The Orient Express is a very compelling and atmospheric story, to be sure, but something about the virulent anti-Semitism and anti-lesbianism (such laThe Orient Express is a very compelling and atmospheric story, to be sure, but something about the virulent anti-Semitism and anti-lesbianism (such large rough hands!) seemed, if not offensive per se—since you could make the argument that Graham Greene was merely reflecting the spirit of his times—at least a bit creaky, storytelling-wise. It's as though, in Greene's mind, the most distinctive characteristic of a Jew or a lesbian were his Jewishness or her (ridiculously caricatured) lesbitude, so the writer doesn't need to give them additional unique and human character traits. On the other hand, to play devil's advocate: If we allow that Greene was simply an inveterate racist and misogynist, then we must applaud his magnanimous efforts, however stinting, to get inside the minds of these lesser creatures, where others might prefer to ignore them altogether. ...more
Oh, Donna, oh oh oh Donna (cuing the musical "Hair," which at certain points was the only way I could keep reading this interminable mope-fest of a boOh, Donna, oh oh oh Donna (cuing the musical "Hair," which at certain points was the only way I could keep reading this interminable mope-fest of a book).
It's not that The Goldfinch is too long—I love a long, rich, Dickensian novel like this one. It's that it's baggy, undisciplined, seemingly innocent of editing, and, killingly (for me), narrated by a main character who combines unlikability with self-pity. Will Theo never shut up about his not terribly interesting life? I will admit, Tartt gets her hooks into you, and despite my yearning for freedom from the ankle-shackle of The Goldfinch I kept reading to find out what would happen next. Because: Donna Tartt writes outstandingly good characters—Boris, the teenage alcoholic emotionally damaged Russian emigre who leads Theo down the road to perdition, and Hobie, the avuncular furniture shop artist who takes Theo under his wing—are fascinating and so vivid I felt like I knew them in my actual life. You keep reading because there's always the promise of more Boris, more Hobie.
But here's the thing I realized after I was about 600 pages into this thing and wishing that Theo would get hit by a bus and put himself—and us—out of his lengthily voiced misery: For whatever reason, Tartt narrates her books from the perspectives of characters who are the least interesting members of their casts. The Secret History, which was so well done it changed me as a reader, had as its narrator a character so blank I can't remember his name nor any facts about him other than that he was from California, while Bunny, Henry, the twins, and the creepy Greek professor remain vivid inhabitants of my imagination. Why? There's something about the shafted outsiderdom of these two narrators that is clearly very important to the author but fails to communicate itself to the reader—at least to this one. Try this thought experiment: Imagine The Goldfinch narrated by Boris. Fantastic, right? But what of any interest would he have to say about Theo? If nothing else, it would have been a shorter book, less sunk in mopery, without ignoring pain—plenty of that—and driven not by regret but by joy. ...more
Ultimately, even though most of my reading experience of Marisha Pessl's Night Film was colored by aggravation and impatience, the book wins: I was coUltimately, even though most of my reading experience of Marisha Pessl's Night Film was colored by aggravation and impatience, the book wins: I was compelled to finish it, all 600 pages. I'm still not entirely sure why I did--and why I'm still thinking about it, peeved, weeks later. But I'll try and map the hate and fascination--not unlike the hate and fascination the book's narrator, aha!, feels for the enigmatic horror-film director with whom he's unhealthily obsessed--that drove me onward.
1) The central aggravator of the book is a typographical one, which makes it doubly annoying, staring you in the face sometimes several times a paragraph, because it could have been so easily avoided, had the editor been braver or the author less blinkered: Yes, I speak of italics for emphasis. Beyond the fact that the italics "tilt" ordinary language that you increasingly realize is actually pretty banal, there is the fact that they're used by a narrator who's meant to be an investigative journalist. Try and name one investigative journalist with any credibility who uses italics for emphasis ever, let alone throughout a written piece. Triple, quadruple aggravation. It made me wish it was all a dream or that someone had warned me: Don't open that door.
2) There are three basic elements to the book: A) Stanislas Cordova, the aforementioned mysterious horror-film director who's created a mythic and mysterious cult of personality around himself, B) Ashley Cordova, the director's beautiful, talented and disturbed 24-year-old daughter, who is found dead, apparently flung from a building, in the book's opening pages and C) Scott McGrath, a disgraced investigative journalist who has a big bone to pick with the director, and who becomes convinced that in solving the mystery of Ashley's death he will dig up incriminating dirt on Cordova. McGrath and his two somewhat slapstick sidekicks are good, compelling, sympathetic figures. Alas, Ashley is so removed from the story by her legend and her death that she never really comes alive as a character, so to speak. But the real dead heart of the novel is Cordova himself. We hear lots and lots about how fascinated and disturbed by him everybody is, especially McGrath, but he is never evoked in a way that fascinates or disturbs. He's as sexy as an overwrought description of a sex scene, as scary as an academic dissertation on The Shining. A lot of sturm and drang and not much convincing dread and horror.
3) And yet! The successful part of the book is all pacing and structure: Pessl uses short chapters, in pretty much each of which a clue is solved and another clue is placed, and it keeps you chugging right along, with enough moody atmospherics and spooky black magic stuff to keep it weird and intriguing. I was much less interested in Ashley and the great director than I was in the three searchers who always seem to be on the verge of uncovering something big. And spurred along by Pessl's reputation as a literary punk-rock badass, as a reader I kept thinking that I was on the verge of uncovering the book's hidden genius, saved for a wicked "aha" at the end. Alas, under the magician's final screen there's nothing there at all. ...more
A discursive diagnosis of America's dissolution (if that's the right word--was there ever a "solution" to be dissolved? Or, to use Packer's title, wasA discursive diagnosis of America's dissolution (if that's the right word--was there ever a "solution" to be dissolved? Or, to use Packer's title, was America ever "wound" in the first place?). I became politically conscious sometime in the latter third of the period that Packer explores, and it certainly seems to me that we are more fractious than we've ever been before. Packer is at considerable pains to give page time to Tea Partiers as well as those who bleed "New Yorker" blue in his survey, and while he deserves credit for doing so, it's no mystery where his priorities lie. His real targets are those that used their power and influence to skew the system to their own ends at the expense (literally) of the average worker: Bankers, corporate overlords. His three-page portrait of Wal-Mart's Sam Walton is devastating in particular--a man who passed himself off as one of the average, small-town Americans whom he exploited by becoming their single source for affordable food, clothing, and, once all neighboring small businesses were dead, employment. ("Buy American" said the Wal-Mart signs advertising clothing made in Bangladesh.)
I liked Packer's method here--telling the stories of Americans who represent different paths our country has taken in the last 30 years. Some of these are not as riveting as the others, but they're all interesting. One curious thing: In his writing, Packer tries to take on some of the verbal style of his subject. This adds color, to be sure, but it can feel slightly condescending when he speaks of a rural person's love for Jesus in their own words (I highly doubt Packer shares their views), or just awkward when he describes Jay-Z's father leaving, and he writes, "his pop bounced." Okay, George. This sort of white-guy-at-the-club stuff aside, "The Unwinding" is a great, readable book that synthesizes a lot of the complicated, maddening things that have been happening in America in our own baffling time. ...more
A relentless exploration of one feckless, upper class youth (and later adult) whose only inspiration in life is winning the love of a married older woA relentless exploration of one feckless, upper class youth (and later adult) whose only inspiration in life is winning the love of a married older woman he spots on a boat one day. It doesn't go well.
I'm really curious what this book would have looked like had Flaubert published it in his 20s, when he wrote a draft and was still in love with the woman who inspired it, rather than at 48, 12 years after "Bovary."...more
I hate to filter my response to book based upon others' responses to a book, but after a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim, and the almostI hate to filter my response to book based upon others' responses to a book, but after a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim, and the almost unseemly vocal adoration of seemingly every major reviewer, one comes to a book with certain expectations. And in the case of this collection of nine short stories (seven of which were published previously in periodicals) that it took the author ten-plus years to complete, the subjects of which are men who keep cheating on their girlfriends and feeling sorry for themselves when those girlfriends get mad about it, one is acutely underwhelmed. What exactly is brave, fresh, or exciting about this? Is it the Spanglish and slang? Is it the Star Trek metaphors that the characters use to give shape to their emotions? Is it just that Diaz (who, yes, is a fantastic writer of sentences, however slight their freight) has a corner on this particular slice of the market? Unfair to ask, but still: Is this the work of "genius"? Here's hoping that Diaz's characters, led by Yunior, will be given the chance to grow up. ...more
What's the word for a book that you've held off on reading for years because you knew from everything you'd heard that it was custom built for you toWhat's the word for a book that you've held off on reading for years because you knew from everything you'd heard that it was custom built for you to love and you wanted to give it its proper due and finally you start to read it and maybe it's because you've outgrown a previous reading phase when you had patience and enthusiasm for such things but now that you're grim and jaded you find the book's whimsical overwroughtness and cloying self-regard to be intolerable rather than triumphant and the self-recrimination that fills you afterward comes not from having disliked a supposed masterpiece but from knowing that in a previous era you the book would have filled you with joy and pleasure and perhaps like taste buds your capacity for each deadens as you age? ...more