A masterpiece and a tour de force of pacing and point of view. What separates Le Carre from his competitors is the depth of humanity he gives his char...moreA masterpiece and a tour de force of pacing and point of view. What separates Le Carre from his competitors is the depth of humanity he gives his characters. He's so in tune with human nature--the things that drive us and make us who we are--and it shines through in all his people, but most of all in Smiley, of course.
If something stands out from this book, its the restraint that Le Carre shows. After all, this is really the culmination of all of Smiley's efforts against Karla, the end of a long and painful war. And yet, in key moments, its not Smiley we're with but Esterhase or Guillam or even Mendel, who doesn't really factor into the action here at all. And when the key moments come, Le Carre draws them out masterfully.
I would say that you could read this book without having first read Tinker Tailor, but I think having read that book informed so much about the background here that just the mention of Bill Haydon was sufficient to cast a certain tone over a scene. At any rate, its really a moot point, as you should read both books. To be honest, I couldn't decide which is better, though I enjoyed reading this much more than Tinker Tailor.
To close, a favorite passage, from the last third of the book:
Mendel, a loping, dourly observant man with a taste for keeping bees, said outright that George was pacing himself before his big fight. Mendel had been in the amateur ring in his time, he had boxed middleweight for the Division, and he claimed to recognise the eve-of-match signs: a sobriety, a clarifying loneliness, and what he called a staring sort of look, which showed that Smiley was "thinking about his hands."(less)
The novelist John Gardner put forth the notion that fiction should "evoke a vivid and continuous dream." In other words, it should immerse the reader...moreThe novelist John Gardner put forth the notion that fiction should "evoke a vivid and continuous dream." In other words, it should immerse the reader in a world that feels alive, from the beginning of the book to the end. Creating this universe -- be it one that looks and feels like our own or a totally different time and place -- is the challenge of the novelist.
I thought about this notion of the vivid and continuous dream while reading Philip Caputo's Crossers. I'd never read Caputo, never even heard of him, actually, until a family friend recommended him to me and loaned me his copy of the book. "This guy, he knew what was going on down there before anybody," my friend said. The "down there" he was speaking of is the Mexican border, and in that sense, I think he was right.
The book follows Castle, a minor titan of Wall Street who loses his wife in the 9/11 terror attacks. Grief-stricken and broken, he decides to retire from his career in finance and retreat, literally, to the Arizona desert, taking up residence in an old cabin on the outskirts of his cousin's cattle ranch. There he discovers that the desert is a perilous place, overrun with undocumented immigrants making an often deadly dash across the arid landscape and lethal smugglers toting bales of marijuana on their backs. It's a world where minding your own business is a way of life, and riding into the wrong canyon can spell disaster.
Castle's attempts to seclude himself are thwarted first by a comely female rancher, Tessa, and then by the inescapable blight of the drug trade, which finds its way into the business of his cousin Blaine's cattle ranch. Weaving the stories of several characters -- Castle, Blaine, their grandfather Ben Erskine (The last of the great Western cowboys), a double-agent called, enigmatically, The Professor, and the ruthless and erratic druglord Yvonne Menendez -- Caputo creates a compelling portrait of life along the border.
Caputo's knowledge of the Arizona-Sonora desert, the ins-and-outs of the drug trade along its border, and the incredible details of ranch life and the lifestyle of the working cowboys or vaqueros, as they are called throughout, is beyond impressive. Following the rich cast of characters -- the thoughtful widower Castle, the man of intrigue "The Professor," the hothead Blaine -- was a delight. To be pulled along, through the dream -- or more accurately, the nightmare -- of this book, as it slowly unfolded was a pleasure.
If I have a criticism of the book, it's that Caputo's authority is so great when he's operating in an area of expertise, such as cattle ranching, that when he ventures out of what he seems to know, he sometimes strikes a false note. One such example is a description of the crowd at an alt-country show on a college campus. He describes the students as wearing the sweatshirts of the university they attend. This detail -- minor, to be sure -- struck me as incredibly false. At times, the book's one true villain, Yvonne Menendez, felt a little too broadly drawn, that she drifted into caricature. Caputo does a great job of making most of the characters morally ambiguous, and while he does his best to show Yvonne's motives, deeply rooted in history as they are, it came up just short of the kind of nuanced detail that I would wanted. In short, I was hoping for "The Wire" of the Mexican drug trade, and it didn't quite hit that lofty mark.
And in a book of such impeccable detail -- the descriptions of the mesas and canyons of the desert, of the birds and beasts who inhabit it are so obviously from life -- that these brief moments of unreality had the jarring effect of breaking the dream of the narrative, of ripping me out of the world and making me think about the author. And that was a shame.
Thankfully, those sour notes were few and far between, and the plot is so compelling and so well-paced, that I can recommend this book without reservation. To live there, in the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains, for a few weeks, was a true pleasure, and a terrific way to begin the year as a reader. (less)
Some time ago, somebody caused a ruckus on the internet by asserting that, generally speaking, women aren't funny. That this actually caused a controv...moreSome time ago, somebody caused a ruckus on the internet by asserting that, generally speaking, women aren't funny. That this actually caused a controversy of sorts is ridiculous to me. Of course women are funny. Anybody who disagrees hasn't read Julie Klam, Julie Klausner, Sarah Vowell...And they clearly haven't read Rachel Shukert.
This book, following the young Shukert on various European excursions and adventures, is as funny and knowing as any book I've read this. After college, Shukert gets a job as a sort of glorified extra in an experimental play. When the play ends its run in New York, the terrifying and maniacal director takes the show on a brief European tour, from Vienna to Zurich. Shukert has the usual European experiences -- having sex with an older man with an uncircumcised penis, being not-so-silently judged by the snooty Austrian hotel clerk, eating scalding sausages in the company of skinheads -- and some not so usual ones.
At the end of her tour, with few job prospects on the horizon, Shukert takes advantage of a bureaucratic error to stay in Europe indefinitely. She moves to Amsterdam to live with some friends. And that's where the book really gets good. Dental emergencies lead to near-sexual assaults, stolen bicycles bring about horrible karmic payback. Etc, etc.
Not only is this a hilarious and fast read, I really feel like it speaks to issues of class in America in some very subtle ways. With a certain retrospective gaze, Shukert notes that "finding oneself" is a luxury of a certain class of person, that she is privileged to get to traipse about Europe, even when that traipsing is unpleasant or downright horrible. And Shukert's Jewishness lends another layer to the text, positioning her as something of an "other" even in her ancestral homeland of Omaha, Nebraska.
But what I'll remember about this book is not Shukert's ethnicity, but rather how damn funny it is. Sometimes you just need a good laugh, and Shukert, it seems, is willing to be both laughed at and laughed with. She's a good sport, and in that sense, I think Everything is Going to Be Great fits nicely into the genre of "loser fic," even if it isn't fiction (Hopefully Rachel knows I mean this as a complement!).
If the entire book had been the first and the last sections, this would've been 5-stars, hands down. Unfortunately, while I appreciate why the middle...moreIf the entire book had been the first and the last sections, this would've been 5-stars, hands down. Unfortunately, while I appreciate why the middle book needed to be there (and I find myself lingering, in thought, over that section more than any other), I just couldn't stand that gruesome ugly desert of death. I don't think this book is quite a masterpiece -- too messy, too all over the place. But it has its masterful moments. Eventually, I will get to Savage Detectives.(less)
What to say about this book? It's one of the five best books I've ever read, and I think I've only met one person who considers it anything less than...moreWhat to say about this book? It's one of the five best books I've ever read, and I think I've only met one person who considers it anything less than one of the best books of the 20th Century. Is that enough to recommend it to you?
I also wrote about this book for The Millions last year. Everything I said then still stands. I can't wait to re-read this.(less)
While nowhere near as good as Williams's transcendent Stoner, Butcher's Crossing is a fairly riveting story of one man's journey into the West. Will A...moreWhile nowhere near as good as Williams's transcendent Stoner, Butcher's Crossing is a fairly riveting story of one man's journey into the West. Will Andrews, Harvard dropout, travels to the dusty Kansas town of Butcher's Crossing in search of his true self, which he'd previously only found in the woods around Cambridge. In Butcher's Crossing, he seeks out an acquaintance of his father's, McDonald, who runs a trading company, buying and selling buffalo hides. McDonald can tell that Andrews has come to Butcher's Crossing for something other than a business opportunity -- he wants to go out on a hunt -- so he recommends that he talk to a man named Miller. Miller has an idea for a hunt that will put all other hunts to shame. He wants to make an expedition deep into the Colorado Territory, where he once discovered a hidden valley filled with thousands upon thousands of buffalo. After remarkably little consideration, Andrews agrees to fund the expedition and travel along as a skinner.
The book is full of rich, evocative descriptions of rolling plains, rocky mountains, intense heat and bitter, horrible cold. It's also rife with scenes of slaughter and, yes, butchering. You can practically smell the entrails steaming in the summer sun. With relatively sparse dialog, Williams manages to create several very vivid characters, including the bumbling, haunted Charley Hoge, my favorite in the book.
I rarely read Westerns (Might this be my first? I think it is.), so I can't comment on how this either conforms to or deviates from the conventions of the genre. I found the descriptions of how the men lived, of how they survived without all that I enjoy in my daily life (like plumbing and a bed), to be fascinating. And the story -- a lassic quest, really -- offered plenty of action. Indeed, there's a sequence that's as tense and pact with danger as the movie Wages of Fear.
In the end, I found the philosophy of the book to be somewhat opaque, and it's for this that I'm giving the book three stars. If you are looking for a great Western, you'll definitely find it in Butcher's Crossing. But if you want to read Williams at his best, I recommend Stoner instead.(less)
It feels odd to write a review of a book that so many people have already read and praised. Nevertheless, I will try.
Cloud Atlas is an impressive, at...moreIt feels odd to write a review of a book that so many people have already read and praised. Nevertheless, I will try.
Cloud Atlas is an impressive, at times astounding novel, combining the best elements of post-modern metafiction with straightforward, page-turning genre fare. Comprised of six novellas, each cut into two pieces and told in chronological and then reverse-chronological order, the book manages the delicate feat of changing pace, tone, and setting multiple times while still engaging the reader at every turn.
Common themes unite the six stories -- slavery and freedom, cruelty and human decency, and the cyclical nature of time (particularly as expressed through reincarnation) -- as well as certain planted elements (a common birthmark, certain unique turns of phrase that echo throughout). I found the planted birthmarks and whatnot to be bit tedious, but otherwise, I thought the subtle repetition was masterful. "A crocodile of..." as used to describe a group a children was especially striking.
My favorite section of the book, or rather, the section I found most fascinating, was the last section, chronologically speaking, called "Sloosha's Crossin' and Everything After." Narrated by a goat-herder living in post-apocalyptic (and hence primitive) Hawaii, the story involves a prolonged visit by a woman from an itinerant band of people called the Prescients who maintain a knowledge of the technology of the pre-apocalypse world. I was particularly interested in how the goat-herder told the story, and in the little strange turn the story took at the end.
Cloud Atlas is a book for anyone who enjoys both thinking about narrative as much as reading it. It contains fictions within fictions within fictions, and each of its worlds and characters is a living, breathing soul. To think this book languished on my shelves for years before I gave it a chance. I had wrongly lumped it in with the byzantine work of Thomas Pynchon and William T. Vollmann. Don't make the same mistake I did. This is a big, impressive, thoughtful novel that wouldn't be out of place on the beach. Read it today.(less)
I read this book so long ago (three months!) that I almost don't remember it. What I do remember is the peculiar experience of reading it. I read it o...moreI read this book so long ago (three months!) that I almost don't remember it. What I do remember is the peculiar experience of reading it. I read it on two flights, and on both, flight attendants tapped me on the shoulder to say "Isn't it great?! I'm on the third one now." It was a very odd experience, as people rarely seem to acknowledge what I'm reading. I don't think I've read a book that was this much in the zeitgeist in years. It was the closest I've come to a mass experience involving a book. So that was interesting.
As for the book itself, it was...okay. I really enjoyed the early Lisbeth Salander sections. She's such a great Tarantino-esque female character (even as she later falls into the dreadful male fantasy aspects of the novel). Once she was more actively integrated into the story, the book really took off. As many people have noted, the beginning of the book was interminable, and the end was also surprisingly drawn out. It was like one of those movies that ends five times. But in between, I have to admit, it was a page-turner. Supremely creepy and very well-plotted.
Was there too much coffee drinking? Yes. Was sex for Blomqvist always bizarrely consequence-free? Yes. Was the book still enjoyable? Yes. Am I dying to read the next installment? No. I can't entirely say why, but it wasn't the kind of reading experience that left me hungry for the next book in the series. I don't think it was quite the equal of Red Dragon and if I'm going to push forward with the second and third volumes of an oft-read series this fall, it will likely be the Smiley trilogy by John le Carré.(less)
Disclosure: I know Tom, a bit, from when we were both living in beautiful Iowa City awhile back. In fact, when this book came out, I interviewed him f...moreDisclosure: I know Tom, a bit, from when we were both living in beautiful Iowa City awhile back. In fact, when this book came out, I interviewed him for The Millions. You should go read that interview. I think it's a pretty good one, but of course, I'm biased.
I really enjoyed this book. I know that the word "football" will scare off many of you, but don't let it. This isn't a book that will spend pages describing what the Sam linebacker does. McAllister does a great job giving enough info about the game to be engaging to the novice without getting too bogged down in the details. I thought his take on the condition of the modern fan was fascinating. He delves into his obsession with the EMB (Eagles Message Board) -- and internet fan message board he belongs to -- and shows how close we can all feel to the players on the field. One particularly great scene involves him chasing his favorite player on the freeway, potentially risking his life and that of his wife.
In fact, scenes like that are where the book really shines. Because McAllister doesn't go easy on himself, ever, it makes the maturity he gains throughout the book much more gratifying. It takes balls to write an honest book like this, and apparently McAllister's got em. He's upfront about the fact that he didn't always handle his father's illness in the best way (though his immense love and respect for his dad is self-evident on every page). When he describes a night of debauchery outside Veterans stadium, he doesn't shy away from his unsavory deeds, nor does he make them out to be worse than they were. I came away from the book feeling that, above all else, it was him on the page. That's important for a work like this.
This is a great book about fathers and sons, of course, but it's also a fascinating and thoughtful examination of what it means to say "This is me. This is what I'm about."(less)
A life-changing book, comparable to The Omnivore's Dilemma in how it reshaped my thinking on a subject. Highly recommended for anyone interested in ho...moreA life-changing book, comparable to The Omnivore's Dilemma in how it reshaped my thinking on a subject. Highly recommended for anyone interested in how the web is impacting social interaction. While Shirky can drift into techno-utopianism from time to time, he seems to always look at the world with fresh eyes. Unlike other writers on the subject, Shirky's prose is clear, and his examples are quite convincing.(less)
Spoiler alert: You will get old. You will die. Things will never be like they are right now. And yet, how things are right now will determine how they...moreSpoiler alert: You will get old. You will die. Things will never be like they are right now. And yet, how things are right now will determine how they are in the future. This is so.
The "goon" in the title of this book is time. It opens with a quote from Proust, the poet laureate of memory, about how we cannot recapture the people we were in past the places where we were those people, but rather that those people exist within us, always. And that, it seems to me, is more or less the book, in a nutshell. But, oh, how it gets there. How the story unfolds -- stories, really -- is breathtaking. This the best book I've read this year.
A collection of narratives -- they aren't really stories -- centered around various record industry denizens -- an aging producer, his assistant, her college best friend, the producer's mentor, his wife's brother, a publicist, etc. -- Goon Squad is a novel about lives. It opens with Sasha, the beautiful, troubled assistant to record producer Bennie Salazar -- and continues on through a host of characters who knew them. And knew is the word here, for the lesson of the book seems to be that we are not the same people we were before. Those people are dead, and yet the people we all became -- the sagging, sad, tired, knowing people we are now -- those people are inextricably tied to the people we were. We are simultaneously incapable of recovering what was lost and yet bound to know what it is that we're missing.
Does this sound like the book is horribly, horribly sad? It isn't. It's beautiful and clever and very smart, and, okay, a little bit heartbreaking. One of my favorite aspects of the book is how it deals with technology. Facebook, in the novel, is a kind of memory, excavating lost lives from the ether, reconnecting people with the people they were before...or at least the people they knew before. And in the end, it's a burst of horrible, relentless technology that seems to save the music business. And one of the most powerful chapters of the book is told in powerpoint (To wrench soul from the teeth of a Microsoft product is truly a feat unto itself). In fact, this book may be one of the most subtly speculative works of fiction I've read. It presents a future near enough to include all of us, close enough to be recognizable, and still strangely different from where we are today.
I realize this review dances around the book. It tells you what the book is about without really telling much of what the story is. And that's because the story of the book wouldn't sound like much on its own: Some people grow up. They work in the music business. Their friends die, and then so does their business. But those people keep going. They have lives and love affairs and children. They make new friends and rediscover people they assumed were dead. Their lives cross with one another in myriad ways. And then they cross again. I keep returning, again and again to the section on Jocelyn, a girl who ran away from home to be with a record producer, a man who spit her out almost before he was done chewing her up. The passage is on page 65, and it's one of several haunting paragraphs in Jocelyn's section:
"We stand there, quiet. My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit? When did you stop having parties? Did everyone else get old too, or was it just you? Are other people still here, hiding in the palm trees or holding their breath underwater? When did you last swim your laps? Do your bones hurt? Did you know this was coming and hide that you knew, or did it ambush you from behind?"
Lately I've been very into narratives about our 20s. For whatever reason, possibly nostalgia, I'm very interested in the stories of people in that par...moreLately I've been very into narratives about our 20s. For whatever reason, possibly nostalgia, I'm very interested in the stories of people in that part of life, that time in-between, that extended adolescence we all seem to need to figure things out. From where I sit in my lavish mid-30s, those years seem improbable at best. No way did I live, for years, in that horrid apartment with iridescent mold growing across the bathroom ceiling. No way did I sabotage myself in those many innumerable ways. No way. Didn't happen. I'm here now, so it stands to reason I was never there.
Gould's And the Heart Says Whatever is one of the best of this genre of 20s memoirs. One of the best parts of the book talks about the writing workshops at the New School, where Gould's memoir teacher told her class to find the ways in which each of them were victims. In a way, I think the rest of the book is a reaction to this instruction, as Gould portrays herself more as a perpetrator than anything else. Certainly there's heartbreak here, but the author never lets herself off the hook. It's a raw book, in the end.
My favorite pieces were "Flowers," "Going Dutch," and "Claudine," though I also loved the piece about waiting tables in the shitty blues bar. As a man, there were innumerable ways in which I felt let just a bit behind the curtain of womanhood, allowed to peek at the maybe great but probably dreadful ways in which young woman must navigate the world. If you go into this looking for a tell-all about the glory days of Gawker, you'll be disappointed (though the Misshapes do make an appearance…I can't explain exactly how obsessed I was with the Misshapes and Blue States Lose, the Gawker series ridiculing them, let's just say it was a weekly highlight for me for a while there). But if you think of it as a collection of personal essays, some better than others, you won't be let down. What I want from a memoir or a personal essay is some truth and something new, something fresh. Both were present throughout this book. (less)
I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I know some people will have trouble reading about the struggles of relatively privileged 20-somethings in...moreI really, really enjoyed reading this book. I know some people will have trouble reading about the struggles of relatively privileged 20-somethings in New York -- if you're one of those people, then this book is not for you -- but I just devoured this book. The story of six Oberlin College graduates living their post-collegiate lives in New York, this book pulls off the considerable feat of shifting perspective between the characters. The jacket copy of the book described it as being in the tradition of 19th Century novels, and I suppose that would be right. It did feel a bit like reading a Jane Austen book.
I've come to admire authors who can tell a story that unfolds over several years, and Smith Rakoff does a fine job of this, deftly moving between excruciatingly drawn-out scenes told in painstaking detail and grand, sweeping paragraphs that sum up a month or a season. This is no simple thing, to move through time like that. It's a skill that eludes many talented authors. I also liked that this book took place in New York before and after the 9/11 attacks, but it didn't become maudlin or overwrought. The characters noted the attacks, and some of them were clearly changed by them, but it was the way I felt changed by them. This wasn't a story about people who survived the 9/11 attacks or those who didn't survive them, but rather about the way life was -- both before and after -- for all those millions of people who lived in the city when it happened.
If I have a criticism of the book, it's that the joints between sections, and the allotment of time between characters seemed a bit off. Why do we spend so little time with some and so much more with others? I would've enjoyed more from petulant, petty Dave's perspective (I fear I might be the only reader with this request), and I wondered more about Beth and Will. Still, it didn't stop me from enjoying the many chapters that lingered on Sadie. I think she was probably my favorite character in the end. And in this book, there were so many to choose from.(less)
If my last review required a disclaimer (for knowing the author), this one requires some sort of legal note. I'm hopelessly biased when it comes to th...moreIf my last review required a disclaimer (for knowing the author), this one requires some sort of legal note. I'm hopelessly biased when it comes to this book, as I am thanked in the acknowledgments (!), a first for me. So take what you read here with a grain of salt, but...
I really loved this book! Of course, I'm a dog guy, so I was the right market for it, but Klam's sense of humor and her skill as a writer kept me turning the pages and laughing (and even tearing up, from time to time) throughout. At first, I was skeptical of the structure of the book -- each chapter is meant to be a lesson Klam learned from a dog -- but it won me over by the end. The "lesson" from Dahlia is particularly poignant, I think.
The book opens with Klam adopting her first Boston Terrier, the wise, wonderful Otto. I'd read Please Excuse My Daughter: A Memoir, so I felt like I knew Otto a little bit, and it was great to read more about him here. There's a talent to writing about animals without manipulating the reader (The old adage of not killing dogs in fiction comes to mind here), and I think Klam walks the line beautifully. Her love for Otto is obvious, but when he passes, so close to her daughter's birth, she must carry on, must keep going. Her hard-won perspective is really something to read.
Without a doubt my favorite section of the book is the one that features Dahlia, an aging female Boston Terrier (allegedly -- the dog is so strange looking that people spend a lot of time speculating what the mix must be) that Klam and her family take in after it turns up at a particularly rough pound in Brooklyn (Of course the rough pound is in Brooklyn). I won't spoil the great surprise that Dahlia has, but let me just say that she is as real and awesome as most characters in novels I've read. She's a real hero.
And, man, is this book funny. Take this paragraph, for example, in which Klam describes Dahlia:
"I told Paul it reminded me of when I was a kid growing up and a friend of mine had a grandmother who lived with her family. She didn't talk much, or wear flashy jewelry, or have her hair done, or smell good, like my grandmother; she just sat in a chair with her silver bed hair and a frayed men's cardigan, just watching us, and every so often saying, "You shouldn't play so close to the tree," or "Watch it by the pachysandra," or "I don't think your mother wants you running in the house." It was always kind of a bummer when you went there and realized she was out of her room. That was Dahlia to me, the unwanted, kvetchy grandmother."
And as funny as it is (and it is a very funny and fun book), there were moments when I found myself tearing up. I can't help it -- reading about dog's dying gets to me (and I was listening to Tom Waits, too, okay?).
A satisfying book, and a fast read. I can't recommend it enough.(less)