**spoiler alert** File this one under "showed promise."
Baxter's anticipated follow-up to the highly acclaimed The Feast of Love started off well enoug**spoiler alert** File this one under "showed promise."
Baxter's anticipated follow-up to the highly acclaimed The Feast of Love started off well enough, I suppose. Nathaniel Mason, narrating awkwardly in the 3rd person, is a graduate student in upstate New York and on his way to one of the smarmiest parties ever put to ink. It's there, amongst the hipsters and faux Marxists, where he first meets Jerome Coolberg,"The Soul Thief." Coolberg is purported to be some sort of genius, however Nathaniel is quick to note that nearly everything spewing from his mouth is stolen material.
Though he first seems harmless enough, it doesn't take Nathaniel long to realize something about Coolberg is a bit...off. Still, Nathaniel can't seem to help from forming an uneasy friendship with Coolberg, and that's when things take turn for the creepy. Nathaniel's apartment is burgled, his clothes go missing, and Coolberg somehow seems know very personal things about Nathaniel - things Nathaniel doesn't recall ever sharing with him. The issue is forced to its crisis when he catches word that Coolberg has taken to passing Nathaniel's history off as his own. His excuse? He's writing a book, and Nathaniel's a major source of inspiration. From here the story takes several twists, the biggest one being, of course, the ending. Which was awful.
As I stated earlier, this novel certainly had potential. Annoying opening party scene aside, the first act read like Hitchcock at his best - full of ominously mysterious characters with undefined motives. In fact, the book even begins with a reference to Psycho, a reference the reader will later recognize as a major clue. And even though I *loves* me some Hitchcock, I most certainly didn't love this novel.
Why? As the plot unfolded I was bothered by several things, but I could have looked past the pedantic dialogue and unlikeable characters had the ending delivered better. And when it comes down to it, it's the ending that ruined The Soul Thief for me. I'll be vague for the sake of anyone who may still want to give it a shot, but after all the allusions dropped throughout, I was geared up for the ending to be as classy and smart as a Hitchcock film, when instead it felt cheap and gimmicky. Baxter my man, you could have done so much better.
I have no doubt that Charles Baxter is a great writer, however I'm not sure one would be able to discern that on this strength of this novel alone. Hardcore Baxter fans will probably still want to check it out, but for everyone else...maybe don't bother. It wasn't the worst way to spend a few hours, but it was hardly the best.
In American Nerd: The Story of My People, Benjamin Nugent, critically acclaimed writer, journalist, and self-proclaimed nerd, sets out to do somethingIn American Nerd: The Story of My People, Benjamin Nugent, critically acclaimed writer, journalist, and self-proclaimed nerd, sets out to do something I’m not entirely sure has ever before been attempted – trace the history and unique characteristics of a particular subculture of people: the nerd.
Dividing his book into what is essentially two parts, Nugent first attempts to define nerdiness. He begins by challenging the standard definition of a nerd as “somebody who pursues intellectual interests at the expense of skills that are useful in social settings such as communication, fashion or physical fitness,” claiming that “nerdiness isn’t really a matter of intellectualism and social awkwardness,” but rather determined by two things: the first, being the extent to which the suspected nerd reminds one of a machine, and the second being a nerd “by sheer force of social exclusion.” He then provides a brief history of the nerd, delving into such early manifestations as Dr. Frankenstein, Mary Bennet (of Pride and Prejudice fame), and the rise of the greasy grind, or greaser. Nugent then traces Hollywood’s impact through Jerry Lewis’s character of The Nutty Professor and Bill Murray and Gilda Radner’s “Todd and Lisa” sketches from the early days of Saturday Night Live, to a more realistic depiction of the nerd in Paul Feig’s sadly short-lived television series Freaks and Geeks.
In the second half, titled “Among the Nerds”, Nugent attempts several case studies of the modern nerd, examining sub sects such as Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts, debate teamers, the relatively cool ‘hipster’ nerd, sci-fi and fantasy fans, convention devotees, computer programmers, engineers, and Renaissance faire goers. He even delves into the impact of racism on our cultural definition, as well as exploring the connection between Asperger's Syndrome and nerdiness. This second half is also where Nugent tends to view the subject through the lens of his own personal history, sharing stories of his own nerdy childhood, as well as his recollections of several early nerd friends.
What first struck me about American Nerd was that it wasn’t exactly what I had expected, in that I expected it to be funny. Despite what the blurbs claim, American Nerd is not a funny book. Sure, there’s the occasional humorous line, but Nugent remains fairly serious about his subject matter, and some of his personal stories are downright poignant. And although I was expecting humor, I would have happily rolled with it had I not started to notice a more pressing problem: the lack of a clear thesis (or, at least, evidence to adequately support said thesis). Aside from earlier chapters, his 'research' consists mostly of anecdotes from his real life, which would be fine, I guess, if he weren't attempting to tackle the entirety of nerd history and culture. Furthermore, and not to be hyper-critical, but it wasn’t particularly well-edited, which is sort of inexcusable for a book on nerdiness if you really think about it.
Ultimately, American Nerd felt annoyingly disjointed to me. It was as if Nugent couldn't decide what he wanted his book to be, exactly. What began as a history of nerds later turned into a memoir of sorts, and at times almost a confessional where he attempts some sort of penance for the ills he inflicted on his former nerd friends by trading them in for some semblance of hipster nerd cred. Where I really wanted to like this book, I found myself merely tolerating it. Like a nerd lacking a socially agreed-upon set of social niceties, American Nerd left me a bit cold...more
Antihero When Thinfinger is a bit of a loser, although a lovable one. After being kicked out of the house by his parents for accidentally getting bothAntihero When Thinfinger is a bit of a loser, although a lovable one. After being kicked out of the house by his parents for accidentally getting both arms covered in horribly mangled tattoos, 15-year-old When found himself forced to take a job in fast food and has been there ever since. Although a bit of a maestro in a restaurant, he's basically hapless in everything else. He's a skater who keeps losing his boards; his bulimic girlfriend sleeps in the living room, plagued by dreams that he's trying to kill her; he's the lead singer in a band who will only let him repetitiously sing the word "Wormdevil," the band's name; and nearly every morning he finds himself reliant on the post-it notes his drunken self has affixed to his body in an effort to clue him in on the previous night's shenanigans. Although a terrible boyfriend who consistently steals here and there from the pizza restaurant that employs him, he's a fairly good guy; but when he wakes up one morning to discover a pizza box full of stolen money on his coffee table, things take a bit of a turn.
Despite being hailed as "uproariously funny," Ovenman is probably not the sort of book that would have made it into my shopping basket had it not been for my bracket in The Morning News's Tournament of Books. (Yes, it's sort of like a college basketball bracket, and yes I realize it's incredibly nerdy. Shut up.) Of course, this funky little book was quickly taken out in the first round by Denis Johnson's epic Tree of Smoke, I was intrigued at the description and figured I'd check it out.
Basically, I have this theory that there are some things that are better on airplanes. Sprite? - better on an airplane. Individual packets of peanuts or pretzels? - better on an airplane. Tiny bottles of liquor? - good, but definitely better on an airplane. Hand-held gaming devices, Sudoku puzzles, tabloid magazines, and novels by Jennifer Weiner and Helen Fielding ? - all nice enough, but for some reason far, far better when enjoyed on an airplane. It's something about the tiny, enclosed space where you are forced to sit and enjoy something completely and entirely in one sitting that makes all these things more enjoyable than they would be most anywhere else. I feel similarly about Ovenman. It was an enjoyable read, but as strange as it sounds, I have a nagging feeling that it would have been ten times better if I would have read it on an airplane. For whatever that's worth....more
Zivkovic uses the motif of fate as a thread to weave together the stories of four diverse women. It's a weird little thing, but I enjoyed it; I can seZivkovic uses the motif of fate as a thread to weave together the stories of four diverse women. It's a weird little thing, but I enjoyed it; I can see how fans of Jean-Paul Sartre would too....more
As John Hodgman writes in the book's introduction, "(T)hese are all original pieces of humorous writing that are joined together merely by their appreAs John Hodgman writes in the book's introduction, "(T)hese are all original pieces of humorous writing that are joined together merely by their appreciation of the intrinsic and unique hilariousness of books...We all know that books are funny. First, they are made of paste and cloth, which is funny, as is the fact that people still read and buy them. Also, books connote a sort of intellectual stuffiness, which is always easy and appealing to make fun of. It's humanizing."
He's being silly, but it's also the truth. Making fun of Jean-Paul Sartre's morose intellect, Ernest Hemingway's bloated male ego and Emily Dickinson's poetic melancholy is fun - especially if you're someone like me whose education has forced her to read No Exit more times than she cares to recall.
Fortunately, not all the jokes revolve around James Joyce (although several do), so an English major is not necessarily a prerequisite. In fact, my favorite pieces are ones like "Thirteen Writing Prompts" and "A Serial Killer Explains the Distinctions Between Literary Terms," where the joke comes more from literary devices rather than specific books or authors.
Of course, the actual book jokes are fun too, with "Jean-Paul Sartre, 911 Operator;" "Rough Drafts Of Jenna Bush's Young-Adult Novel;" "Bedtime Stories By Thom Yorke;" and "Phrases On The Marquee At The Local Strip Club To Cater To A More Literate Crowd" being among my favorites.
In short, if you're a fan of McSweeney's and at all literary-minded, it's very much worth your time....more
Toby Barlow's version of Los Angeles is one that teems with werewolves who run in rival gangs, challenge Mexican crystal meth kingpins, change form atToby Barlow's version of Los Angeles is one that teems with werewolves who run in rival gangs, challenge Mexican crystal meth kingpins, change form at will and regardless of the moon’s cycle, and manage to go largely unnoticed by the human population. They infiltrate the city’s animal shelters, play bridge, surf, battle one another for dominance, build and destroy crime empires, and fall in love. And inexplicably, Barlow chooses to tell their story entirely in blank verse.
If you're anything like me, this all sounds way too good to be true; however, it's fortunately not.
When I first heard about Sharp Teeth – a book being simultaneously likened to The Sopranos, The Iliad, and An American Werewolf in London – I knew I had to read it. However, being a realist I approached it with a certain amount of hesitation; after all, to actually pull off a werewolf book written in verse and set in East LA with any semblance of seriousness would be quite an achievement. Miraculously, Barlow managed to avoid any number of possible pitfalls, and instead wrote the most original, fun, and unexpectedly beautiful books I’ve read in some time. It rocked my sock off, but if you're still hesitant to believe that Homer and Lycanthropes can both comfortably provide points of inspiration for the same book, here's a taste that will hopefully allay those fears and whet your appetite:
Annie had never promised him anything more than a change, which was honestly all he wanted, a new skin. He wanted to strip away the pain but not the sadness, he wanted to breathe real life into every memory but still somehow let go, he wanted to become something else while holding on to everything he had. All he had, it turned out, was love. She was gone, but her love was still alive inside him. It was the only thing keeping him on this earth, the only reason he could find to continue, to protect that one part of her that still remained, her love for him, the small ray of light that lay within the shadowed hollows of his heart.
But he couldn't live without her, so he took on another kind of life. It was that simple. So now he is simply something more and nothing less.
See? Werewolf books can be eloquent, understated and beautiful. Who knew?...more
Set in 19th Century rural Canada, Mary Swan's debut novel tells the haunting story of a an inexplicable murder in a small town and its ripple effectsSet in 19th Century rural Canada, Mary Swan's debut novel tells the haunting story of a an inexplicable murder in a small town and its ripple effects on everyone it touches. Reading more like a collection of short stories than a novel, Swan weaves together a series of character sketches to reveal the tragic story of a poor immigrant who - suddenly and for no clear reason -murders his wife and two daughters. Rather than telling the story directly, Swan adopts a variety of points of view: the slain wife, the murdered daughters - one sickly and troubled, the other sweet and kind - a teacher who feels a certain level of responsibility for the events, a small boy who befriended one of the murdered little girls and more, although noticeably absent is the voice of the man whose crime sets the wheels in motion. Each story provides a piece of a puzzle that is never exactly solved, but - at least for me - that seemed to be the point. Who really knows why horrific events happen? The point isn't really the why so much as the effect violence has on both those it is inflicted upon and the ones forced to bear witness.
For some reason I've always been a bit of a sucker for crime dramas, and when they are written in an elegant, artful and psychological manner I'm over the moon. However, I must admit that I didn't choose The Boys in the Trees based on its subject, but rather for a much more superficial reason. I heard absolutely nothing about it, the blurb on the back didn't sound particularly interesting and I had never heard of author Mary Swan, but the cover was so pretty that I simply couldn't resist it. It wasn't perfect - a tad uneven and confusing in spots - but the overall effect made these issues relatively easy for me to overlook. Fortunately, the image on the cover perfectly captured the story inside: nothing particularly groundbreaking, however elegant and poetically beautiful nevertheless. I love it when that happens....more
"I want them to see me dying. That way, they'll know I'm alive."
Beautiful Children is the kaleidoscopic tale of Las Vegas' dark underbelly, a place wh"I want them to see me dying. That way, they'll know I'm alive."
Beautiful Children is the kaleidoscopic tale of Las Vegas' dark underbelly, a place where underneath the lights, glitz and glamour lurks a bevy of downtrodden and desperate. Bock centers the bulk of his novel around one particular Saturday night - the night that twelve-year-old Newell Ewing disappeared, leaving behind only a single shoe abandoned in the middle of the desert. Starting with the story of Newell's disappearance, the novel swirls out to include the stories of runaway street kids, strippers, washed-up comic book artists, seedy pornographers, angry teenagers and casino executives. Their stories are grim to say the least, but Bock's intent appeared more cautionary than anything - to show the paths each took to wind up here, rather than simply dwelling on the dark details of the present.
Beautiful Children is a thoroughly impressive debut and a pretty great read, though a painful one to say the least. And I suppose that would be my largest criticism of the novel: it's almost suffocating in its gloominess. The characters are terrible to one another and utterly self-destructive, and several scenes are so cruel and so graphic that I had to force myself to read on. In several respects, Beautiful Children reminded me a lot of Requiem for a Dream; it's a story that's true and important and often overlooked, but it sears its image onto your eyelids, turns your stomach into knots and and makes you relieved when its finally over.
In short, it's a great book by a new talent, and though I'm glad I read it I don't think I'll ever go back for seconds. In fact, I'm not sure I even want to be in the same room with this book ever again....more
Sam Pulsifer begins his faux-memoir with an explanation: he’s a convicted murderer, arsonist, and not much of a literature fan. Sam is also a “bumblerSam Pulsifer begins his faux-memoir with an explanation: he’s a convicted murderer, arsonist, and not much of a literature fan. Sam is also a “bumbler,” and I suppose that accidentally burning down the Emily Dickinson House and killing the two people still inside was his ultimate bumble. For his crime, Pulsifer serves ten years in a white-collar prison, and upon release discovers he is widely reviled by the denizens of his hometown of Amherst, MA, explaining "...in the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big, gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches of Salem, and then there's me." However, it appears that he is only mostly reviled. During his prison tenure, Sam's father had been inundated with a strange form of fan mail - folks offering him money in exchange for burning down other authors' homes: Hawthorne's, Twain's, Alcott's, and the like. Although surprised, Pulsifer refuses to see himself as an arsonist and chooses to ignore the letters, focusing instead on trying to build some semblance of a normal life by going off to college, getting married, buying a house, having a few kids, and staying the hell away from Amherst. But his reasonably happy existence is eventually shattered when, twenty years after his crime, the son of his accidental victims shows up on his doorstep seeking vengeance. His arrival sets off Pulsifer's downward spiral and sparks the mystery of who has resumed his work of burning down famous authors' homes, leaving Sam to assume the blame.
An Arsonist's Guide..., although fiction, reads like a memoir, and takes satirical jabs at memoirs, book clubs, English professors, and literary fads such as Harry Potter. It received gushing reviews from a wide variety of critics, and while it aims to be humorous, I felt it occasionally fell flat. Sam's (or, rather Clarke's) tone is strangely detached while telling his life story, and although this takes some getting used to, it does allow for certain passages to be funnier than they may have otherwise been. Take, for example, Sam's description of life in prison:
I learned something from everyone, is the point, even while I was fending off the requisite cell-block buggerer, a gentle but crooked corporate accountant at Arthur Anderson who was just finding his true sexual self and who told me in a cracked, aching voice that he wanted me - wanted me, that is, until I told him I was a virgin, which I was, and which, for some reason, made him not want me anymore, which meant that people did not want to sleep with twenty-eight-year-old male virgins, which I thought was useful to know.
See? It's that special brand of straight-faced humor that sometimes works for some people.
Overall, An Arsonist's Guide... is something that many English majors and book geeks just might love; however, although I am both those things, there was something about it - be it the tone, the wimpiness of the narrator, or the combination of the two - that kept me from feeling such depth of affection. ...more
In this, her first novel, poetess Monica Ferrell gives us the story of Matt Acciaccatura, a sad, lonely and much bullied kid from Teaneck, New JerseyIn this, her first novel, poetess Monica Ferrell gives us the story of Matt Acciaccatura, a sad, lonely and much bullied kid from Teaneck, New Jersey who is desperate to be cool. Seeing college as his chance to reinvent himself and start anew, Matt spends the summer before his tenure at NYC conducting meticulous research on the fashion, conversation and mannerisms of coolness in an effort to adopt that persona. Once he arrives at NYC he discovers that most of his efforts have been in vain; nonetheless, despite the fact that he cannot seem to break into the elite world he covets, Matt does make two true friendships, and for a time - perhaps for the first time - Matt finds acceptance and a semblance of happiness.
Matt Acciaccatura's New York is that of the mid-90's - the heyday of club kids, raves and Ecstasy. Despite seeming the unlikeliest of candidates for such a position, Matt is scouted and offered a position as a club promoter at one of the hottest nightclubs in NYC: Cinema. Matt has a natural knack for his job and fast becomes "Magic Matt", one of the brightest stars of the New York club scene. But his new found success comes at a cost, as Matt's acceptance into this gilded world puts a predictable strain on his real friendships, tests his personal ethics, and ultimately leads to his downfall.
Matt's fictitious tale is told by two narrators: Ferrell, the primary storyteller; and Dr. Hans Mannheim, a German sociologist who was studying Matt before his arrest, and who marks up Ferrell's manuscript with footnotes, personal asides, and addenda. And it's here where the novel fell apart for me. Had The Answer is Always Yes been narrated by Ferrell alone, I may have considered it a success. Although it dragged in sections, Ferrell's prose is skillful, her story engaging and her characters fully formed. However, the decision to add Mannheim as a second narrator revealed her limitations as a writer in that I found his contributions to be annoyingly interruptive, painfully overwritten and largely unnecessary.
As a person who counts The Great Gatsby as one of her all-time favorite novels, I really wanted to like The Answer is Always Yes. From early on Ferrell succeeded in earning my sympathy for poor Matt Acciaccatura, who, like Jay Gatsby, mistakes celebrity and money for happiness, is frustratingly insecure, obsessed with frivolity, but who is still deserving of our affection and of our pity. Unfortunately, Ferrell's attempts at innovation ultimately ruined the experience for me in that I just couldn't forgive the poorly executed gimmick that was Dr. Hans Mannheim.
In short, Ferrell is a good writer who certainly shows potential as a novelist, however her first attempt was far from a home run. Would I consider reading future efforts? Sure. Would I recommend this, her debut? Eh...Probably not....more