrides through personal growth as they hurdle toward the happily-ever-after finish line. That's not to say that this novel is populated by uninspired archetypes who mechanically convey the writer's agenda, because that would be a lie; in fact, McElroy's minimalist approach to exposition proves that a deft hand can show so much by telling so little, as I left this book with a complete image of everyone who lived and died within its pages.
Several of the characters who play significant roles in Zach's life possess the kinds of talents that tend to forgive--nay, willfully gloss over--the perfectly natural failures of character that aren't exactly negated by finely honed skills. It is that mental difficulty in reconciling extremes and other seemingly at-odds elements that is the force propelling Cannonball: This is a book about dualities, how easily they come into existence and how unavoidable they are when no two people can ever see any one thing identically. Once the novel begins to grab hold of and run with this theme, every action becomes more significant, every word is made richer with layered precision, every character develops into something more believably human. We know that Zach is not a perfectly reliable narrator, that he possesses great abilities as well as a great capacity for lapses in judgment, but he is also a magnetically empathetic soul who puts the world together in such a familiar, non-academic way--as if he, too, were groping in the dark without the hand of an omniscient writer guiding him as both the bigger picture and his part in it come into focus--that such flaws make him companionable to a degree that sheer, awesome talent alone cannot.
This is a novel told in symbolic metaphor stemming from Zach himself: He is a gifted swimmer and diver, but it is photography that drives him, and, as the novel barrels ahead, it becomes more and more evident that the commonalities between these two pursuits hold the key to the heart of the story. Which is this: Universal understanding is a myth. No two things look the same to two people, much like a photo and its negative, like a concrete entity and its pallid, rippling reflection on water. Zach, who never had the crucial thing separates a competitive diver from an Olympian, who sees photography more as a mode of artistic expression than factual representation, stands at square opposition to his father, who seeks a champion in the water and a documentarian behind the lens, neither of which Zach is destined to be.
For all its frenetic pacing, Cannonball never feels rushed; there is no hurry to get to the next stop but there are a controlled urgency for understanding and a need for some sense of correlation between seemingly unrelated events that drive the narration. A scene of great chaos and destruction occurs about halfway through the novel that arrives so quickly and is such a turning point for the story that it takes Zach and the reader alike a few seconds to realize what's happening, as is often the case with those moments that change everything. It offers a slow dawning of realization that echoes how such moments of upheaval are processed and later recalled in the real world.
True to the dualities it encompasses, Cannonball is at once hotly emotional and coolly rational, capable of blending everyday humor with routine human tragedy, celebrating true talent and the virtues of incredible heart. Its curiosity is honest without being mawkishly earnest, its questions are sincere without erring toward saccharine sentiment. McElroy challenges his audience with unconventional narration and the occasional up-close look at some uncomfortable realities but he more than generously rewards his readers with a thought-provoking examination of how one things can have so many varied appearances from different angles, with a clearer understanding and through the increasing distance created by the onward march of time.(less)
(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Many, many thanks to Lori for providing me both the PDF version of this book an...more(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Many, many thanks to Lori for providing me both the PDF version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.)
Hunker down, friends and goobers, and let us explore this tale of hero-worship, espionage, and warring fast-food franchises built on the sturdy foundation that is good ol' American greed and gluttony.
If you only know of Patrick Wensink's Broken Piano for President for its legal kerfuffle with Jack Daniel's (which the internet universally reports as involving the nicest cease-and-desist letter ever -- and you know how hard it is for anyone on the internet to agree on anything), then you are doing yourself a great disservice and ought to remedy such an unfortunate truth by getting lost in this light-bizarro joy ride. If nothing else, you may find that your problems pale in comparison to those faced by some of these characters.
Like any satisfying slab of bizarro-flavored fare, Broken Piano for President features an antihero who would be an unlikable loser if he weren't such a sympathetic everyman whose dilemmas -- the guilt of unexorcized childhood demons, an unsuccessful love life, a job that he thoroughly despises -- are relatable to anyone old enough to know that a blackout-drunk dependency on alcohol is the only way to deal with such staggering hopelessness. That is, until you wake up in a strange but totally awesome car one morning with no recollection of how you got there, whose car you've purloined, or who the corpselike lady in the passenger seat with the gaping head wound is and whether or not you're responsible for such a gory morning greeting.
Such is the life of and our introduction to Deshler Dean (presumably named for the author's town of origin). And things don't necessarily get any better for our self-brutalized protagonist, nor does he acquire any immediate clarity regarding either this or any of his multitudinous memory lapses brought on by drunken stupors. What he does gain, however, is an avalanche of opportunity for flexing his liar muscles by way of his alcoholic's amnesia and his improvised double- (and triple-) agent status for two fast-food giants (Winters Olde-Tyme Hamburgers and the subtly named Bust-a-Gut Hamburgers) who are locked in a game of perpetual one-upmanship with absolutely no conscience about offing the competition's (or their own) employees and clogging their consumers' arteries in pursuit of the almighty dollar. While Deshler stumbles through his jobs as an inebriated wunderkind of sorts who dreams up shamefully, sadistically delicious foodstuffs for his employers' menus that he never remembers once the hammer of sobriety thwacks him between the eyes, it is that same dollar-beer haze that allows him to write word-salad songs and serve as a frontman for his true love: his Butthole Surfers-inspired, art-house nightmare of a band, Lothario Speedwagon.
It is satire that deserves its comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Moore, for sure. The dirty underbelly of the two fictitious hamburger heavy-hitters grows worryingly less and less outlandish as the violence escalates and the calorie counts of Deshler's brainchildren reach meteoric heights. It takes no mental gymnastics to imagine real-life corporations planting spies in the corporate offices of their biggest competitors to ensure that they come out on top for just one fiscal quarter, as it's also no surprise that one of the chain's founders has been iconified and deified at the hands of the American public. The dangers of greed, blind consumerism, scare-tactic TV news, and sacrificing job satisfaction for job security are all on parade as the story catapults to its frenzied climax.
While bizarro is definitely not for everyone, this is hovering more on the Regular Guy Thrown into Extraordinary Circumstances with Some Violence on the Side spectrum of the genre rather than its Batshit! Insanity! at Every! Corner! counterpoint, which might make it a little more palatable for someone looking to introduce themselves to what can be a scary little literary niche that often requires a more willing suspension of disbelief that some readers may be comfortable extending. Broken Piano does, however, weigh in at a veritable novel-sized length, making it the first non-novella bizarro I've had the pleasure of reading. And it does, for the most part, successfully carry a plot (aided by dozens of subplots, lists, asides, montages and lessons in fictional histories) for its substantial duration. There are a few lags where characters wax a little too self-indulgent, where the story seems to meander, where the violence seems a little gratuitous in its detail but, hey, sometimes life errs on that side, too. Besides, I've seen examples of the genre commit far more literarily heinous crimes.
Bizarro is at its most successful when there's something significant to be found for those who are willing to dig below the violent, exaggerated-for-shock-factor surface that gives it its charm. Broken Piano is fueled by enough cautionary tales (never sacrifice corporate comfort for the art one was meant to create, even if it means being a valet for a little longer), life lessons (how the best-laid plans can be blown asunder by life's pesky unpredictabilities, like falling in love) and allegories (there are far more options than the two public favorites -- which I couldn't help but compare to the stranglehold of America's two-party system, even though there was nary a cue pointing me in that direction within these pages) to lend thematic support to its off-the-wall goings-on. It is an entertaining romp through some sick shit for those who just want to be told a story and a modern-day morality play of sorts for those who aren't satisfied with simply taking a novel at face value. (less)
In the interest of full disclosure (or because putting myself on display via book reviews is a more palatable vehicle for my innermost self these days...moreIn the interest of full disclosure (or because putting myself on display via book reviews is a more palatable vehicle for my innermost self these days than, say, the more self-respectingly private venue of a journal is), I originally wrote this review as a series of letters between 84, Charing Cross Road and me, but it was one of those times when emulating the format just wasn't working (for one thing, I kept writing the book's responses far too snarkily, which I think may have been the result of being rubbed the wrong way by Ms. Hanff early on in the book, probably because she seems far more at ease with busting out the joshing jocularity during the fledgling stages of a friendship than I will ever be).
In that same vein, you probably also need to know it is with a mug of bright red tea on one side and a bottle of even redder wine on the other as Zep serenades me across the decades through my computer speakers (which, at a certain point, will be reduced to me playing my two favorite songs over and over until I'm satisfied enough to let the album end) that I am sitting here trying to formulate something vaguely resembling a proper tribute to a book that is, at its heart, a love letter to the bonds that are born of a shared love of reading.
Is there a more perfect book than 84, Charing Cross Road to discuss on a site that has led so many of us to friendships that began with books? How many casual comments or hesitant pushes of the "add as a friend" or "follow reviews" buttons were disguised as auspicious beginnings to an ever-deepening bond with someone you may never meet face-to-face but consider a close friend? How many countless times have we reaped the real-life benefits -- be it a change of mood for the better over some well-timed kind words or the always welcome surprise of a mailed package of books -- of the digital realm because of the connections we've made on this site?
What begins with a poor writer's quest to feed her lust for antiquated book becomes a volley of letters and exchanging of goods across the pond as Helene Hanff and the staff of a London bookstore forge the kind of close-knit kinship I've never even had with my own family. While Hanff's early letters did not endear her to me at all, I realized the fault was probably my own by the time her first shipment of foodstuffs made its way to her ration-constricted pen-pals at Marks & Co. And that's about when I realized this book was going to tell me a little somethin'-somethin' about how actions have a way of speaking louder than words and that maybe I ought to ignore the little judgmental voice in my head that just loves to run its hypothetical mouth.
Because there is a current of fondness that is just rushing through these letters that transcends distance and time and circumstance and is just impossible to ignore as the epistolary narrative subtly betrays just how much platonic love and friendly admiration exist among Hanff, her primary writing buddy Frank, his wife and the coming-and-going cast of characters who help keep the bookshop running.
The ongoing disappointment of Hanff's many thwarted attempts to visit London and her long-distance friends is what resonated the most poignantly with me, as I am all too familiar of how the best-laid plans seem to fall apart spectacularly at the least opportune times. There is a point when some of Hanff's hometown chums travel abroad and wind up at Marks & Co., only to find themselves "nearly mobbed" once they mentioned their common comrade to the shop's staff. Not too long after that, a letter lobbed to Hanff from the usually reserved Frank contains the line "... one more summer will bring us every American tourist but the one we want to see" and I very nearly dissolved into a puddle. If I hadn't already been charmed by the folks populating this charming testament to how the longevity of friendships is not dictated by proximity but rather by personality, that would have been the line that both swayed and slayed me.
The sweetness of these letters is not tainted by a saccharine sentimentality, and Hanff's earnest pursuit of good reads remains unmarred by pretentious showmanship. It is, actually, not entirely unlike what I imagine what would happen if one were to follow the course of a GR-forged correspondence across two decades, only that I hope you folks are all still around to reap the royalty benefits by then. Because I am half a bottle of wine poorer than I was when I began this "review," I can now safely use this book as an excuse to sloppily profess my love for you guys before passing out as inelegantly as possible. Consider this my drunk-dialed midnight confession of affection to you all, which, I think, is exactly why a book like this exists in the first place. (less)
Reading during one of those godawful endurance tests when works spills well beyond the professional bo...moreI am surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.
Reading during one of those godawful endurance tests when works spills well beyond the professional boundaries I've established long ago to keep my job's ruinous hands off the things that make life enjoyable almost always spells disaster for whatever unfortunate book is the victim of bad timing (and often absolutely no free time at all), as late nights and occupational frustration leave little brainpower and less desire to read things I'm not paid to attack with a red pen.
Furthermore, this book smelled of what I suspected to be, despite Jennifer Egan's decidedly admirable reputation, the much-maligned chick lit, a genre in which I have little interest and with which I have virtually no experience. A former model meets with a fiery car accident, with the resulting surgery transforming her into a still-beautiful but unrecognizable creature? A teenage girl is staring down the very experience that will finally propel her from childhood's idyllic innocence into the harsh realities of introductory adulthood? The onetime high-school football star who has embraced his natural place on the fringes of academia? A charmingly damaged private detective? The perennial exotic, mysterious stranger? I was prepared for the marathon eye-rolling sure to follow along with whatever parade of self-fulfilling fantasies was poised to shuffle across more than 400 pages of predictability and pageantry.
And then the book began with a quote from Ulysses, which threw me off entirely (spoiler alert: yeah, pretty sure it's not chick lit). And these characters almost immediately emerged as richly imagined, intricately complex and cautiously likable personalities illustrating a panoply of well-executed themes and generously supported messages that, as demonstrated by this cast embodying a dizzying range of temperaments and impulses, prove the commonality of the human condition, right on down to how closely we guard the private motivations that, were we to give voice to them, would draw us closer to one another in an understanding of recognition. This book, it turns out, has things to say. That are worth saying. And are said well.
It is often the case with nonexistent reading time, which means long lags between putting a book down and picking it up again, that I lose both details and interest that would otherwise be present in a more ideal reading pace, ultimately casting an unearned fog of forgetful disinterest over a story that sputteringly emerges in fits and irregular bursts. While this book is rather chock-full of tiny details that merge to form multidimensional characters at oddly familiar crossroads that result in even more recognizable moments of clarity, they're so well connected that it was difficult to lose track of who did what, what happened to whom, and how some subtle detail presented pages and weeks ago had propelled the story along its only logical trajectory. What's more, each long-overdue return to this book felt less like a desperate flurry of forced refamiliarization and more like being welcomed by patient acquaintances who knew exactly where we left off and resumed their narrative threads without either the confusion or faltering steps of gap-marked memory that so often happen when a book can start to feel abandoned.
There are times when characters seem to exist merely as vehicles for the plot, and there are times when plot exists simply to give the characters a reason to be written: This is the perfect middle ground between such off-putting extremes. Each of the main characters (and most of the supporting ones) continue to be fleshed out as the novel forges ahead, and each of their stories gradually interlock or refasten after being pulled apart long ago or make their way to a crescendo of connection. The parallels of growth and discovery in both the players and their plays create a not unpleasant sense of being overwhelmed by the places life takes us and the ups and downs of getting there, serving as a keen reminder that the destination is not a full stop but rather a shift in existence that needs to be taken into account and calls for an adjustment if it is to be allowed the awesome force of realization it is intended to be. Personal evolution doesn't just happen: It is the correct response to those predetermined moments that can either bring the needed change to thrive or swallow a person whole because they'd rather stand in place than take a chance on self-discovery.
It's not like change is easy, especially when it's a necessity of circumstance rather than a luxury of choice. Like bucking up and moving on from a tragedy, be it a self-contained one demanding physical recovery or the universally understood ache of young love (or soul-baring infatuation, as it so often truly is) that flees just as quickly as it descends, leaving behind a newly guarded heart sore with the implicit realization that things will never be the same again. The changes this novel's characters undergo highlight the ongoing battle of minimizing the divide between the Old Self and New Self, how every newly shed identity must find its place among all the outdated incarnations of the self to comprise a single ghost, how difficult it can be to honor the past without living in it so as not to stunt the growth of the present, and eventually future, self. The present is destined to join the composite of the past, which exists alongside every new self, and it is a thing we can never truly shed or hide because it is apparent in the memories that shape our resolute cores of being, regardless of whether we choose to embrace or deny the selves that were.
Most of all, as suggested by such an imploringly imperative title, this is a book about recognition. Whether a character's metamorphosis is sudden, violent, inevitable, an acceptance of maturity or a refusal to exist within the confines of one identity for too long, validation through another's affirmation is the only real measurement of a transformation's success. We can always recognize ourselves, even though we are the only ones aware of our most infinitesimal changes: It is through others that we see where and how well we fit, if at all, into the cogs of greater existence. (less)
As Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twe...moreAs Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twentieth-century musings and poring over sweetly triumphant images of same-sex couples rushing to "legitimize" their long-running relationships with celebratory midnight marriages. As the strange continent of "inverts" draws horticultural allusions and comparisons to covert societies in Proust's time, the LGBTQ community is finally being recognized in a way that signals the slow unravelling of ignorance and inequality in mine.
For the first three volumes, it was easy to lose any sense of cultural or chronological divide when faced with so many universal constants of humanity that all but waltzed off their pages and pages of lyrical metaphors; in S&G, we have a Narrator who recalls how the first time he saw an airplane overhead filled him with childlike wonder and lives in a time when it is apparently totally normal for a man to pick out his female companion's evening attire, which are but a few examples that, like unchecked homophobia, for the first time in my journey with Proust heralded a struggle to bridge the gap between when these volumes were written and when I'm reading them, bringing into stark reality just how much separates modernism from modern times, regardless of how well the common ground of so many other shared human experiences minimized the inevitable differences in eras and epochs. I finally felt the full extent of the distance -- literal and figurative, in time and physical distance, of the real and fictionally polished -- between the richly depicted, intricately crafted images Proust used to construct his Narrator's winding halls of memory and the world to which I belong. It was a jarring transition, for sure, but it was also a rather well-timed one: As the Narrator become increasingly aware of adult life's complicated emotions stirring inside and the societal politics constantly changing around him (not to mention the slow encroachment of technology, which does cast a shroud of smoky modernization on a world previously draped in pristine laces and cloud-soft velvets), I, too, got a taste of that irrevocable shift from a reasonably expected understanding to desperate reconsideration of an ever-shifting world.
This installment, sadly, is one I read in staccato bursts of precious free time. It is unfortunate because Proust is best savored like good wine rather than chugged like cheap beer, and I fear I spent more time drunk on his beautiful words than intoxicated by his narrative insight. In those exhausted but relieved hours at home, in those stolen wedges of at-work bookwormery, in whatever few minutes were spent in quiet solitude, I clung to Proust with the desperation of a booklover in the throes of both work-related burnout and the dreaded reader's slump. And while a frantic heart may not be the best way to approach words that are ideally enjoyed at a leisurely stroll, I do believe the Narrator's burgeoning sense of humor and need to slowly drink in his surroundings kept me grounded during chaotic times. While S&G may not have been my favorite installment, it is the one that affected me the deepest.
Among the revolving door of social obligations and self-indulgent observations that seem to occupy the majority of Fictional Marcel's abundant free time, I found myself most invested in his delayed reaction to his grandmother's death. Having never known the magnitude of a transgenerational love like that which Narrator shared with his maternal grandmother, I felt his palpable grief just as keenly as the slow-arriving but no less heartrending clarity of permanent absence that hit him upon revisiting a place that once played such an important role in demonstrating the fondness and compassion that can exist between a grandmother and her grandson. As the Narrator contemplates how different Balbec is without his beloved grandmother, as he muses on how much his own once-young mother has taken on the visage of her own mother now that the elder woman's death has left a role unfulfilled, as he retraces rooms that once were filled with his grandmother's presence, the concrete reality of past time being truly lost time came thundering down against a mostly familiar landscape that derives most of its changes from the players inhabiting it. It is odd that the grief is intense but short-lived, yes, but I couldn't help but write it off as the Narrator's decision to forge ahead with his life rather than mawkishly wallow in grief -- such are the intermittences of the heart, no?
I continue to find the romantic entanglements of these characters to be a high-school level of ridiculous. It seems like so few of the relationships presented thus far in ISOLT -- Swann and Odette; the Narrator and Gilberte (and also Albertine); Saint-Loup and Rachel -- are healthy, mutually affectionate ones, but it could also be that I have little patience for romances, even fictional ones, that are built on a foundation of obsession and possession rather than respect and genuine fondness. And, really, the affair between Morel and Charlus isn't anything laudable, I know, but I can't help but find it one of the most believable examples of heady lust in terms of its execution and its players' emotionally fueled behaviors. There is little else but pure attraction drawing Charlus helplessly toward Morel, who can't help but take advantage of (or be manipulated by, depending on your vantage point) the older gentleman's affections and gifts. Still, the greed with which Charlus tries to keep Morel to himself while all but undressing him in public, the satisfaction he derives just from coaxing the younger musician into his presence is…. okay, a bit much, yes, but also keenly evocative of an irrationally all-consuming, unrealistically intense first crush and the reluctant empathy of understanding such memories drag along in their wake.
Sodom and Gomorrah struck me as proof that the memories of our past can't help but be intertwined with memories of others, a reminder that there are always multiple perspectives at play -- and that, as the ending scenes with Bloch reinforce, not everyone's assessment of a situation will always be reliable or anything more than actions born of misunderstanding a sticky situation that was handled badly because there are no do-over options in real life and things only make sense when hindsight lays down the rest of the puzzle. ISOLT might be fictional, sure, but it is written as an account of life, and sometimes learning life's lessons means that truths can be as ugly as our lesser selves. (less)
As much as I enjoyed reading Kurt Vonnegut expound upon Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country not that long ago, it didn't quite satisfy the cravin...moreAs much as I enjoyed reading Kurt Vonnegut expound upon Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country not that long ago, it didn't quite satisfy the craving I've had for his fiction. Sure, there is something to be said for watching a favorite author turn his fine-tuned gallows humor on himself and the society in which he both lives and has lived but sometimes I just want to be told a story, damnit.
Before launching into the novel proper, Vonnegut introduces Mother Night as the only story of his with a moral he knows: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." He then spends 269 pages proving what a haunting, damning and dangerous moral it is, with enough self-awareness and dark jocularity to keep this tale -- the fictional memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American-born German playwright who hides in plain sight as a propagandist for WWII-era Nazis while all too convincingly infiltrating their ranks to aid the American government that employs him as a spy -- from getting too distastefully morbid.
It is, at first glance, a moral that stands in direct, fundamental conflict with what I believe to be true. Nothing galls me quite like the lazy assumption that a thing goes no deeper than its surface, that what it looks like is what it is and nothing more. To look no further than appearances subscribes to a flagrant disregard for motivation, circumstances, and any one thing's or person's capacity for multidimensional existence and purpose. To ignore the fact that there is almost always something working in the hidden recesses of the unspoken and unseen realms is, to me, the ultimate display of egotism, a perilous assumption that the observer knows more about a situation in which he plays no part and can't be arsed to offer it the courtesy of deeper contemplation or understanding by way of delving beyond the easy veneer.
But because this is Vonnegut, a message that seems to be an idealogical slap in the face of my own personal philosophy is, at its core, a confirmation that I'm not wrong. (And, really, what's the point of reading literature if not to find validation at the hands of greater minds?) If the Faustian origin of this novel's title heralds the eventual hellward saunter of one's bargaining-chip soul, the tale following such an exchange (that is, safety from the Nazis within their ranks as they believe him to be their loyal, hate-spewing voice) shows exactly why the road paved with good intentions leads to where it does. This isn't fake-it-'til-you-make-it terrain: This is a disturbing account of why hiding one's true goodness beneath layers of protective and necessary deceit without leaving a breadcrumb trail for others to find the way back to your honest intentions will always backfire, often with tragic consequences.
The story's moral shapes every character in this tale. Starting with the hero himself, who has an entire world convinced that his broadcasts of deliberately ludicrous anti-Semitic vitriol are spoken in earnest rather than in code, he comes to find that everyone who holds a more-than-fleeting place in his life after he is secreted away to anonymous but tenuous safety in a New York City apartment is hiding their true identities, too. From his doctor neighbor who refuses to acknowledge that his childhood detoured through a concentration camp to the woman he believes (and who has deceived herself into believing) to be his long-presumed-dead wife, from the friend who is really a spy who obliterates Campbell's incognito existence to the white supremacist whose retinue includes a black man and a Catholic who would otherwise be his sworn enemies if he hadn't become selectively blind to their egregious differences by converting them to his cause, absolutely no one is who they really are by virtue of self-denial.
There is a love story desperately trying to proclaim itself as a last bastion of hope in Campbell's apathetic post-war existence. While his beloved wife and muse, Helga, the actress for whom he wrote some of his finest plays as vehicles to showcase the essence of the adored and adoring woman who comprises the other half of his Nation of Two, is declared dead, it is clear that a part of the widower died with her. I don't feel like I'm spoiling anything by revealing that the woman who later finds Campbell in New York and claims to be his Helga isn't for two reasons: One, the truth, which is foreshadowed quite obviously though adeptly, is revealed fairly quickly; and two, it illustrates how desperately Campbell wants his wife to be alive and, when that is proven to be impossible beyond all rational thought, he then desperately wants to pretend this woman is his wife, if not a more-than-adeqaute stand-in for one person who has ever given his life meaning.
The dangers of such doggedly perpetuated tunnel vision that thrives by casting off all ties to reality is a theme that drives home the novel's moral. Leave it to our humanist friend to sum up the problems of both this novel of his and the world at large: "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile."
Campbell knew what he was doing all along. Along his journey to the Israeli jail cell from which he spins his autobiographical tale, he collides with those who have no reason to doubt that he's their brother in arms against the lesser races, a mouthpiece whose convictions are evident in the words he reveals only to three other men and his memoir's audience to be nothing more than caricature on the surface and cipher in their meaning: These run-ins with his in-appearance-only compatriots provide crushing proof that they have warped their own perspectives to allow for the atrocities they've committed while Campbell had his wits about him all along. Rather than making the former apologetic victims of circumstance and the latter a heinous, calculating monster, Vonnegut accomplishes quite the opposite.
Stylistically, subtlety and understatement are the driving forces of a narration that relies more on a preference for telling rather than showing, a cardinal sin that anyone who's ever enrolled in a even one creative-writing class should recognize immediately; however, as any writer worth his ink will tell you, such rules exist to be broken for those who can break them with aplomb. While Campbell does allow images to speak for themselves, he is writing a memoir that is filled with his own observations, thoughts, conclusions and dot-connecting. What makes his propensity for telling successful is his succinctness: He doesn't dwell on a moment until its emotional resonance has been beaten into even the densest of reader, which is so often the unfortunate result of not trusting the audience to draw its own conclusions and extrapolating the significance of a scene to maximize the devastating impact. It's an an effect that not only showcases Vonnegut's talent but also hints at Campbell's own prowess as a man of words.
Vonnegut may have showed his hand early in terms of the overriding moral of Mother Night, though he peppers his novel with less emphasized though equally important truths that make the human condition a flawed but beautiful thing. The dangers of hate -- "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting... but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive" -- are all but impossible to address in a novel that traverses so deeply and unflinchingly into one of the darkest stains on humanity's historical conscience. But as I've stated (probably ad nauseam) in other reviews, one of my other dearest personal beliefs is that one extreme cannot exist without a contrasting opposite to offer a counterbalance, which is another truth Vonnegut seems to agree with by the equalizing, comforting force his message of love delivers in these same pages: "Make love when you can. It's good for you."(less)
If you'll excuse what I know has to sound like a weak attempt at an obvious pun, I find that books are easier to read than people. I summon far less e...moreIf you'll excuse what I know has to sound like a weak attempt at an obvious pun, I find that books are easier to read than people. I summon far less effort to read a page than a face, a chapter than mixed body language: Even the subtext and allusions and metaphors are all naught but new takes on old tricks, and the most elusive hidden messages are often buried no deeper than a careful reexamination of text laid bare with a willingness most people eschew in the name of self-preservation and tactful modesty. Besides, I'm far (far, far, faaaar) more apt to dislike a person than a book, so why not be better acquainted with the entity that's more likely to strike me as pleasing?
Having encountered hundreds of agreeable books by now, I can tell when one is poised to bound across the threshold between casual acquaintance and trusted friend. Because no two books, in a rare display of commonality with us moodier mortals, share the same personality, the one variable is when the deepening of our relationship will become apparent -- will we know by the time the last word hits us like a too-soon au revoir or will we realize that our meeting was fated for roaring success before I've even turned the first page?
Confessions of a Common Reader and I were destined for each other. I knew this to be an undeniable truth simply from a mutual friend's appropriately glowing review that gave rise to the heartening pang reserved for the flash of recognition in spotting a kindred spirit from a distance that may be easily conquered but lengthened intolerably by the inconvenient fact that we'd not been properly introduced yet (thanks for playing matchmaker, Steve!). Like a friend insisting that I ought to meet this person they just know with whom I'll enjoy an easy rapport, I sought the aforementioned book's companionship immediately, knowing it would be one of those rare times reality and fantasy sung in pitch-perfect harmony. Anne Fadiman's collection of essays culled from a lifetime of bibliomania and I, in truth, needed no introduction once our eyes locked in a Barnes & Noble: We knew that we were about the enjoy the rare bliss of a fast friendship and flowing conversation buoyed by quiet but doggedly personality-defining quirks.
Forgoing the polite formalities of aimless small talk that I've never had any use for, we quickly discovered our kinship by way of unabashed conversation girded with the intimate admissions that are usually divulged to the friends whose loyalty was built on years of shared experiences: Ours was a love at first sight that is usually only relegated to the fictions we both treasure as though they are the pillars upon which our own personal histories rest (and, really, they decidedly do).
We found instantaneous common ground by confiding early on that we both regarded it as a monumental moment, indeed -- with an eye cast far more optimistically toward the future than a mere marriage proposal, infinitely more demonstrative of a trust we'd only felt for one person that we proclaimed it before a roomful of witnesses, embracing a humbling but welcome vulnerability light years beyond that first appearance of the two-backed beast -- when we allowed the person we've vowed to love and support until both of our bodies have expired to combine their personal libraries with our own lovingly tended but fiercely guarded treasure trove of tomes, that to allow such a commingling of the closest we'll ever come to an outward manifestation of our personalities' truest forms with another's is the very definition of the hard-won but popularly cliched and carelessly bandied-about designation of "soulmate."
As we freely offered each other the pieces of ourselves we usually sheltered beneath layers of protective trivia and adopted personae, sitting forehead-to-forehead as hours melted away like minutes during our sometimes tittering, sometimes somber but always generously peppered with earnest, animated outbursts of "I know exactly what you mean! I thought I was the only one!" conversation, we unearthed more and more gold nuggets of shared insights and experiences: rampant logophilia; an incorrigible but well-intentioned need to proofread everything made of words; the ongoing struggle against but secret thrill of one's living space looking less like a home and more like a used bookstore (which, really, is the only other place we're truly ourselves, anyway); the pleasure of carnally loving a book to the extent that its spine is permanently bent and its marginalia is such an imprint of the self that the very idea of letting someone else borrow it requires tapping into some inner peace to get over the anxiety akin to letting someone rifle through your diary with dirty fingers and malicious intent; the unavoidable comparison between a decadent meal and a five-course book and the primitive, multi-sensory satiation that accompany both.
Alas, all good things must come to an end and, as we blinked with disbelief into the light of a new day, we realized that our electrifying and animated first meeting was rushing toward its inevitable denouement. And I realized that the jealousies I'd brushed aside in the eager pursuit of getting to know this marvelous new ally with whom I shared multitudinous proclivities and compulsions were now a spreading stain that unfairly marred our enchanted first encounter, which is a personal failing that should say terrible things about me and should not, at all, be held against this exuberant and eloquent little book (but is why I docked a star off its rating -- I assume, with the heavy-handed clarity of hindsight, that Confessions of a Common Reader is dressed in green to warn me how deeply I'd envy anyone whose childhood was a warmly nurturing word nerd's dream and a booklover's haven). I know we'll meet again and, that when we do, my pettiness will have long ago been overshadowed by fond memories of a soul-baring heart-to-heart that is worth the dozens of instances of painfully insipid chatter I suffered through to find it. (less)
The functional division between morning and not morning is arbitrary and artificial because we are too conditioned to face the honesty of admitting ot...moreThe functional division between morning and not morning is arbitrary and artificial because we are too conditioned to face the honesty of admitting otherwise. The natural definition of the two is measured by daylight and darkness. Which is why a book like this is best appreciated as 4:14 a.m. bleeds its way toward dawn and the day's potential to become one thing creeps along to reach the other; when you're either so hungover you can only view the world through the safety of metaphors that won't make sense in later lucidity or too consumed with your own mortality to move, you watch as sunlight and shadow wrestle their way across the battleground of your pillow's unoccupied half, the line between them moving like the minute hand that drains opportunity from the day before you realize that nothing will make tomorrow feel any different.
When she stretches upon completing the book she hadn't realized she'd read in a sort of upright fetal position, she overextends her right thigh muscle and the distance between the initial pain and its excruciatingly slow march toward the exit will be how she remembers all 23 characters and their hundreds of stories when she finally limps back to bed. (less)
I initially decided to read this book for two reasons: The first, to see if I like McElroy enough to warrant droppin...moreHo. Lee. Shitsnacks, I am in love.
I initially decided to read this book for two reasons: The first, to see if I like McElroy enough to warrant dropping a hearty lump of money on one of those few exorbitantly priced copies of Women and Men floating around the internet; the second, to justify preordering Cannonball. When I realized that a three-digit price tag is a bargain for the pleasure of feeding both my library and my brainmeats more than a thousand pages of McElroy's words and heady but human observations, and when I ordered his newest novel within a few dozen pages of being enthusiastically enchanted by his debut one (and then danced with joy when I found out its release date had advanced by a week), I knew I had found something special. To say nothing of the fact that I eschewed all other books (save for 33 pages of Proust) and, truthfully, all other uses of my time while rolling in the myriad readerly pleasures to be found in A Smuggler's Bible. This book consumed me and my desire to do anything that didn't involve reading it.
If pressed, I would insist that this is a book about solipsism. It's about how the effects of which drive the self to seek certainty of others while looking for assurance of the self's existence in examining the lives of others. It's a road map through the pains one takes to accomplish both while really only achieving one and it's a testament to the discoveries that can't avoid materializing into stark clarity during such a journey. It is, strangely, proof that we'll only learn the true nature of our own selves by taking an objective stroll through the daunting terrain of self-assessment via others' perspectives, as we are just as uncertain of everyone's existences as they are of ours.
As a wholly unexpected bonus, the influence McElroy had on DFW is practically dripping from every page: It is so evident, in fact, that I didn't even need the internet to assure me of the former's impact on the writing of the latter (though I do get a thrill from those always-welcome times when facts actually validate my suspicions). There are so many moments when the main character, David Brooke, sounds eerily like Hal Incandenza that it delivered a swift kick of déjà vu right to the heart, from David's attempts to be of the same world as those around him while knowing that he's just going through the motions to his tendency to be in a moment merely in the physical sense while existing everywhere but the immediate now. Another character, who also bears a striking resemblance to Himself's youngest son in the way they both devour and retain dictionary entries with a prodigious recall, makes the following observation:
... he verbalizes easily. Yet David doesn't really know how to talk to you. Either he butts in and speaks for ten minutes straight--intense and blind and using phrases like "Of course, ultimately," "complex awareness," "in fact in my opinion." Or he doesn't come back to you at all, just gives you "um-hum, um-hum" after each of your sentences and sometimes in the middle.
There is, indeed, a Wallace-colored thread binding together the characters and voices that comprise A Smuggler's Bible, and it is Hal's thirty-years-prior doppelgänger. David unites the key figures from various points in his existence first by assembling a slice-of-life biography in eight parts about a number of them -- some told from the person's perspective, some with him assuming the second-person voice to narrate the story of another, some expressed in a choir of commingling voices (which results in pages of unattributed text that is conveyed flawlessly, thanks to how distinctly McElroy draws all of his characters and shapes their voices in the context of their roles -- which I can only guess is a taste of the Women and Men to come), all assuming that he knows enough about them (and, with a total recall that alienates him from them, he actually does) to get into their heads well enough to speak for them. He then takes it one step further: Not content to let their voices join in such a passive manner as dictated by his pen alone, he creates a chain letter of sorts to force them all into awareness of each other, forcing each link in his epistolary string to acknowledge those before and after themselves with a letter of their own (and in one deliciously hateful character's case, some religious tracts).
David, for all of his laborious efforts in cataloging the memories of those who have unknowingly provided the fodder for his eight manuscripts, is, indeed, completely unsure of himself. While each of his eight ostensibly non-autobiographical stories blossom and influence each other in ways that I couldn't help but compare to the later works of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and also, of course, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the narratives wedged between each longer reflection reflect how David can't even find cohesion in his own mind. He speaks of himself in a wholly schizophrenic manner, almost violently chastising himself as a voice outside his primary consciousness for allowing his wife to look at his eight memoirs before he's even allowed himself to give them one last editorial perusal of approval -- he, in fact, seems to hate his wife when he speaks of her as this voice that exists separately from but still inside himself.
There are so many roads to take to self-discovery -- say, like half-faking amnesia to see what the get-well letters from others will reveal about the times you've spent together or being allowed otherwise off-limits peeks into acquaintances' and family members' honest impressions of you (though these letters will persistently, disappointingly, though perhaps unintentionally betray more about the writers and their concerns about the parts of their own existences that don't pertain to their relationship with you) or half-listening to everyone to whom you speak, knowing full well that you'll retain every word they speak and every non-verbal cue they issue regardless of how insincere or distracted or downright cold you appear to them.
Writing eight installments of memories ranging from one's own parents and wife to the single-voiced crescendo of a boardinghouse's tenants and staff may seem like an attempt to see the world from other pairs of eye but inserting oneself into each story to varying degrees of importance and purity of intention eventually becomes obvious as another tool of self-examination, proof that one can reach certainty of one's own existence by proving one's significance or prominence, however fleeting, in the Venn diagram of shared personal experience. Each narrative is, indeed, a different way of expressing uncertainty of others on a large-scale and how such doubt is mirrored on the smaller, intensely personal level. Can you trust your own past, both the one you've lived and the one you've inherited from your progenitors? Is the group opinion more valid than the individual's, bearing in mind that the group is objective but the individual knows the difference between how it looks and what it is? Is a person really two different people when you consider their supporting role in your life but their leading on in their own?
This book is one of the few times I read the introduction before diving headfirst into the novel proper, and it was enough to encourage me to continue with that trend. Or it may leave me woefully unfulfilled from the high expectations with which it has burdened me, as I landed on the TOC page already breathless with a cramp in my scrawling hand and having crammed miles of annotations choking the margins of the Roman-numeraled pages. This is the kind of book that encourages long-winded discussions about absolutely everything because it has that broad of a scope and that imperative of a message. This is what required reading for humanity looks like.(less)
Love Always did a lot of things well but it did a lot of things that annoyed me, too. And then sometimes it annoyed me because it did certain things t...moreLove Always did a lot of things well but it did a lot of things that annoyed me, too. And then sometimes it annoyed me because it did certain things too well, like perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of the 1980s. I bloody abhor the '80s, from its self-righteous excess to its synthesized music (which, blessedly, stayed far away from this novel) to its regrettable fashion choices to all of the other ways it was a reaction against the decade that preceded it, as is the nature of generational shifts, I suppose. But is it natural to feel such animosity toward the decade in which one was born but did not come of age? I've always felt that I was born way too late so I think the sense of having missed the things I most wanted to see feeds into the same grass-is-always-greener, contempt-breeding familiarity that I harbor toward my blandly homogenous adopted hometown: Perhaps being born in Wisconsin of the '80s but growing up in the Jersey of the '90s (while feeling like I should have been a transient child of the '60s) further warped the perspective of an individual who was probably already destined for some prodigious weirdness.
Anyway. I rescued this novel from the local library's sea of used books solely because it's set in Vermont. I had no idea that it was about a decade I have no desire to revisit (in hindsight, the cover's time-capulsey, stylized cover art should have been a clue), but I also didn't expect journalists and writers and magazine employees to be the vehicles moving the story along, which was a much more pleasant surprise. And I certainly wasn't familiar with Ann Beattie, who I now know to be a celebrated short-story writer. Having read one of her novels leads me to believe that I'd like her shorter works better, as her writing in novel form seemed a little too meandering and a little too bogged down by details, which I assume is an easy trap to fall into while looking for a way to beef up a text that would have been just fine at half the length.
This novel did feel more padded than fleshed-out; similarly, the myriad points of view offered by the voices comprising this yuppie Greek choir felt like several interconnected short stories with some of the connections being more intimate, more realized and more successfully rendered and resolved than others. The problem wasn't the dimensional, believable characters, nor was it the way that the overall weaving together of many stories felt like a bunch of short stories coalescing into one bigger picture. This deceptively carefree, quickly moving book even had a number of messages worth sending -- they just got lost in the frivolity of the times. Part of me feels that may have been a deliberate move on the writer's part, an attempt to convey that lives still shatter even in the most ebullient of eras, but it just didn't feel as well-executed as it could have been with just a little more restraint.
The characters themselves were, in fact, fully realized, with the least likable among them being at least sympathetic in their own self-pitying, desperately self-actualizing ways. An example: Maureen, the second-place-trophy wife of Hildon, one of the main characters and the founder of the magazine that ties so many characters together, is an odious little shrew serving only her own interests but the novel begins with her perspective (we see how she's planned a themed summer bash with meticulous dedication, an attentiveness that she feels her husband's employees do not deserve), which sets a tone that's immediately reversed as more characters are offered their chances at more flattering second impressions. Through her, we're offered a superficial introduction to many of the POV characters; she feels above them and we, too, feel a sense of sanctimonious superiority -- until the next chapter, when Maureen's self-declared arch nemesis (and, admittedly, nearly pitch-perfect foil), Lucy, Hildon's closest friend and presumed lover -- and the closest thing to a protagonist this novel has -- lets us take a peek into her head. Lucy is nursing a long-suffering sense of dejection over the lover who deserted her five years ago, more from a lack of closure than any real attachment to a guy we find out to be a pretty self-obsessed character in his own right, while trying to offer her teenage soap-opera star niece, Nicole, some of the normalcy, adult guidance and support she's not getting from her own mother, Lucy's sister Jane.
What ensues is a decidedly lighthearted frolic through some serious (and, eventually, unexpectedly tragic but enlightening) terrain, which, to me, sums up the '80s more flatteringly than I ever could. For all the issues I have with the decade of my origin, I get that it needed to be life-affirming through its desperate capriciousness, that the Cold War and rise of AIDS were only two of the ominous storm clouds hanging so heavily that the end of the world must have felt like a constant threat, a perpetual reminder that death is always just minutes away. One of the biggest successes of this book is that it emulates that need to celebrate every time a ray of light pokes through, however fleetingly, because there are no guarantees the sun will come out again. Every joyous moment existed between successfully dodging one bullet and hoping that luck will repeat itself when the next one comes, and Beattie is frightfully adept at conveying that frantic version of what it was like for anyone alive and kicking in the '80s to la la la la live for today.
The prevailing message I picked up from this is twofold: No one person is any one thing all the time. We are all as multifaceted as the story within this novel, with different voices jockeying for prominence and different circumstances necessitating any array of reactions. Knowing this, it is imperative to realize that we have no business assuming that we can ever truly know anyone because we are never privy to the day-to-day thoughts that propel a person down one path instead of the many others they could take to arrive at the end of the day, assuming they get there at all.(less)
Seriously, I can't put a star rating on this kind of madness.
So it's kind of like the movie Fanboys: A group of friends makes their way west with an a...moreSeriously, I can't put a star rating on this kind of madness.
So it's kind of like the movie Fanboys: A group of friends makes their way west with an altruistic but thoroughly nerdy goal. Only where Fanboys was about sneaking onto Skywalker Ranch so a terminally ill pal could watch the The Phantom Menace before dying, Shatnerquest begins with plans to rescue William Shatner from the apocalypse and is punctuated by the group's ongoing struggle to survive in the face of celestially wrought terrors and the heedless violence that a few bands of survivors always seem to embrace in every end-times scenario.
Which is to say that this tale's pit stop in Riverside, IA (the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk, obviously), still ends in chaos -- but of a much more dire, violent and cannibalistic sort.
The only other work of Jeff Burk's I've read is Cripple Wolf, which means I'm not terribly familiar with this story's more notorious predecessor, Shatnerquake. But I have seen an awful lot of Star Trek at this point, as well as plenty of cult classics and other mainstays of geekery: The gleeful mash-up of allusions to "Magic: The Gathering" tournaments, Star Wars, Back to the Future, comic stores, Kevin Smith flicks, the road trip as a movie genre, gamer culture, zombies, Daleks and tribbles were more than enough to delight my inner nerd.
Alas, much like Cripple Wolf, Burk's newest offering could have benefited from just one more round of careful editing. I can't turn my proofreading powers off even for lighter fare, so things like "in between" being rendered as one word, "Twitter" being capitalized inconsistently, "wares" being replaced by its homonym and at least one instance of an erroneous "and" supplanting "an" just pulled me out of the story and made me remember that I was reading this at work while wearing my Bitchy Grammarian hat.
But I know I'm a snob about certain things, just like I know that this is simply good, bizarro fun that shouldn't be taken too seriously, given the gratuitous bloodshed and things like a dude slicing his way out of horror-movie monster's belly. For all my hang-ups over flaws in the mechanics, the little bit of exposure that I've had to Burk's older stuff makes me feel pretty confident in saying that his writing seems to be on a steady upward trajectory: The action flows well, the narrative is mighty tight and even the excessive bits are comedic rather than tedious.
I find that the bizarro genre is at its best when there's some heart at the.... well, heart of the story, and Shatnerquest has it, surprisingly, in spades. Each of the main characters gets a chapter of back story (yes, even William Shatner, which explains how he turns into a rampaging giant stomping the ever-loving piss out of LaLa Land -- and you're goddamn right that Squishy the pleasantly plump cat's origins actually reduced me to tears) and the road-trip-story standards of friendship, a blossoming romance and the redemptive journey are all undercurrents driving and elements softening the more overtly wacky and downright savage elements of the plot.
And Shatnerquest does society a great service by answering the age-old question of who would win in the battle between Klingons and steampunks. Also: It's got zombie Borg. Motherfucking zombie Borg, guys.(less)
No longer confined to orbiting his parents and living for the freedom of a solitary walk, no longer living in thrall of adolescent hormones and grappl...moreNo longer confined to orbiting his parents and living for the freedom of a solitary walk, no longer living in thrall of adolescent hormones and grappling with the strange new worlds blossoming both within and without himself, The Guermantes Way finds our Narrator thrust ever forward into adulthood and the disappointing discovery that grown-ups rarely behave like adults, especially when the pride of ancestral inheritance is on the line and there are duplicitous societal niceties to abide by, while the utterly insignificance and inanity of it all are underscored to devastating though understated effect by the first real taste of loss that this age usually carries with it. This third volume of In Search of Lost Time captures the period when our window to early 20th-century Parisian society is finding his place in it, though, true to his nervous, writer persona, he seems content to observe (now with the emergence of a sly humor) rather than engage with these exalted figures whose human forms slowly pale in comparison to the larger-than-life names he has aggrandized in youth.
It is, I imagine, intentional that battlefield philosophy receives generous attention early in this volume, as everything that follows is revealed to rest upon a framework of military-caliber tactics, from love (or what passes as love within the confines of Proust's created world -- ye gods, do any of these characters know what a healthy relationship actually looks like?) to facing the Grim Reaper as he counts down the minutes to one's predestined departure from this mortal coil to the carefully plotted choreography of maintaining superficial acquaintances to simply navigating daily life among even second-rate society when each moment brings a new potential for detonating reputationally ruinous land mines. If my piecemeal knowledge of foreign-language pronunciations isn't too far off the mark, I'd go so far as to suggest that the first syllable of the titular name is tellingly reminiscent of the French word "guerre."
I am so grateful that the (still somewhat and charmingly naive) Narrator is beginning to see through the shiny veneer of the socialites with whom he spends so much time and is slowly discovering, through both his own astute observations and whatever decidedly reliable tidbits are churned out by the rumor mill, what dirty secrets are hidden just below the surface and who has a limitless number of faces he or she presents according to present company and circumstance -- not to mention the public knowledge that is simply not spoken of unless it's being rehashed in hushed voices. If these vast stretches of recounting one gathering after another weren't full of the Narrator's observations about who's lying to whom, marital fissures slowly widening right before the public's eye, the double-talk that flatters one while slandering another (or are simply backhanded compliments cruelly served to one unlucky individual) and other betrayals of the his unwillingness to swallow the facade presented at these salons, I would have been bored to tears, page after page of gorgeous language or not, because I just don't care about such petty triflings in real life. A moment of the Narrator's blunt honesty echoed my own sentiments while handing them back to me in a beautifully rewrapped package while also illustrating that he was just as bored as I was in danger of becoming if not for his wit, beautiful prose and keen insights making it all worth the effort:
I scarcely listened to those anecdotes, something like the ones M. de Norpois used to tell my father; they afforded no food for my preferred patterns of thought; and, besides, even had they possessed the elements they lacked, they would have needed to be of a highly exciting nature for my inner life to be aroused during those hours spent in society when I lived on the surface, my hair well groomed, my shirtfront starched--that is to say, hours in which I could feel nothing of what I personally regarded as pleasure.
He does offer such a poetic presentation of these long hours listening to others' witticisms grow stale with every retelling, of gossip masquerading as current events, of current events being reduced to small talk (thanks for the Dreyfus affair primer, V.!) that it was easy for me to forget that the Narrator just wants to lose himself in his hosts' collection of Elstirs (which he does with abandon when finally given the opportunity, like the awkward animal lover who spends most of a party in the corner drunk on liquid courage and cooing not to an attractive stranger but to the party-giver's cat -- not that I have any personal experience there), catch a play and maybe finally start tapping into the creative juices that just won't let the words flow smoothly from his mind to the page. Society is no place for a sensitive man with an artist's soul, as even the most celebrated wit at the salon will eventually turn him into a plaything or a vehicle of immortality, as great painters are demonstrably reduced to mundane portraiture that will only be nitpicked by unappreciative minds for failing to capture the subject's outer beauty and inner glow adequately enough to pacify an aging ego that is fighting the nullification of death with the frivolity of social escapades.
As a sobering reminder of such an inevitability, this volume also sees the loss of the Narrator's beloved grandmother (it's not really a spoiler if the book in question is nearly a century old, right?), whose stroke and rapid decline allow her one last gesture of undying love, as she suffers in valiant silence so as to not upset her family and amends her few voiced complaints to meaningless utterances should they be overheard, lest she further worry those she's about to leave behind. The visible wreckage gathering in the Narrator's mother as she watches her own mother's life ebb away is heartache set to words and makes for one of the most sorrowful sequences I've ever observed as a reader, but also serves as a testament to the humanity with which Proust animates his already estimable writing. The Narrator's own first taste of loss that runs deeper than simple interruption of a mother's nightly affections is the natural foil to the artificial high-society world he so often finds himself in, which emphasizes the skewed perspective of the latter and permanent void of the former.
It seems that a book about recapturing lost times through recollections of the past is bound to memorialize the dead as well as serve as the predictable offspring of a society that is so obsessed with itself that it gleefully, and often maliciously, recounts its own clever turns of phrase when it's not reliving a favorite adversary's shameful misstep. Because if that's not the epitome of living in a moment before it hurries into the fading past, what is?(less)
In the long-running tradition of so-bad-it's-good entertainment, 2003's The Room is a fairly recent but impressively groan-worthy addition. Its low-budget approach to visual effects, a script held together by non sequiturs and the wealth of glaring continuity errors make it either instantly derided or ironically charming, depending on the viewer's stomach for shoddy craftsmanship and clueless defiance of cinematic etiquette.
For the enviably/unfortunately uninitiated, The Room is yet another take on the love-triangle template, offering up one more tale of a fellow whose quietly mundane existence will be predictably turned upside down by the barely concealed affair between his fiancée and best friend, the latter played by Greg Sestero, who also served as the flick's line producer. What sets The Room apart is its enthusiastic departure from the conventions that make a movie watchable. The acting is uneven, as even the more talented cast members could only do so much with the ridiculous script and inept director. Dramatis personae inexplicably come and go with all the finesse of a drunken hippopotamus, and they cling to and then disregard their motives with similarly contrary abandon. The dialogue is wooden at best and hilariously incoherent at worst. Plot lines are introduced, run with and cast off without resolution. In short, this is the very stuff that cult followings are made to immortalize, and the audience participation that screenings both public and private invite help to reshape this train wreck into sublime chaos.
While this book heralds itself as being Sestero's life inside The Room, The Disaster Artist reads more as Sestero's attempt to make sense of both writer/producer/director/lead actor Tommy Wiseau, depicted as an independently wealthy manchild who houses more insecurities than does a comprehensive guide to mental maladies, and his self-funded, self-promoted and self-delusional labor of love. Sestero, with enough writing assistance from journalist Tom Bissell to warrant a co-authorship, explores the torturous trajectory of The Room from nascence to its opening night, as well as the strained but symbiotic friendship between Wiseau and Sestero. Sestero's own faltering forays into Hollywood are chronicled as a sort of apologetic explanation for why he stuck with a project he clearly expected to fizzle into obscurity and stuck by a man who gave him both a place to live and an opportunity for work in exchange for the mind-bogglingly creepy way that Wiseau leeched off Sestero--the more successful actor and infinitely more attractive and youthful of the two--as if Sestero's good looks and acting chops were things he could possess for himself via sheer proximity.
Much of the book is devoted to recounting Wiseau's especially memorable bouts of weirdness, jealousies and general inability to function as an adult: Goading Sestero into nearly abandoning him just to prove that he has the power to offend; producing a demo reel fashioned nearly blow-for-blow from a scene in one of Sestero's other movies; spectacularly failing to remember the very lines he wrote; subjecting the whole of The Room's creative team to his unnecessary and gratuitously filmed nudity; spending extravagantly on the film when he feels it's in the best interest of his vision but skimping on paychecks and other details he arbitrarily dismisses as minor.
To me, if not for a friend's firsthand assurance that Sestero is a genuinely likable guy who regards his accidental ascent to pseudo-fame with equal parts wry humor and gratitude, the book's tone--that of a young actor desperate to make it in L.A., whose naivete, curiosity and willingness to look beyond his vampiric guardian angel's downright hostile quirks all work together to cement an uneasy friendship that barely survives a disastrous attempt at living together--would be off-puttingly glib. Wiseau is painted as the perennial (though unintentional) sad clown who would be a tragic figure if not for his nigh unflappable hubris. But Sestero does, to his credit, try to soften his description of a man who has clearly suffered some obsessively guarded psychological setback that has seemingly forever grounded him in the defensive, combative mindset of a newly minted teenager. An example: All attempts to inject a hint of unscripted coherence in Wiseau's film are met with such disproportionate resistance and unfounded accusations that it's unsurprising the film went through several incarnations of its cast and crew; Sestero attempts to explain that, to the best of his understanding, Wiseau sees all attempts at changing his project for the better as mutinous trespasses, a threat to the tenuous authority he has purchased with his self-propelled picture. Even in the instances where Sestero seems inexplicably passive in his inability to assume control when Wiseau has lost all touch with reality, there is a strong undercurrent of desperately gleaned sympathy that keep his remembered interactions buoyantly surreal rather than needlessly cruel.
Still, the bulk of the book's humor is at Wiseau's expense, as it is impossible to read about his diva-sized antics, tantrums, paranoia and obstinate refusal to divulge personal details without cackling the nervous guffaws of tension-eroding disbelief because Wiseau's fiery outbursts are in no way proportional to their triggers. The Sunset Boulevard and Talented Mr. Ripley quotes that begin each chapter and, later, the copious nods to both films just may be the most perfect encapsulation of Wiseau within these pages. This is a man who is painted as sleepwalking through life, who literally cannot help how bizarre he is, who rewrites his own personal history as he sees beneficial.
The lingering effects of The Disaster Artist are an increased sense of respect for the hapless players at the mercy of Wiseau's deranged puppet master as well as a nagging suspicion that $6 million can't quite buy talent but it sure can stack the odds in one's favor if one is hellbent on crafting a blockbuster from incoherence and birthing a star from a woeful dearth of thespian proficiency, reality be damned.(less)