It's sort of a mistake to characterize this as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, and genre fans may well be disappointed. In truth, it's more of a piec...moreIt's sort of a mistake to characterize this as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, and genre fans may well be disappointed. In truth, it's more of a piece with Denis Johnson's other work, a story of marginalized people struggling to survive with limited means, jazzed up with Johnson's typicall dazzling prose. There's not a whole lot of narrative to be found here, so you may not feel terribly engaged at first, but stick with it--by the time you finish the book, you'll feel a deep affection for these bedraggled, soulful characters and their strange quarantined community in the Florida Keys. My only major complaint is that the flashback sections detailing Grandmother Wright's experiences in Vietnam drag on forever, feeling unnecessarily long. Otherwise, an odd, lovely little book.(less)
Based on this collection of fantasy short stories, I would say Kelly Link's greatest strength lies in treating everyday realities with an off-kilter,...moreBased on this collection of fantasy short stories, I would say Kelly Link's greatest strength lies in treating everyday realities with an off-kilter, dreamlike point of view. At its best, this style is uniquely compelling, as in "The Hortlak" (in which non-threatening zombies occupy a parallel universe but occasionally cross into ours to wander through convenience stores) and "Stone Animals" (a riff on suburban family dysfunction stories, in which the family moves into a haunted house).
But I think Link's talent is still in chrysalis. There are too many half-formed ideas here, and despite the genre trappings, many of the stories float by in that undistinguished, undercooked New Yorker-y way. Kelly Link has a great collection ahead of her, but this isn't quite it.(less)
It's hard to describe Steven Millhauser's stories to those who haven't encountered them, so I'm not even gonna try. I will say that this book is divid...moreIt's hard to describe Steven Millhauser's stories to those who haven't encountered them, so I'm not even gonna try. I will say that this book is divided into three sections. The first and third sections are perfect, enchanting, Millhauser at his best; the middle section is lukewarm and undistinguished.
The first section is comprised solely of the novella-length story, "August Eschenberg." It's an immersive and fascinating piece, plunging the reader into an evocative 19th-century Germany, telling the story of a now-familiar Millhauser character type: the obsessive, brilliant, marginalized artist. This one's a maker of clockwork animated figures, and his story unfolds beautifully over sixty-odd pages. My only complaint is that it ends a bit abruptly, but that's not entirely inappropriate here.
The middle section is where things get murky. These three stories aren't bad, per se, they're just not very Millhauser-esque. They lack the evocative, sophisticated enchantment and magic that marks the author's best work. They're more like standard New Yorker short stories, nicely crafted but unsatisfying and inconsequential.
But things pick up again for the third section, which features three delightful enchantments that will seal the deal for new readers' love of Millhauser (or re-confirm it for established fans). This was Millhauser's first collection of short stories, and while he would go on to craft more consistent ones, the high points of IN THE PENNY ARCADE are as good as anything he's written.(less)
Intermittently hilarious, with long stretches of semi-boredom. No plot to speak of, so your enjoyment will depend on how much you like hanging out wit...moreIntermittently hilarious, with long stretches of semi-boredom. No plot to speak of, so your enjoyment will depend on how much you like hanging out with these severely eccentric characters. Ray Midge and Reo Symes are kinda like the 1970s Southern versions of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute. I enjoyed the dialogue and the clueless unreliable narration, but I really didn't feel invested in anything that was going on, so I couldn't read more than one chapter at a time. Portis is an interesting figure of eccentric American arcana, and he's worth checking out, but I didn't find this book to be the comic masterpiece that others claim it to be.(less)
Overwritten, and boring in spots, but really hard to dislike. Chabon's style just isn't a good fit for a detective novel. He should've studied his Cha...moreOverwritten, and boring in spots, but really hard to dislike. Chabon's style just isn't a good fit for a detective novel. He should've studied his Chandler/Hammett more. Those guys knew how to craft a tight sentence and how to keep a story moving briskly. Chabon can't, or won't, do those things; the narrative frequently sags under the weight of his verbal ornamentations. But those ornamentations are occasionally breathtaking, and Chabon does a nice job integrating his theme of nomadic Jewish identity. The book charmed me in the beginning, bored me in the middle, and won me over again at the end. Good enough—but I hope Chabon is done with this genre now.(less)
Fairly blasé international thriller that sort of half-heartedly tries to double as a post-9/11, way-we-live-now novel. The result is not very compelli...moreFairly blasé international thriller that sort of half-heartedly tries to double as a post-9/11, way-we-live-now novel. The result is not very compelling unless your idea of high drama is people constantly checking their email. Gibson's still got a lot on his mind, and his prose is spry, but this didn't work for me.(less)
Will C. Baer's first novel "Kiss Me Judas" was a dark beauty, an existential nightmare drenched in neo-noir style, but Baer's reach exceeds his grasp...moreWill C. Baer's first novel "Kiss Me Judas" was a dark beauty, an existential nightmare drenched in neo-noir style, but Baer's reach exceeds his grasp in this disappointing follow-up. Damaged ex-cop Phineas Poe is back, but this time he finds himself in the middle of the dangerous "game of tongues," which is intriguing at first but soon proves to be Baer's dumping ground for a boatload of tired ideas about fractured identity and reality vs illusion. Baer treats this well-worn material with crushing obviousness, underlining his themes with a total lack of subtlety or nuance. Put simply, Baer is out of his depth here; he ought to stick to the meat and potatoes of neo-noir. The prose has flashes of the nightmarish beauty displayed in "Kiss Me Judas," but whereas Baer strung those moments into a complete and satisfying whole in the first novel, here they're islands of quality in a sea of pretension. By the time Baer starts tossing out his ideas about James Joyce's "Ulysses" for some reason, I had to steel myself in order to finish the book. Baer has talent though, and I hope now he's gotten this stuff out of his system he'll go back to doing the "existential noir" he does best.(less)
How long a novel can you write with virtually no narrative throughline or character development? Don DeLillo says about 827 pages, that's how long.
But...moreHow long a novel can you write with virtually no narrative throughline or character development? Don DeLillo says about 827 pages, that's how long.
But don't take me for a naysayer: I'm a huge DeLillo fan, and if he wrote a book twice as long and twice as sprawling as this I'd devour it with pleasure. And yes, there is plenty to marvel at here. More than plenty. It's just that this kind of unfocused sprawl writing (the type often associated with Pynchon) doesn't, in my opinion, suit DeLillo 100% well. Bigger isn't always better, and if asked to rank DeLillo's novels I would place this one several notches below the perfect jaw-droppers Libra and White Noise (both of standard, non-bloated length, with focused narratives and clear characterization).
The charge most commonly levelled against DeLillo is that he's really an essayist posing as a novelist. I hadn't seen basis for that claim in any of the six DeLillo novels I read prior to this one, but it's a valid complaint about Underworld, which by its very nature sacrifices character and plot at the altar of Big Arguments About 20th-Century America. The problem for me was that I was not entirely convinced by those arguments (whatever they were). I don't think DeLillo accomplished what he set out to do (create the ultimate American novel about the Cold War era), but I loved being along for the ride while he tried his damnedest to do it. Recommended to established DeLillo fans; neophytes should start with the two novels I listed above.(less)
Why would carrier pigeons be necessary in a future without electricity — why wouldn't regular, non-electronic snail-mail suffice? That's the kind of q...moreWhy would carrier pigeons be necessary in a future without electricity — why wouldn't regular, non-electronic snail-mail suffice? That's the kind of question you shouldn't really bother asking yourself while reading this book, because the zany world of the novel does not appear to have been conceived with much care or thought, and the whole thing has an on-the-fly, make-this-shit-up-as-we-go-along quality that could be either refreshing or maddening depending on your own personal calibrations as a reader. For me it was a little from column A, a little from column B. It's consistently funny, and unpredictable, and a quick enough read that you can be finished before your critical instincts kick in. But it all feels a bit half-baked, ultimately, as though Bowman (a high priest of cult eccentricity whose first novel, Let the Dog Drive, is just as weird as this but a lot more fully-realized) had some vague ideas that seemed like they might maybe coalesce into some kind of comic SF novel, and this book became more of a dumping grounds than a purposeful statement. But students of literary weirdness will find a lot to like here.(less)
I was hoping this would be a bit more seeped in the autumnal childhood nostalgia that Bradbury did so well in Something Wicked This Way Comes. There's...moreI was hoping this would be a bit more seeped in the autumnal childhood nostalgia that Bradbury did so well in Something Wicked This Way Comes. There's a little of that, but not as much as you'd think—it's mostly a straightforward collection of creepily fantastical tales. Plenty of good stuff, though. If you like Bradbury you'll like this.(less)
A little less "Chandleresque" than his early novels (fewer clever similes, less machine-gun dialogue, etc), but superior in pretty much every way, wit...moreA little less "Chandleresque" than his early novels (fewer clever similes, less machine-gun dialogue, etc), but superior in pretty much every way, with the gravitas and pathos of the best literary fiction. Every impeccably crafted sentence carries great weight and sadness. Philip Marlowe is one of American literature's greatest creations and this book is the best exploration of his character: a world-weary moralist, a displaced romantic, a sentimental cynic, a quietly tragic hero who follows a personal code at the expense of what most of us would call happiness. This book is about a bunch of things: friendship, alcoholism, Los Angeles, crime, upper-class hypocrisy, postwar malaise. But what lingers most is Marlowe's desperate battle to stay human in a corrupt and uncaring society. It barely qualifies as a genre entry at all, but still: if you only read one detective novel in your life, read this book.(less)
A low three, unfortunately...I love Millhauser's short stories, but this novel is a bit of a bore. Instead of an obsessive artist--a watchmaker, minia...moreA low three, unfortunately...I love Millhauser's short stories, but this novel is a bit of a bore. Instead of an obsessive artist--a watchmaker, miniaturist, kinetographer, whatever--the visionary protagonist in this one is...a businessman. Which doesn't exactly allow for the enchantment of previous Millhauser stories. This is a fairy tale for people with MBAs.(less)
DeLillo's debut is clearly the work of a genius in chrysalis, before he found discipline or focus. It feels very much like a novel borne of the sixtie...moreDeLillo's debut is clearly the work of a genius in chrysalis, before he found discipline or focus. It feels very much like a novel borne of the sixties intellectual zeigeist (as opposed to the sixties popular zeitgeist, which is far more familiar to us now). I recommend it to hardcore DD fans, but it's kind of a slog, and probably not worthwhile for anyone else.(less)
Man, what the hell? This book kind of sucks for some reason. Everyone knows that Hammett pretty much single-handedly invented modern crime fiction, an...moreMan, what the hell? This book kind of sucks for some reason. Everyone knows that Hammett pretty much single-handedly invented modern crime fiction, and The Maltese Falcon is an enduring masterpiece that may still stand as the most geometrically perfect example of the detective novel form. The Thin Man is his second most famous work, owing to the popular Hollywood film series loosely based on characters therein, but it is an undistinguished, amateurish work that does not hold up on its own terms. (This gives me no pleasure to report, I should add. I assumed this would be great and I'm really disappointed that it isn't.)
The novel has the feel of a pulp quickie that was dashed off for cash, and a bit of research confirms that that's basically what it was in Hammett's eyes. The mystery unfolds as a series of exposition-packed conversations, none of which are written with much sparkle or personality. Nick and Nora Charles became Hollywood icons by virtue of their cosmopolitan charisma, witty repartee and fashionable drunkenness, but those traits are so marginalized in Hammett's novel that credit for the characters' iconic status belongs more to the unremembered screenwriters (and Wiliam Powell and Myrna Loy) than to Hammett himself. In fact, Nora Charles barely appears in the novel at all — it is mostly about Nick getting mixed up with a kooky family and sifting through their lies to solve a related murder. It is sporadically engaging, but just as often not, and I really didn't care about the central mystery or its resolution. Nor is there any of the moral weight that made The Maltese Falcon a classic.
This book is a strike against D.H. in the eternal war of Hammett vs. Chandler — the booklover's equivalent of the Chaplin vs. Keaton argument. But I still need to read The Glass Key, which I've heard was Hammett's favorite of his own books, before I make up my mind.(less)