A while ago I read and enjoyed a collection of essays on fiction by Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House, so when the publisher offered me a copy ofA while ago I read and enjoyed a collection of essays on fiction by Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House, so when the publisher offered me a copy of his latest collection of short stories, Gryphon, I was happy to say yes. I don’t remember a whole lot about the essay collection, except that Baxter argued against the kind of short story that ends in an epiphany where the main character learns a lesson or changes dramatically. He wanted stories that were more true to life and to the way things actually happen to real people. The stories in Gryphon are good examples of what Baxter was calling for; they are quiet stories about people you or I might know who are in familiar situations and go through recognizable experiences. The characters experience change, and perhaps they learn something, if only because something new has happened to them, but the changes are small. The stories capture a quiet kind of reality, which is matched by Baxter’s calmly straightforward, carefully detailed writing.
Very, very interesting. Not at all a traditional mystery, and most of the way through it, I thought it wasn't a mystery at all. It is by the end, butVery, very interesting. Not at all a traditional mystery, and most of the way through it, I thought it wasn't a mystery at all. It is by the end, but that's not really the point. It's mostly interested in psychology and the extent to which we can know anything at all about other people....more
I listened to Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep a couple years ago, and didn’t like it much; I didn’t believe in the characters or the plot, and thereforI listened to Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep a couple years ago, and didn’t like it much; I didn’t believe in the characters or the plot, and therefore the whole thing got irritating. I’m glad I gave Jennifer Egan another chance, though, because I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad. This time, I believed in both the characters and plot, and I loved the book’s structure and its narrative energy. It’s one of those books that both tells a good story and leaves you feeling like you understand the world just a bit better.
The story is fairly complicated, not because it has a complex plot, but because it tells the stories of a lot of different people. We start with one of the main characters, Sasha, in a therapy session where she discusses her habit of stealing things, and then the next chapter introduces us to Bennie, a music industry executive who is visiting a band to see if his company should still represent them. Sasha is Bennie’s assistant and has been for many years. At one point, Bennie makes a pass at Sasha, but she wisely turns him down, and their relationship stays close in the way you can be close to someone you work with without really knowing much about that person at all.
I think Scarlett Thomas’s novel PopCo is deeply flawed, but I enjoyed it greatly nonetheless. I think it’s perfectly possible for that to be the case;I think Scarlett Thomas’s novel PopCo is deeply flawed, but I enjoyed it greatly nonetheless. I think it’s perfectly possible for that to be the case; while I occasionally shook my head at the book’s awkwardness, I stayed interested and engaged the whole time and found the ideas it takes up fascinating. Hobgoblin has told me many times how much he liked Thomas’s most recent novel Our Tragic Universe, and I’m looking forward to reading that one too.
Some of the awkwardness of PopCo is the kind of awkwardness that appeals to me: it spends too much time explaining too many things, it’s obsessed with ideas and technical details at the expense of narrative momentum, and it takes its sweet time getting the plot going. It lurches back and forth between background information and mini-lectures on the one hand and present action on the other.
But, fortunately for me, I found the background information and the mini-lectures interesting. They are about a lot of things, but chiefly about math, codes, and code-breaking. The main character is a youngish woman, Alice, who works for the company PopCo, which makes games and toys for children and teenagers. Alice’s job is to make kits for children on spying, detective work, and code-breaking. She has learned all about codes from her cryptanalyst grandfather, and she has a good grasp of math, gained from her mathematician grandmother. Codes aren’t purely cerebral puzzles for Alice, though; her grandfather gave her a necklace when she was young that contains a code her grandparents expect that will she one day crack.
It’s been a while since I finished Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Too Loud a Solitude, but I want to write something about it because it was such an odd, wondIt’s been a while since I finished Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Too Loud a Solitude, but I want to write something about it because it was such an odd, wonderful little book (98 pages). It took me a while to warm up to it, actually; I wasn’t in the mood for something as spare and quirky as this book is, but it ended up winning me over.
It’s about a man, Hanta, who lives in Prague and works as a trash compactor, specifically a wastepaper compactor, and he rescues books from the trash to take home and read. He has towering stacks of books at home, and he sleeps in fear that they will fall and crush him. His education has been reading these books, and what an education it’s been: he finds all kinds of wonderful things, books by Seneca, Kant, Erasmus, Goethe, and Nietzsche, reproductions of Van Gogh and Gauguin paintings, and lots of other treasures.
Hanta is a quiet and isolated man; most of his time is spent at work, and he works overtime in order to make up for his slowness: he doesn’t hurry through his job, but instead takes his time to appreciate the books that come his way. He’s so absorbed in his work, in fact, that he dreams about retiring only to buy a paper crusher so he can do his work at home. He occasionally wanders the streets of Prague and he sometimes gets visitors, most often his boss who is forever furious at him for not working fast enough, but most of his time he spends in the dim, enclosed setting cooped up with his machine. Early on in his career, he would get upset when people threw away good books and was particularly furious over the destruction of the Royal Prussian Library after World War II, but as time goes on, he becomes resigned, or perhaps numb, to the destruction, and just does what he can to save as many books as possible.
I’m afraid I have another negative review to write, and in this case, it’s a book I couldn’t finish. I made it about 160 pages out of over 400 into CaI’m afraid I have another negative review to write, and in this case, it’s a book I couldn’t finish. I made it about 160 pages out of over 400 into Carlos Fuentes’s new novel Destiny and Desire (which I won from Goodreads) and decided to call it quits. I’m not one to abandon books often or easily, and I really wanted to finish this one, to see if the pace would ever pick up or if my interest would sharpen, but during the last ten or twenty pages, I was beginning to positively hate the book, so it was time to stop.
This is another case, like the novel The Illumination I wrote about yesterday, of not liking a book I’ve read only positive reviews of. The New York Times, for one, reviewed it glowingly last week. My problems with it, though, were multiple. Part of it is that the book struck me as very unfriendly toward women. It’s about two young men growing up in Mexico City, attending school, having intense philosophical debates, reading books together (that’s what I read about anyway — the plot was soon to take them in other directions), and all that’s fine, but their friendship as they grow up is more and more built on bonding through degrading women. The women characters were either sex objects or evil, nasty parents and guardians. I didn’t hold out much hope that this would change.
The other problem was that I did not enjoy the writing, which struck me as overblown and ponderous. There were a few too many passages like this one, which comes from the first page; it starts off fine with some nice images, but takes a turn for the worse:
The Pacific really is a tranquil ocean now, as white as a large basin of milk. The waves have warned it that earth is approaching. I try to measure the distance between two waves. Or is it time that separates them, not distance? Answering this question would solve my own mystery. The ocean is undrinkable, but it drinks us. Its softness is a thousand times greater than earth’s. But we hear only the echo, not the voice of the sea. If the sea were to shout, we would all be deaf. And if the sea were to stop, we would all be dead.
Okay, the last two lines are fine, too, but I don’t know how “answering this question would solve my own mystery.” It’s the kind of vague sentence that drives me nuts, and the book was full of similarly vague sentences. The novel is narrated by one of the two main characters, and he’s altogether too satisfied with himself to be enjoyable company.
The novel has an interesting conceit: the first-person narrator is actually dead — he’s a severed head washed up on the beach. We learn he is twenty-seven at his death, so the novel, as far as I can see, is supposed to tell the story of what led to such a gruesome end. I can see that this book is supposed to say something about Mexican society and politics, and I’m sure that if I could have gotten into the story, that would have been interesting. But it’s not for me to find out....more
A friend mentioned a while back that she enjoyed Molly Fox’s Birthday by Dierdre Madden, so I picked it up from the library and gave it a try myself aA friend mentioned a while back that she enjoyed Molly Fox’s Birthday by Dierdre Madden, so I picked it up from the library and gave it a try myself and found that I enjoyed it very much too. The novel has a structure that I like: it takes place over the course of one day, with frequent jumps back in time to describe scenes from the past. The title character, Molly Fox, doesn’t appear at all, except in a phone conversation. Instead, the novel is narrated by her friend, an unnamed woman who is a playwright. Molly is an actress, and the two met while preparing to stage a production of the narrator’s first play with Molly in the starring role. It’s a play that will make both their reputations and send them off into successful careers.
But all that happens far back in the novel’s past; in the present tense, the two women are a older (it’s Molly’s 40th birthday, or at least we presume so; she is secretive about her age, as she believes actresses need to be). The narrator is living temporarily in Molly’s house in Dublin while Molly is traveling, and she is trying to write her next play. Over the course of the day, she struggles with her writing, takes a walk into town, and unexpectedly meets an old friend for dinner. It seems like a quiet day on the outside, but all the drama is of the interior sort: the narrator spends her day thinking about her art and her friendships and also about how she and others have been shaped by their pasts.
The third main character is Andrew, the unexpected dinner guest, and a man the narrator has known since their university days when they used to take study breaks together. Andrew and Molly both have difficult relationships with their families. Andrew is passionately devoted to the arts but comes from a family indifferent to them, and his brother died a violent death at a young age. Molly’s mother abandoned her while Molly was still a child, and her brother has struggled with severe depression his entire life.
Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story is a harrowing, powerful read. I had trouble putting it down, even though it was thoroughly wrenching. I stJoyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story is a harrowing, powerful read. I had trouble putting it down, even though it was thoroughly wrenching. I started reading it on my iPhone (my copy courtesy of the publisher) and only after I’d been reading awhile did I figure out that it’s over 400 pages long; it turned out to be a very quick 400 pages, but still, I wondered how she would keep it up for that long. How could she write with such detail, such honesty, such emotion, how could she keep up that level of intensity and make the book readable at that length?
The book tells the story of the death of Oates’s husband, Raymond Smith, in February, 2008. It was a fairly quick final illness and death; he was fine one day, and the next in the hospital suffering from pneumonia. He died a few days later from an infection. Oates tells the story of the days in the hospital and then the days, weeks, and months afterward as she tries to survive and make sense of what happened. She is thoroughly distraught, full of anger and guilt, and she collects sleeping pills in case she decides to commit suicide. The thought of suicide is a comfort, an escape available if she needs it. She has friends who take care of her and help her through all the tasks a widow faces (the funeral, the will, etc.), but she feels only a shell of the person she once was. Her world is an entirely new, unrecognizable, horrible place.
She writes about all this in great detail, describing her thoughts and emotions each step of the way. It should get dull, but it doesn’t: there’s something riveting about her voice that kept me almost spellbound. There is a lot of repetition, which also should get dull, but doesn’t; she faces the same problems again and again — not wanting to be out with people but when she’s home alone not wanting to be there either, getting angry when people say insensitive things, feeling guilty for surviving her husband, thinking about and counting her sleeping pills — and each time it’s a fresh emotional hit, and I felt like I was right there with her.