Before I knew that magical realism was a thing, I loved Tom Robbins. Before I fell hard for postmodernism, I fell for Tom Robbins. Before I had develoBefore I knew that magical realism was a thing, I loved Tom Robbins. Before I fell hard for postmodernism, I fell for Tom Robbins. Before I had developed a literary taste that I can be proud of, there was the beacon of hope for me that is Tom Robbins.
There aren’t many things I loved in high school that I still love now: Listening to the same Dashboard Confessional CD on infinite repeat, running to Livejournal to unselfconsciously document every oh-so-significant spike in my emotional temperature and wearing brightly colored tights under fishnet stockings are all things I’ve let slip into the past but Robbins has seen me through all the milestones and minutia of my teenage and twentysomething years.
Jitterbug Perfume was not my first foray into the weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird worlds that Robbins builds from the gossamer threads of imagination unbound (I'm actually not sure which one popped my Robbins cherry but I do know I first read this one during my last summer of college when I was a live-in nanny -- which was a surprisingly good summer for bibliomania, actually). It is, along with Skinny Legs and All, tied for the honor of being my favorite of his, and both novels are longtime mainstays of my desert-island reading list. So when my craving for Robbins got to be too demanding to be delayed any longer and the heady of perfume of spring was calling too loudly for the only companion novel that successfully captured the power of scent in words, I knew I could rely on this book to deliver everything I needed and more.
It is tempting (like, it is taking an inordinate amount of self-control to fight the impulse) to say something about how beets are the beating heart of this novel but that's only because I have a sick, unironic penchant for puns. Really, this is a story that spans 1,000 years (or about as long as I've been staring at the computer screen while waiting for this review to write itself C'MON BOOZE LUBRICATE MY THOUGHT PROCESS NOW) and connects Seattle to New Orleans to Paris to Bohemia of yore with the wafting of a fragrance. There's also a very loyal swarm of bees serving as the halo a modern-day Christ figure would wear and Pan comes and goes to prove that man creates and destroys gods with a fury and jealously no spiritual figurehead would ever dare to act on. And a fallen king who proves that love can last more than a lifetime and winds up behind bars in the process (if that's not a metaphor for modern times, I don't know what is).
You know, I thought a little liquid creativity would help me here but it is just so damn hard to express how much and why I love this book and how excited I am that, almost eight years later, it is actually even better than I remembered. This is so much more than beautifully playful prose, a caution against taking oneself too seriously lest you forget to stop and smell the beet pollen, more inventively evocative metaphors than a whole hockey team could shake some really long sticks at -- just to mention a few of the things that established my seemingly eternal entrenchment in the Tom Robbins fan club so many years ago. That's not to say that I wasn't thoroughly tickled by those elements this time around but the more subtle aspects of the storytelling were what really got to me during this most recent reading.
This book is a little disarming because it addresses so many issues, Big Ticket and otherwise -- life, death, love, immortality and the conflicted yearning for it, what happens on the other side of death, the individual vs. societal norms, the search for perfection, scientific pursuits, religion (and the lack thereof) -- in such a lighthearted, unexpectedly connected way that its moments of seriousness pack a brutal but enlightening punch. A character who triumphs over death for a good millennium is bound to lose more than he gains in his willful longevity, and his moments of introspective contemplation are a little hard to watch unfold, especially as some of the other characters are revealed to be carrying around the kind of sadnesses that compel them to keep moving; I can now appreciate that there is a definite Pynchonian element of contrasting goofiness of the highest order against some truly sobering sorrows to maximize the impact of each emotional extreme.
I was a little worried that, like so many things I've outgrown, my love of Robbins's unique storytelling might now be a thing of the past tense. But he so intricately layers and pieces together so much in his books that there is plenty to notice for a first time (like how Jitterbug Perfume really does follow the format of a hero's journey, complete with help of and hindrances from mythical beings, a never-say-die determination to reach the finish line, the occasional occurrence of wine-dark liquids, and even a visit from a cyclops) and even more to rediscover anew. ...more
I purchased "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" on a whim from my college bookstore and then never cracked it open. It perched itself on various shelvI purchased "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" on a whim from my college bookstore and then never cracked it open. It perched itself on various shelves in a parade of rooms, patiently waiting to hit me over the head with its sympathetic characters and a personal relevance that I'm still not comfortable addressing in public forums.
Obviously, the part of my subconscious that runs the show when the more overt parts of me are too stupid to know elbows from assholes is what kept me waiting 'til now to acknowledge a book with which I've been sharing living space for more than five years. Because, sometimes, when a book crosses my path at the exact right time, it validates every overly romantic sentiment I have about literature and its necessity to the connection of human experiences....more
I came into The Year of Proustifarian Delights accompanied by a vague dread, worried that I was embarking upon a seven-book voyage of joyless obligatiI came into The Year of Proustifarian Delights accompanied by a vague dread, worried that I was embarking upon a seven-book voyage of joyless obligation that would ultimately prove I have too much dullard in me to chug along with anything other than the empty appearance of rapt literary euphoria. I feared that I'd be approaching these books like they were the kind of high-school required reading that sucks all the fun from the one pastime that's stuck with me ever since I learned how to unlock the English language's secret treasures more than two decades ago. Because one of my lifelong constants has also been unflagging self-doubt.
So imagine the flood of relief I felt when this book turned out to be the most pleasant surprise I've ever encountered in my literary travels.
By all rights, I should have hated this first volume of "In Search of Lost Time." I don't really have it in me to care that much about a precocious child's mommy issues. I am not at all interested in the trifling concerns of society-obsessed folk. And I absolutely want nothing to do with a bitterly hostile love affair, especially when it comes to watching its ugliness unfold from an insider's vantage point (seriously, Swann, what the everlasting fuck).
But here I stand on the other end of a book that brought me such needless apprehension, thoroughly enchanted by the magic Proust worked with "Swann's Way." His beautiful, seamless storytelling has proven that just about anything can make for a powerfully intoxicating reading experience when crafted by a master wordslinger. It's not just Proust's dazzling language that is the lone source of this novel's charms, though. That would be too easy. It's the ideas, the connections, the tangible humanity that proves our species' nature hasn't changed all that much in a century. That even with our nifty gadgets we're slaves to our lost pasts and need for love. That all anyone really wants is a little affirmation of our personal worth at the end of the day.
The emotions here are absolutely palpable. If I couldn't outright understand the rises and falls in a character's moods and luck, I sure could sympathize. Far from being banal, each moment of lowest woe and highest elation were the very stuff comprising the whole of the human experience. I wanted to reach across time (and, you know, the boundaries of fiction) to hug little Marcel when he was so thoroughly caught up in the tragedy of being denied his mother's nightly kiss just as much as I wanted to celebrate with Swann over the onset of a seemingly loving romance (before I wanted to kick him in the ass for mistaking obsession for affection, knowing from my own failed relationships how that unhealthy need for complete possession of another person ends).
The celebration of nature, music, food, books and human memory are all songs I know well. I found myself rereading passages not for a want of understanding but for the sheer joy of burrowing into some of the most achingly gorgeous prose I've ever had the joyful abandonment of losing myself in. Tell me more about thoroughly alien architecture! Describe in loving detail the perfumes and rainbow palate of spring to dull the pain of my American winter! Remind me that others have marveled over how a song that once embodied a love's rapturous early days can bring nothing but fresh heartache until the heart can distance itself from such pain to rediscover the melody's own merit as a living piece of art!
My only complaint? This book made me feel too much. Every stab of loss, every bad decision, every mawkish pity-party dragged me right along with the fictional person wallowing in such emotional dregs. It got exhausting.
Still. A round of hurrahs for the book that drove me to self-mastication and the discovery that, while I am sadly not as tasty as the teacakes of my shared appellation, this beautiful book sure is. ...more
Seven pages in, a passage that ostensibly illustrates the bond between M -- the titular smoking hybrid who's now safely mundane against the backdrop oSeven pages in, a passage that ostensibly illustrates the bond between M -- the titular smoking hybrid who's now safely mundane against the backdrop of the modern world -- and one of his friendlier coworkers actually betrays the lonely core of the Minotaur’s five-millennia-old being:
Cecie keeps telling him she’d like to take him home some night, husband or no. The Minotaur waits hopefully. Husband or no.
(Believe me: It’s brutally sad in context.)
Not to be outranked on the Don't You Want to Actively Seek out This Character so You Can Befriend and Hug Him? scale of heartstring-tugging insights into a traditionally antagonistic creature, a paragraph on the 100th page's recto side brings the dual, tormented nature of M’s existence into aching clarity with a tiny inkling of what it does to someone to live as a monstrous outsider for five thousand years:
The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.
Seriously. If that doesn’t make you want to give the poor guy a giant hug and a tender pat on the snout -- especially considering that such a revelation comes on the heels of a fleeting but significant physical interaction with the imperfect waitress M is crushing on hard -- then you have neither a soul nor a beating heart to speak of and I cannot, in good conscience, encourage further communication with you because you're probably a zombie. Not if you can read ....and puts her hand on top of his. And puts her hand on top of his. And puts her hand on top of his without the awed reverence of a beast unaccustomed to gentleness absolutely demolishing your stoic reserve and tear ducts. Though you’re probably a lost cause anyway if you made it past page 49’s confession that touch comes so infrequently to the Minotaur that when it happens, sincere or not, it nearly takes his breath away, blinds him momentarily to all rational thought and allegiance without your breath hitching and that little premonition of danger making you fiercely protective of M -- or maybe that’s just me identifying with fictional characters to an unhealthy extent again.
This (debut, nonetheless) novel does so many things well beyond its sympathetic rendering of a mythical abomination. At one point, M’s constitution is described as one of “gritty resignation,” which can also be said about the narration’s tone. M is never pathetic or hopeless, traits one might expect from so tragic and long a fall (fortunately, his Labyrinth days are mostly hazy half-dreams; even M’s primal defenses are blunted by a self-control he’s exerting after eons of learning that both “possessing a capacity for evil unmatched” and “his own potential for tiny rages” can lead to the kind of dire consequences he no longer welcomes). He’s scared and nervous an awful lot, but mostly in regard to the damage he can unintentionally cause other people and the embarrassment he can bring upon himself, and has a downright endearing habit of bovinely poking at the ground with his very human foot when he isn’t sure of what else to do, but he soldiers on with a hard-won, Zen-like “state of indifference, sometimes blessed, sometimes cursed” that is completely expected from someone who has been everywhere once and who has passively watched the ultimately inconsequential rise and fall of countless civilizations.
I feel so strange saying that I loved this book because there were so many moments that killed me with their undercurrents of sadness. For every instance detailing M’s private and painstaking maintenance ritual (being half-bull, after all, creates skin problems and requires frequent horn grooming), it was the self-sufficient singularity of it that got me the most. He reacts to the smallest kindness with a touchingly disproportionate relief and gratitude. His bull’s mouth is not made for human words, so verbal communication is an onerous task: His economy of language and the obvious embarrassment he feels when attempting to speak make his few non-grunted utterances poignant, not piteous (there's an exchange with M and his boss that crescendos with M's submissive, disbelieving "Not fired?" and, I swear, those paired words have never sung with such emotional resonance before). And his heady desire for the mere ability to sing into the warm nights as he drives his lovingly maintained jalopy screams of a being who may be no longer trapped in a Grecian maze against his will but confines himself to his inner world, as rich as any terminal introvert's mental plane, because he knows he never had and never will enjoy a real place in what’s going on around him.
Even M’s bullish half is capable of empathy and despair. He certainly recognizes the cannibalistic nature of becoming his employer’s new beef carver and his emotional reaction to a televised bullfight – one of the few times he deigns to use the contraption, as ancient M “feels hostile toward most things electronic.... There is a threat in the very existence of such minute and exact circuitry that touches something primal in the Minotaur” – is terrible to consider in its personal relevance.
As sympathetically as M is painted within these 300-some pages, it is nearly impossible to suspend one's disbelief to allow the sexual encounters between a woman and a man-bull to be effortlessly romantic. As loudly and over-earnestly as I was rooting for the Minotaur to get some, the novel would have hit a mortally insincere snag had M gotten his rocks off without a hitch (and a few suspicions about his partner's stability). Just like the few unprovoked, unwelcome confrontations and scuffles M finds himself in by virtue of being "a freak," it was absolutely crucial to the integrity of the narrative for M's lone love scene in this book to come with some ugliness.
Because as much as you wanna take M's hand in yours for a little while to assure him that there are more than just a scant few decent people out there, the book straight-up questions what the hell an attractive, mentally sound woman would find arousing in such an unusual partner; also true to the gist of the story, however, there is a well-intentioned and genuine sense of companionship at the heart of a seemingly deviant behavior: What would compel a woman to kiss a man with the head of a bull? Pity? Curiosity? Genuine attraction? Maybe [she] recognizes the freakish parts of her own self and is drawn to the Minotaur through that alliance. Most likely it is a fluctuating merger of all these things that move her.
Quite simply, I love this book and can't wait to read it again. I love what it had to say about people by way of a thoroughly nontraditional (but also undeniably human) protagonist. I loved M himself with such unrestrained empathy that he might be my new favorite fictional character. I loved the casual metaphors, the easy allusions, the subtle themes. I loved its warmth. And I really loved how it was a perfect storm of things that reminded me of how much I love getting lost and immersed in damn fine storytelling propelling a damn fine tale.
Guys, seriously. Read this book. Read this book now....more
Hubs and I have a tradition of getting inked to celebrate the major milestones of our marriage. We are tragically overdue for our done-bought-a-houseHubs and I have a tradition of getting inked to celebrate the major milestones of our marriage. We are tragically overdue for our done-bought-a-house tats, which have less to do with buying our first home and are, instead, tributes to our literary heroes: HST for him, a whole mess of influential wordslingers for me, including the venerable Richard Python because, in a year that has been overflowing with some really great books and has (re)introduced me to some brilliant writers, it's my ever-growing affinity for T. Ruggs that stands out as 2012's most enjoyable development. My intended fleshy nod to Pynchon was lifted directly from this novella (I figured an otherwise unmarked book with a muted-horn bookmark would be an appropriately obscure enough tip of the hat) -- more than reason enough to revisit the book that started it all so many years ago, right?
I loved this when I first read it, though I realize that I didn't fully appreciate its myriad little treasures until now. What dazzled me on the brink of post-college life -- the word play, the deft navigation of a tricky plot, the delightfully symbolic and outright goofy names -- were just superficial (but still mighty rad) delights. Having a better understanding of the wonderful things that happen when Pynchon's at the helm made this nothing short of a densely packed little gift that just keeps on giving.
It's not a Pynchon novel without it also being an engineering lesson, a history class, a science experiment, a physics overview and a crash course in pop culture, all told in ten-dollar words. It had me researching the histories of both the U.S. postal service and philately (which I didn't even know was a word until this book forced me to look it up -- it's the study of stamp collecting), additional resources regarding Maxwell's Demon (though Pynchon laid it out pretty well), WWII tragedies masked as collateral damage, the effectiveness of LSD as therapy (thanks for laying that groundwork, Mister Huxley!) and God knows what else, which all prove my next point: It's also not a Pynchon novel without necessitating the consultation of at least three secondary sources and the whole damn internet. I learn more about a scattershot sampling of specialized subjects reading Pynchon than I do from any other life experience because the man crams three times as much story into his books than the page count suggests. I am just batshit over how even his meatiest tomes are deceptively short compared to the wealth of information they contain.
"The Courier's Tragedy" stood out so much more this time. Masterful imabic pentameter and a story-within-a-story that hasn't been this well executed since Shakespeare set the bar for such things at dizzying and humbling heights? Yeah, this book is proof that Pynchon rushes in where only The Bard dares to tread. ...more
I am so torn over this book! But I figure that being this conflicted between ratings probably means that I should err on the side of the fewer stars.I am so torn over this book! But I figure that being this conflicted between ratings probably means that I should err on the side of the fewer stars. Still: My kingdom for a half-star option!
There are lots of things I liked. Eiji, the main character, remains likable even as he's shuttled between hell and back, like, five thousand times in 400 pages and disappointed by nearly everyone who matters to him. There's a chance that his blossoming relationship with Ai contributed to my increasing fondness for him but I'm okay with that because their last exchange of the novel was so believably reminiscent of what it's like to be 20 and falling hard for someone you don't quite know. I liked the dreamy, Murakami flavor, especially after finding out that Mitchell counts him among his influences (according to the internet, which I totally trust all the time). I liked the David Mitchellness and how minute details wind up mattering very much, though I think his hallmarks are far less defined here in his sophomore effort than they are even in his debut novel. References to "The Man in the High Castle," "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" and some music for which Eiji and I share an affinity were all tasty bonuses -- what can I say? I've got a mile-wide soft spot for fictional characters who have the same tastes as I do.
But there were also things I wasn't so crazy about in this book. It felt a little disorganized, which, intentional or not, didn't sit perfectly well with me. Some characters and a few scenes hogged a few too many pages: Had I found Eiji a little less interesting, the many detailed accounts of his odd jobs would have been downright tedious. And, okay, fine: The ending was a little too abrupt for me to be satisfied with it. Though I suppose having my way would mean that every book I ever read is at least 100 pages longer than the author intended.
Ultimately, this book suffers as "Player Piano" did, in that I'm cherry-picking my way through a writer's back catalog instead of chronologically working my way to the newer stuff: When I was planning this winding-down tour of my literary favorites' unread offerings, I actively chose "Number9dream" over "Thousand Autumns" in anticipation of that very reason. The lingering, negligible sense of dissatisfaction this book left me with is very much appeased by knowing that my sole remaining to-read Mitchell book is his most recent piece. ...more
I don’t usually finish a book and start a review in the same breath. But I also don’t usually allow myself to read more than one of an author’s worksI don’t usually finish a book and start a review in the same breath. But I also don’t usually allow myself to read more than one of an author’s works within a calendar year (many books, little time, etc. -- though of course Stephen King would be this year’s other exception because the Tower, all things yield to it): T. Ruggs, you magnificant bastard, I hope you know how many personal rules I’m violating because you’re the first time since auspiciously picking up my first collection of Bukowski poems that I’ve been able to add a This Writer Changed My Life For Always notch to my literary bedpost. Reading “Vineland” confirmed what “Gravity’s Rainbow” left me suspecting: I bloody love Thomas Pynchon. Rilly.
Finishing “Gravity’s Rainbow” left me with an almost obscene urge to help myself to another serving of Pynchon, which is an urge I’ve been fighting for months now. I finally caved, intending to take on “V” but settling for “Vineland” because part of the joy of Pynchon is the inherent madness, and I just can’t handle another meaty tome yet (the latter weighs in at a few pages shy of 400; the former.... uh, does most assuredly not). And because I haven’t talked about GR enough, I am still a little battered from that experience (my opinion on bananas might be forever changed, too). I needed something a little less daunting first. Enter: “Vineland.”
This book was so good. Now being able to pinpoint a Pynchonian pattern – a few: musical outbursts, sleuthing plots, oddball character names, stunning tangents that really aren’t that tangential after all, a natural vocabulary only found in the most ruthless of Scrabble opponents – helped me identify what I adore most about Pynchon’s prose. It’s his ability to concoct some of the most overtly zany scenes in literature, to confront the reader with these in-your-face storms of hilarity for the sake of maximizing the subtle tragedies he gently lets the story consider, leaving the reader to marinate in sadness. It’s an effect that would be any mixture of sloppy, condescending, formulaic or tedious if attempted by anyone else but Pynchon makes it work. The real success is that his characters who need be sympathetic are so when someone realizes that her best days are behind her or comes to the dawning realization that he’s being used by an entire government or has an ugly epiphany about the mother she never knew, it is the most heartbreaking scene in the world.
As for the effort involved in decoding the obscure references that are sprinkled throughout Pynchon’s books as liberally as the Bacon Bits on any salad worth eating, I was deeply grateful that T. Ruggs's novel begins the same year as I did, which meant I caught waywayWAAAAY more cultural allusions this time. The narrative flows better when I’m not running to a secondary source every three lines and I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy this book less haltingly, which isn't to say that I didn't need to have a few reference materials handy. There were enough hazy hippie memories to keep me on my toes, though I caught a number of those as often as I had a flutter of joyful recognition every time The Doors or Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or some other People's Republic of Rock and Roll favorite got a shout-out.
I feel a reread of "The Crying of Lot 49" and maybe "Inherent Vice" in my future. Color me fucking amped....more
It's been easily more than five years since I read this and all I remember is an overall "meh" impression of a story that required too much willpowerIt's been easily more than five years since I read this and all I remember is an overall "meh" impression of a story that required too much willpower to finish. ...more
I first tried to hack through this madness as a high school senior and just couldn't get very far. Ten years later, having done far more drugs and armI first tried to hack through this madness as a high school senior and just couldn't get very far. Ten years later, having done far more drugs and armed with a much greater appreciation for a... well, novel approach to a novel, I'd like to try this again. Eventually....more
Based on the opinions of people with excellent taste in books, I knew I was in for something good when I grabbed Pastoralia from the shelf the other dBased on the opinions of people with excellent taste in books, I knew I was in for something good when I grabbed Pastoralia from the shelf the other day. I didn't know what to expect beyond that but it sure wasn't the sardonic giggles this collection gave me. Does everyone find their first foray into Saunders's mind this darkly endearing? 'Cause.... lemme tell you, you all led me somewhere I can't wait to revisit.
There is something off about the worlds Saunders creates. Not off-the-charts unbelievably weird (view spoiler)[(yeah, he makes the reanimated, telekinetic and downright draconian corpse of a once-beloved aunt seem like a thing that could totally happen because he's that good and, as a character observed, maybe it does happen all the time but who would believe it so why bother with the crazy-talk and risk everyone thinking that you've finally gone 'round the bend?) (hide spoiler)] but there's this vertiginous element to them that makes being jarred from such a mercilessly absorbing reading experience by, say, the unwelcome intrusion of your job (whyyyyyyy do you people keep assuming I'm here to proofread your ineptitude when I'm so clearly lost in something that is infinitely more rewarding than your refusals to grasp the nuances of proper comma usage and pica distances WHYYYY?) a little disorienting upon reentry. I encountered a thing that doesn't happen often enough while reading this short-story collection: I forgot I was reading because I was so engrossed in the tales Saunders was weaving. Picturing the story that was taking shape right in front of me was equal parts riveting and really quite disturbing. Kind of like the clown car on fire that you'll snap photos of as you pass the gruesome scene but fuck no you're not stopping to help because it's a car full of clowns and everyone knows that clowns are evil but then the sadness of the whole thing hits you when you post the picture (along with an appropriately glib comment) on Twitter later but you're still snickering about the image for days.
And then there is something distinctly, deliciously Vonnegut-flavored here, too, but Saunders even makes that all his own. While Vonnegut's humor seemed like that of a cranky but avuncular relative whose lessons seem harsh at the time but are driven by an overriding love and a desire to emphasize the necessity of self-improvement, who softens the blow of reality with a satirical wit, Saunders seems more interested in pointing out the flaws so they can be turned into a long-running joke that derives its comedy from the dichotomy between a thing's inherent potential for dark humor and the deadpan subtlety in observing it from such an angle. It's realizing the hopelessness of a situation and having a good laugh at its expense because, otherwise, the void wins and everything is rendered too meaningless to face just one more insignificant day.
Pastoralia, ultimately, is a collection of stories that proves if you're taking life too seriously, you're doing it all wrong. Tragedy is just comedy that tests your resolve to arrive at the punchline. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more