Even though I laughed out loud several times while reading this novel, Shteyngart's first, it is a painfully long satirical romp that could not sustaiEven though I laughed out loud several times while reading this novel, Shteyngart's first, it is a painfully long satirical romp that could not sustain its sardonic wit over the course of its whopping 500 pages. The irony begins with the title, which has nothing to do with a sexy and stylish young immigrant as the cover art would suggest but rather a nerdy Russian-born Jewish American whose self-deprecating demeanor and loose scruples hardly provide for a compelling protagonist; in fact much of Vladimir's antics border on the offensive, including his numerous acts of adultery, cheating on the likes of live-in girlfriend and full-time dominatrix Challah, wealthy socialite Francesca and her uber-liberal parents, and Midwestern girl-next-door turned terrorist Morgan. Perhaps his struggles with understanding the trappings of heterosexual romance stem from an early determination that "a man and a woman can claim to love one another, they may even rent real estate in Brooklyn as a sign of their love, but when they take time out of a busy day to walk through the air-conditioned aisles of a drug mart to pick out a nail clipper together, well, this is the kind of relationship that will perpetuate itself if only through its banality." In spite of these amusingly awkward thoughts on the subject, he is strangely successful in attracting the opposite sex, albeit usually women with questionable pathology, which makes it all the worse when he so quickly self-destructs these liaisons.
Similarly, his homophobic reaction to an indecent proposal from a closeted drug czar and his subsequent attempts to evade said suitor in which he dupes a psychotic Russian immigrant and starts a ridiculously successful expatriate pyramid scheme in Eastern Europe provoke further feelings of ambivalence for the subject matter. These situations all provide the perfect setups for some hilarious punchlines, but lack sufficient character development to create a truly engaging overall narrative. Along the way he learns the inherent truth in the "useful axiom: it is far better to be patronized than to be ignored" and his father relates to him that "ultimately...making compromises may be a necessity, but it's the constant weighing and reweighing of these compromises that becomes an illness." Little pearls of wisdom like this, each slightly twisted with a wry smile, are peppered throughout the text in a strained effort to amuse.
The entire work reads like The Corrections meets The Namesake as Shteyngart captures the mocking tone of Franzen early twenty-first century work and Lahiri's immigrant-in-search-of-identity sensibility, the combination illustrated in the omniscient narrator's initial assertion that at the end of his journey, "he would have reached, all by himself, the final destination of every immigrant's journey: a better home in which to be unhappy."
This all is perhaps simply due to my particular tastes when it comes to satire: I like it short and sweet. I am the type of person that relishes Yossarian's plight in Catch-22 but wishes that Heller has stopped at 200 pages. (I adore Voltaire's Candide for example.) Shteyngart has a terrific wit, one that I look forward to experiencing in his well-reviewed Super Sad True Love Story, but one that becomes overly politicized and far too personal in this first novel for my liking....more
I picked this up as the 2010 winner of the Man Booker prize, as I've enjoyed several of the past winners and finalists. I found myself initially troubI picked this up as the 2010 winner of the Man Booker prize, as I've enjoyed several of the past winners and finalists. I found myself initially troubled by the utterly British tone of the novel and its somewhat esoteric irony and humor, but I soon fell into a reading groove that felt right for the piece. I was able to then enjoy the novel enough to get through it, although I never fell in love with it and actually looked forward to much more than finishing it and moving on to something else.
The novel focuses on three men: Libor, a Jewish widower looking for a reason to continue living after the loss of the woman to whom he was incredibly faithful in spite of opportunities to cavort with some of Hollywood's most beautiful leading ladies; Finkler, another Jewish widower facing a midlife crisis of sorts brought about by the restructuring of his immediate family as a result of the early death of his wife (to whom his infidelity provides a clear foil to Libor's goodness) and his prominence as an egomaniacal pseudo-celebrity; and Treslove, the novel's central figure who questions his own faith after he is mugged on the streets of London and attempts to reinvent himself as a Jew like his two best friends. The novel's "question" arises from Treslove's foolish moniker for all Jews as "Finklers" as his friend with the name was his childhood introduction to the culture.
At times these three characters' redefinition of self is amusing and insightful while at other times I found it trite and annoying. Not a horrible read in the end, but certainly not something that I would recommend heartily to friends....more
As a big fan of Life of Pi, I was anxious to read Beatrice and Virgil. I read it shortly after its publication, and tried to avoid many reviews, onlyAs a big fan of Life of Pi, I was anxious to read Beatrice and Virgil. I read it shortly after its publication, and tried to avoid many reviews, only barely glancing at one or two. Halfway through the book, I started reading a short interview with Yann Martel on Goodreads, but when he started revealing elements of the plot that I hadn't encountered yet, I stopped. In the end, I was glad to not know much about this book, so I'll try to not mention too much about plot.
The book is an incredibly fast read (much like Life of Pi once Pi gets on the boat), thanks in large part to intriguing excerpts from a fictional draft of a Waiting for Godot-esque play in which the titular characters, a donkey and a howler monkey, allegorically discuss their alternate world. In the end, the story effectively comes full circle, commenting on some of the major events that impact postmodern literature and doing so in a unique fashion....more
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a more sophisticated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time sprinkled with a dash of A HeartbreakingExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a more sophisticated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time sprinkled with a dash of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Part postmodern fairy tale and part bildungsroman, the story follows Oskar Schell, a pre-adolescent on the autism spectrum grappling with the death of his father who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Oskar unwittingly stumbles upon a mystery that sets him on a path to discovering the pathology of father-son relationships, the difficulties of marriage, the power of communication, and the altered realities of living in a post 9/11 world.
I absolutely loved this book. I found Oskar an endearingly quirky character, and I relished reading his wonderful narrator’s voice. The story takes some unexpected and fantastic turns that I would be far less forgiving of were it not for Foer’s substantial talents in creating an intricate story that really speaks to contemporary American society. I won’t get in to too much more because I don’t want to spoil it for people who have yet to read it! Just go read it!...more
I am such a sucker for maudlin endings. The last few books I've read, I've just slogged through them, suffering through mediocrity, but when I reach tI am such a sucker for maudlin endings. The last few books I've read, I've just slogged through them, suffering through mediocrity, but when I reach those final moments in the text, my eyes fill with tears and I'm so unhappy that the journey is over. That's exactly what happened with People of the Book. After reading March, I instantly became a fan of Geraldine Brooks, so I was excited to read another of her novels. Her effort here is intriguing and valiant: her protagonist Hanna is an Australian academic specializing in the preservation of ancient books. She is called to Sarajevo following the discovery a five hundred year old haggadah. Her initial examination of the book uncovers some foreign elements: a white hair, a wine stain, and a feather to name a few. These pieces then serve as the focal points for alternating chapters in which Brooks telescopes into the book's history. The effect isn't quite as interesting as it sounds. I found myself more and more wrapped up in Hanna's story of uncovering the history of the codex. However, she never gathers the firsthand information I learned in the alternate historical chapters, so I found myself grasping for purpose in these unique perspectives. Without that link between the two juxtaposed elements of the book, I simply longed for more, albeit the concluding chapter did elicit quite an emotional reaction and a sadness for the finality of it all....more
It's rare that a book gets me to cry so unabashedly, the type of crying I usually reserve for melodramatic films and other visual media that move me sIt's rare that a book gets me to cry so unabashedly, the type of crying I usually reserve for melodramatic films and other visual media that move me so easily. This novel got me though. As I read the final chapter and the epilogue, the tears just poured out. True, it's the story of World War II Germany, and it focuses on a family of sympathizers working against Hitler's anti-Jewish regime--that is certainly a recipe for melodrama on the part of the author and emotional outpouring on the part of the reader. However, Zusak executes his narrative with some brilliant choices that help this book move beyond that typically Holocaust stories we've all seen and read in the past, most notably choosing Death and a narrator.
At first, I felt disconnected from the story because of that unique choice. Death has some terrific insights about human kind in the story, but reading about foster child Liesel Meminger through his mythic eyes and voice initially kept me from truly empathizing with Liesel and her new family. However, as the story progressed, I found myself more and more moved by the narrator's empathy for Liesel than my own. When Death is so touched by a young girl's story, how can I not be?
As I understand it, the book only garnered the "young adult" moniker when it was published in America (Zusak is Australian). The narration is deceptively simple, and the protagonist is young girl on the verge of adolescence. It is interesting that these qualities earned it a new classification in the United States. While I'm sure it's totally accessible to young adults (many of my sophomore students have read it), the beauty of the language and the finality of the story is quite sophisticated. For example near the end, Death reveals the finality of the characters' lives long before they actually occur in the chronology of the story. The significance of such postmodern elements might be easy to skim over for the less adept reader, but such choices actually reveal the insignificance of death (not capitalized, although I suppose the capital version would work here too) in the face of such bravery and courage as these characters display....more
I am so totally conflicted about my experiences with this book. It was one of those books where I picked it up knowing NOTHING about it. Let me say, tI am so totally conflicted about my experiences with this book. It was one of those books where I picked it up knowing NOTHING about it. Let me say, that is not a smart way to read this book! Chabon's premise involves an alternative universe in which America set up a refugee settlement in Alaska for Jews during World War II is laden with its own complex mythology that intertwines with actual historical events. As I started reading this book, I will admit I kept asking myself, "How did I not know about this huge Jewish metropolis in Alaska?!" When I got about a third of the way through the book and read about the atomic bomb being dropped on Berlin during the war, I did realize that Chabon was making some stuff up. And I have to further admit that I decided to go to Wikipedia to read a little to discover that major elements of the novel's setting are fabricated. This experience is exactly why I gave the book three stars rather than four. I think if I had known ahead of time about Chabon's imagination running wild, I would have enjoyed it more. (There's even a glossary in the back of the book because he employs lots of Hebrew/Yiddish words, including some commercialized brand names based on such, like "Shoyfer," which is what the characters use to refer to cell phones throughout the text...again I didn't realize that until nearly halfway through the book!)
Of course this isn't a typical alternate universe sci-fi kind of book. Chabon's characters are very similar to his other novels (I feel like Landsman, the protagonist in this book, and Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys are too much alike actually), and the plot, although intricate, is centered on an interesting murder plotline that ends up leading Landmsan to uncovering this huge government conspiracy, a conspiracy that is really fantastic because it's NOT presented as the type one might see on any given season of 24, even though it is exactly the same type of storyline in the end.
If time were limitless, I would probably pick this up to read it again down the road, but since I buy three books for every one I finish, that doesn't seem likely. I'm glad I read it, but I'm equally glad it's over!...more