An odd book of stories that I was drawn to mostly because of the quality of the cover and the paper that that the book was printed on--it really is aAn odd book of stories that I was drawn to mostly because of the quality of the cover and the paper that that the book was printed on--it really is a nice-looking book. That said, I thought these stories were hit or miss at best, and for the most part were fairly standard, boring stuff. I suppose that in the story where a dead man wakes up at his own funeral and is in short order murdered by the mourners, the author is going for a Borges or Calvino vibe, but in my opinion the story just doesn't reach those heights. And that story, "Death at a Funeral" was one of the more memorable ones in this volume. ...more
Readable satire about a self-involved advertising executive named Eric Nye who's fully aware that he's a narcissist and a horrible person, and who speReadable satire about a self-involved advertising executive named Eric Nye who's fully aware that he's a narcissist and a horrible person, and who spends his life in service of what he views as the greatest evils of our current age, namely consumerism and general shallowness. But seeing fault in himself and the world around him doesn't mean Eric will change. Indeed, for most of this book we get to follow him around behaving like a horrible person, and he isn't exactly redeemed in the end, despite a chance at love and a brush with death. Still, I'm a reader who's always entertained by people behaving badly. ...more
I just found this book annoying above all else, and I ended up thinking this whole series was a waste of time. Whatever this book's genre is, I haven'I just found this book annoying above all else, and I ended up thinking this whole series was a waste of time. Whatever this book's genre is, I haven't read much of it. I suppose it's sci-fi, but set in the "real world". My problem with it is that there's no real plot, and there's no resolution when it comes to "Area-X". The action is very difficult to picture. ...more
This book kept the somewhat flagging momentum of the series going, at least enough to get me to keep going to the the third book, but not so much thatThis book kept the somewhat flagging momentum of the series going, at least enough to get me to keep going to the the third book, but not so much that I was particularly enthusiastic about moving forward to the third book. ...more
Oddly slight. Maybe we're meant to believe that the lack of detail is intentional, but I'm always skeptical of that type of thing. I didn't get the feOddly slight. Maybe we're meant to believe that the lack of detail is intentional, but I'm always skeptical of that type of thing. I didn't get the feeling that anything really happened. Still, this was readable, and I'm curious enough about the other books in the trilogy to keep reading. ...more
This is a book of poems from a Cleveland-based author, written in 1976 and long out-of-print, that I discovered through my work at the East ClevelandThis is a book of poems from a Cleveland-based author, written in 1976 and long out-of-print, that I discovered through my work at the East Cleveland Public Library, where I hold down the reference desk. I would encourage people who read and write poems more than I do (almost never and never, respectively) to give this one a look, because I think it's very good. I also read Atkins' more obscure stuff, and Here in The is by far the best and most complete example of his work that I found. ...more
No one does it quite like Richard Ford, which is the reason for the five stars here. This book though doesn't rise to the level of the other BascombeNo one does it quite like Richard Ford, which is the reason for the five stars here. This book though doesn't rise to the level of the other Bascombe novels, and I'm not sure it adds much to the previously published trilogy. Also, my old friend Frank's outlook seems to be verging toward bitterness in these stories. The character feels both like Frank and not. Ford must have felt like he had more to say, and you can't fault him for it. It's good to have this window into Frank's thoughts again, even briefly, and though the writing doesn't feel as carefully sculpted here as it does in the other Bascombe novels, there's enough humor to keep things moving pleasantly along, and there are plenty of sentences that feel like they were mulled over for a long summer afternoon before Ford put them to paper. ...more
My feelings about this book vacillated from annoyance at the beginning, to a kind of curiosity as to exactly what was going on with David and his variMy feelings about this book vacillated from annoyance at the beginning, to a kind of curiosity as to exactly what was going on with David and his various mental health issues in the middle, to an appreciation for Gray's sentences and plotting at the end. I ended up liking it quite a bit. The book wasn't perfect, and I never really cared about Frannie or what happened to her. Or about the "threats" David keeps finding around the house. I don't tend to like books that so obviously and deliberately withhold vital information from the reader. But "what happened" didn't really end up being the point in this one, and when the event at the book's center is finally revealed, I thought Gray handled it quite well. This book is something like an abstract painting of the aftermath of some terrible event. Hard to turn away from and quite beautiful in the end. ...more
Short and strange. This would be called "philosophical". I got the feeling that I very much would have liked this novel if I'd read it as a teenager.Short and strange. This would be called "philosophical". I got the feeling that I very much would have liked this novel if I'd read it as a teenager. Now, not so much, but that doesn't mean that its pleasures were completely lost on me. ...more
This one gets five stars on the sentences alone. They're long, smart, full of commas, and often hilarious. This book is zany on a slightly more subdueThis one gets five stars on the sentences alone. They're long, smart, full of commas, and often hilarious. This book is zany on a slightly more subdued level than Chronic City the last Lethem I read and loved, but it's still pretty wild. Also, I like a book with strong characters and not so much plot. And elements of melodrama are always a welcome guilty pleasure for me. So add all that up, and I thought Dissident Gardens was pretty much perfect....more
Love the Montana setting of this book, as well as the artful writing. Also there's something about the character here, a hard up social worker with aLove the Montana setting of this book, as well as the artful writing. Also there's something about the character here, a hard up social worker with a rich father who's living poor and has never quite left behind the binge drinking and emotional turbulence of youth. ...more
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1bmoyto
In The Circle, the tech giant that DMy review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1bmoyto
In The Circle, the tech giant that Dave Eggers presents looks something like a version of Google that has overcome and swallowed all competition. The Circle's rapid growth is due to its TruYou program. Billed as a way to "clean up" the internet, TruYou is basically a payment system that requires users to use their real names, as well as other personal information. The idea is that the bad things that happen on the internet--trolling and porn, for example--happen under the veil of anonymity. So the Circle takes anonymity out of the equation, and online life is allowed to rise to the utopian heights promised at the dawn of the Internet Age. Which makes sense, right? Because most people's favorite internet activities are sharing personal information with huge corporations and paying for things.
The Circle features a seemingly bright young woman named Mae Holland--moored in an unfulfilling job at her hometown's public utility since graduating from college--who attempts to take advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime when she's offered a job at the Circle. Despite the rosy-eyed view Mae takes of the company, all is not what it seems. As Mae rises from an entry-level customer service position to a high-level public relations role, she becomes a cheerful participant in a plot involving HD webcams that could, brace yourselves, lead to the end of privacy as we know it, not only on the internet, but in our everyday lives!
Yes, the concept is iffy at best, and the plot seems better suited to 2007 or so. But Eggers writes reliably readable prose. He has a real gift for the corporate slogan. The Circle is peppered with funny lines, and in the first third or so of this five hundred page book, when where we're headed isn't so completely obvious, Eggers manages to slowly ratchet up the tension in a way that's genuinely uncomfortable. It's entertaining to watch the screens on Mae's desk multiply, and to watch as she tries to crack the "T2K" in the Circle's internal "Party Rank," the number by which a Circler's online sharing and participation on the company's various social networks is judged.
Alas, it all becomes way too much. Is a network of webcams really that enormous a cause for concern? Would citizens calling for privacy protection really be so few and so marginalized? Would parents really allow their children to be micro-chipped? Would Mae really never question a single thing? And also, is the big reveal at the end of the book--the hidden identity of Mae's love interest--even remotely plausible? Mae has watched videos starring this mystery man--so are we to believe that he's aged so dramatically in five years that he's not recognizable, even when uncovering his identity becomes a kind of all-consuming obsession for Mae? And speaking of the book's ending, since when do uncomfortable personal situations cause a person to lapse into a coma?
The Circle is also riddled with small problems that are common to a lot of Eggers' recent work: reliance on cliché, shoddy character work, careless repetitions, and obvious metaphors.
I read The Circle over Thanksgiving, while traveling from Chicago to Ohio. The family celebration I attended in Columbus happened also to be attended by a Googler--I'm not going to name names, since Googlers are probably adept at Googling, but this person holds a similar rank to Mae's boss's boss in the novel, and would probably fall somewhere in the Circle's "Gang of 40"--so I was able, while reading this book, to observe a member of the ruling class that Dave Eggers is so afraid of. At the party, the Googler mostly tended to a brood of children, mixed in with the rest of the family, and took photographs. Then, on Monday, I was mildly surprised to find an email in my inbox, which revealed that the Googler hadn't been taking pictures at all, but had switched the camera he was using to video mode. The effect was hardly as nefarious as it might seem though. He'd edited the videos together into a five-minute amateur silent film. I found this touching, because it turns out the the Googler is just another human being, who instead of spending his Sunday hatching evil plans to destroy the world, spent it going through video clips of kids hitting a pinata, me sitting and talking to my eighty-five year old grandmother, and everyone cheering at the Buckeyes last second victory over Michigan.
I thought that little story was worth mentioning here, because that humanity is what's missing from The Circle.
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here :http://bit.ly/IiTkJe
This is Between Us is a beautiful novMy review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here :http://bit.ly/IiTkJe
This is Between Us is a beautiful novel that functions as something like a five-year slice-of-life, capturing the sexual and emotional ties that bind a pair of aging hipsters in Portland. Author Kevin Sampsell uses a somewhat experimental style, wherein the confessional first person narrator is writing to his beloved--hence, the two characters are referred to throughout as "you" and "I". Also, the story is told in a series of short vignettes, one or two page scenes that don't necessarily conform to a discernible plot arc. But the stylistic flourishes feel natural. The use of the second person has the effect of drawing the reader in rather than pushing us away, and the vignettes connote the randomness of memory. For me, the narrator's need to put this romance to paper added an element of urgency.
We meet You and I just as their romance is taking off in earnest. They met when they were both married to other people, and now they're both recently divorced. They have one child apiece, Vince and Maxine. In the first year of their relationship, You and I are on fire for each other, and it's not without some difficulty that they manage to merge their lives into a somewhat conventional two-parent household. In the second year, they're still learning the ins and outs of each other. By the end of the third year the fire has waned a bit, and another reassessment is required. They fight, have sex in strange places, break up, get back together, visit a couples therapist, raise their children, watch movies, read books, and never stop going to brunch. The male half of the relationship has a character tic where he cries at the drop of a hat, and it gets worse as he gets older. He also has history of bisexuality, and the biggest threat to the relationship comes in the form of "You's" seductive younger brother. The narrator's son Vince has an invisible friend that he keeps until he's a teenager. What all of this is heading toward--whether they'll make it or not--is what the novel relies on for suspense. I won't say more because I don't want to spoil it, but suffice to say the ending of the book felt spot-on to me, in the way that it provided some emotional release and deepened everything that came before it--understated, sure, but nearly perfect. It's not often that I read a book and think the author got the ending so right.
Here's the thing. Some novels manage to seep under the skin, take on their own lives inside of you, and creep back out later as a kind of memory, something that your subconscious mind is telling you that you've experienced but still have to work the kinks out of to fully understand. I'm glad I read this novel last week and waited until today to review it, because I ended up liking it quite a bit more after letting it settle for a few days. The only other novel I've read this year that's had this effect on me--and I wasn't expecting it to at the time--is James Salter's All That Is. I'm aware that the two novels seem very dissimilar, but Sampsell's prose washes over you in a way that's similar to Salter's. Sampsell's novel, like Salter's, feels unrushed. You get the sense that the narrator of both novels feels like what they have to say is worth saying the right way. Both novels are frank and honest, and both feature characters that are preoccupied, in very different ways, with understanding the ineffable--in the case of Sampsell's novel, the person the narrator shares his bed with, and in the case of Salter's the mysterious beauty in the arc of a life. The two books are also linked by the copious amounts of sex writing in each, which some readers might at times find cringe-worthy, but which I thought added to the feeling of openness.
Perhaps the most shocking revelation in This is Between Us came just after I finished reading it, when I was looking over the cover matter and saw that this is Kevin Sampsell's debut novel. It's shocking because Sampsell writes like a seasoned pro, and also because I've been aware of the author for many years now and was under the impression that he had long ago made good on his considerable potential. This is Between Us is a remarkable accomplishment, and I hope Sampsell the novelist has a whole shelf of books he's yet to write. ...more
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1c5Txda
Mira Corpora is an astonishing pieceMy review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1c5Txda
Mira Corpora is an astonishing piece of work: the rare experimental novel that also features rocket pacing, the coming-of-age story riding in the wake of a million others that still feels fresh and new, the story that wears its shock and awe on its sleeve yet still manages to stun, the debut novel featuring angsty teenagers using drugs that somehow feels authentic. Here's what you need to know: It's gripping; it's interesting; it's good stuff.
Take, for example, the angsty/suicidal teenage narrator. This year, I have read what feels like a hundred of these novels, all them debuts, and all but one of them from small indie presses. I won't call out the authors by name, but suffice to say they all have big problems that arise because reading a book featuring suicidal narrator generally involves listening to a lot of what amounts to empty hemming and hawing. I suppose the author's design in most of these novels is for the reader to firmly align him or herself in the suicidal narrator's camp, listing all of the reasons this poor young person has to live, while the suicidal narrator drones on and on insufferably about should he or shouldn't he kill himself. Well, in Mira Corpora, the word suicide is never mentioned. But then we have this scene. Mr. Jackson's narrator--also named Jeff Jackson--is at this point a 15-year-old urban street person turned sex-slave/pet. A well-heeled German immigrant named Gert-Jan keeps the Jeff Jackson of the novel prisoner by dosing him on a daily basis with with a fizzy neon green pill, but one day young Jeff palms the pill and pantomimes a swallow. The next day, he does the same, and an unnamed plan begins to emerge. "My hands seem to be scavenging for something in particular. All the while I listen to the clanging sound of feet on the circular metal steps. I have no idea what I'm preparing to do until I climb onto a chair and fling a strand of twine over the chandelier." There you have it. Up until this point in the novel, the idea of suicide hasn't entered our narrator's mind. And yet a moment later he's hanging by his makeshift noose, and a moment after that he's crashed to the floor with the chandelier still tied to his neck and ceiling rubble all around him, and he drags the whole mess behind him as he staggers to a picture window from which he plans to jump. Obviously, this isn't the only way to approach suicide in a novel, but it's so superior to the many recent treatments I've seen the subject given that it got my attention. Whereas many debut novels seem filled with the author's fantasies of anguish, here is the real deal, or at least a close facsimile. Here is an author--as advertised in the "Author's Note" at the beginning of the text--who seems to be speaking from experience.
And that's not all that got my attention in Mira Corpora. We meet young Jeff as a six-year-old orphan, and then are reintroduced to him as an eleven-year-old living with his abusive alcoholic mother, who he tells us appears to reclaim him every so often. The best sections of the novel come after Jeff has run away. We are introduced to a backwoods settlement peopled entirely by teenage runaways, where a dead body is burned at a funeral pyre, a band of the escaped monkeys from a foreclosed amusement park wanders the landscape, and lecherous gun-wielding truckers wait in ambush. Jeff visits three "oracles," whose appearance in the novel seems to echo Homer's sirens, their sweet song a precursor to death and corruption.
Jeff's quest takes him next to the city, where he shuttles "between a cardboard refrigerator box in the alley next to the Emerald Mountain Chinese restaurant and a wool blanket on the concrete floor of the municipal shelter." One day, the mailman hands him an envelope containing a cassette recording of a legendary and elusive indie musician. Jeff realizes the cassette tape is a gift, and it excites him. He borrows a Walkman from a fellow street person. Mr. Jackson describes the urban landscape beautifully. "A few homeless have bothered to climb the chain-link fence that protects the partitions of dead grass from the public. They lie on the ground like neglected sculptures, blackened by the elements." And, "The ground is covered in fresh, grayish-green splatches of pigeon shit." And, "The wind swirls some grimy black condoms and supermarket fliers at my feet." While young Jeff is finally listening to the transcendent garage rock on the tape, he's approached by a roving gang of Luchos. The Luchos tell him to hand the tape over. Jeff refuses. They encircle him and close in. Fight or flight instinct takes over, and Jeff lunges at the head Lucho. He knocks him to the ground, and clamps down on his nose with his teeth. This stuns the gang of Luchos. "His nose is squelchy cartilage in my mouth," Jeff narrates. "I can feel it start to give. So can he. More screams. More cursing. [...] With a savage jerk, I rip my head to the side. His nose is in my mouth. A chunk of rubbery gristle. [...] Everything halts for a moment as El Lucho Jefe gives a heart-shuddering, high-pitched scream to the heavens. I spit his nose on the ground." With the nose on the ground, Jeff and the Luchos are swarmed by stray dogs. Jeff flees and ends up on a rooftop above the park, where he listens to the cassette tape again. "From the first quavering notes," he narrates, "I can feel again how everything has changed."
So can the reader. What's changed for us, is that we're no longer in a story that resembles any other we've read. We're knee-deep in a propulsive novel that's not only a cut above the average bildungsroman, but is just objectively good by any standard.
There's much more here that I haven't touched on--the relationship between the "real" and "invented" Jeff Jackson, the novel's sometimes challenging but ultimately linear structure, and the wonderful way that Mr. Jackson draws attention, again and again to the words on the page themselves. In the age of e-readers, the book as object is very much alive here. When Jeff is struck by the uneasy sensation in the last line that his hand might "stab straight through the page", the possibility feels all too real. Mira Corpora will amply satisfy readers looking for both depth and entertainment. ...more
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1itEcTS
Is it possible to explain the existeMy review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1itEcTS
Is it possible to explain the existence of Christianity, Christians, and bad Christian novels with the theory of Evolution? In a word, yes. In fact, it's easy. Darwinism is beautiful because it's so simple. Mutated traits that make reproduction more likely tend to be replicated over time. Over generations, the mutation becomes the norm. And that's really it. Simple enough for a child to understand.
So the question is, does Christianity make reproduction more likely? Christianity--at least in year zero or thereabouts--was a mechanism for organization, a belief system that allowed adherents to gather together in an easily defensible structure, which provided handy shelter against not only the weather, but also common enemies. So for the early Christian, Christianity equaled increased odds toward survival in a brutal world, and increased life expectancy equaled greater opportunity to breed. More recently, Christians who journeyed to America had the advantage of being resistant to smallpox--again, survival equals reproduction--but in the last century or so, Christians have had to make breeding doctrinal.
Anyone who doesn't think Christian leaders understand evolution only has to look at the issues of gay marriage, abortion, and birth control. These aren't moral or social issues. They're biological. The unstated thinking goes like this: Even if dad is a closeted homosexual living a miserable, miserable lie, who raises four miserable kids, then either offs himself or has a nervous breakdown at fifty, and even if dad's suicide or institutionalization leaves his whole family shaky, afraid and thinking that its really all their fault, well that situation is still preferable to dad admitting his sexual orientation before marriage and living a different kind of life with a higher opportunity for happiness but almost zero opportunity for reproduction, since what Christianity gets out of the doomed marriage is four new Christians who are more likely than not to cling to religion after everything else in their lives falls apart.
Sorry if I sound bitter there. And sorry if I've laid my cards on the table. As another example, take birth control: every prevented pregnancy equals one less Christian. Or take the website "Christian Mingle," whose ads pollute my fantasy football homepage every Sunday. What about abortion? It's probably best to not even step down that path. Suffice to say though, Christians have taken a long view in their battle with secularism, and their tactics point to a fairly sophisticated understanding of evolution. No gays, no abortion and no birth control add up to more Christians. All of these new Christians, unfortunately, need Christian novels. Give it a million generations or so and there's no hope for the rest of us.
You may have noticed, early on in the above rant, that I said Darwinism is simple enough for a child to understand. In Lauren Grodstein's new novelThe Explanation of Everything, however, evolution is the source of much confusion. Ms. Grodstein gives us as a protagonist one Andy Waite, a biology professor. The main conflict in the book is Andy's hand-wringing--is evolution really the explanation of everything, or is the explanation of everything perhaps something else, maybe even Jesus, Jesus, Jesus?
Take two examples from the novel. In the first, Andy is having a conversation with a student named Melissa, a young creationist who has convinced him to mentor her in an independent study geared toward proving intelligent design...
'Well,' she said, leaning forward, her breasts straining heavily against her turtleneck[...], 'DNA is a code, right? [...] Codes aren't designed by chaos.[...] The only real rational explanation for coding is an intelligent designer who planned it all out.'
It's ironic that Andy is staring at Melissa's breasts in the scene, because up until that point he hasn't yet remembered the vital role that sex plays in evolution. As Andy and Melissa's conversation goes on, Andy can't find his footing. He can't figure out how to disprove Melissa's opinions. To me, this idea doesn't seem believable. Full disclosure, I'm not a biologist. At all. I had pretty much headed in the direction of reading and writing before I finished high school. That said, I don't think Melissa's argument for a designer based on DNA would be difficult at all for a biologist to shoot down. My own very, very limited understanding is that mutations cause DNA to change over time from generation to generation, and that evolution is the product of those mutations that make successful breeding more likely, and so carry on from generation to generation. Since DNA is fluid, molded over time due to the environment, its "design" is just an adaptation to the natural world. But such an explanation is lost on Andy.
Even more unbelievably, after their first meeting Andy takes home a book that Melissa gives him entitled God is a Rainbow, and he finds himself swayed by a particular passage. "Have you ever spoken to a small, guilty child who's trying to get out of telling the truth?" the author asks. "When the child starts spinning his story, it becomes more and more fanciful. He would need a mere sentence to tell the truth; his elaborate tale requires paragraphs." With that, Andy's foundational beliefs begin to crumble.
And that's also where The Explanation for Everything begins to show its true colors. Soon Andy is "allowing for the possibility of God." Soon after that he's taking his young daughter to be baptized, and he's viewing his life's problems in a Christian light. I personally find the idea that an apparently sophisticated scientist could be swayed in this way ridiculous. The thought that's troubling Andy is that evolution requires such a detailed explanation? What about the sentence I used at the beginning of this review: "Those traits or mutations that make reproduction more likely tend to be replicated over time." Sounds pretty simple to me.
So am I saying that Andy, as written, is stupider than your average child? No, there's something else at work here. What about Lauren Grodstein? Her prose is too breezy, her plot too propulsive and readable for her to be called stupid. I'm afraid Ms. Grodstein's offense is far worse. At its heart, The Explanation for Everything is a disingenuous book. Sex and reproduction--the simple explanation, and the heart of the theory--is never once mentioned in connection with evolution. The goal of this omission seems to be to manufacture confusion--and an opening for faith--where there should be none.
For that, The Explanation for Everything is just as offensive as a Southern preacher standing in front of his megachurch and expounding on the evils of gay marriage, abortion and the like. This is true whether or not Grodstein herself is a Christian, because the uncertainty at the book's heart doesn't come from an intellectually honest place. The "gray area" Andy finds himself in at the end of the story is calculated for the dirty purpose of driving sales, which may be its own kind of honesty but is the subject for another day.
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/16lmrDM
This book of essays piqued my intereMy review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/16lmrDM
This book of essays piqued my interest because it's written by a Chicagoan--and not just any Chicagoan, but one who resides in the part of Rogers Park that realtors like to call "Loyola Park". Which means Samantha Irby likely binge-watches Breaking Bad only a couple city blocks from where I binge-watch Breaking Bad. It's always fascinating to read about an author trying to "mask the sound of stress diarrhea in a tiny nail shop bathroom" when there's a chance you might run into her on the street.
But there's more to Meaty than just diarrhea. There's toe-sucking. There's "day-three-heavy-flow-bleeding-like-a-stuck-pig" period sex. There's what seems like an atypical amount of butt sex (and there can't be butt sex, at least in this book, without the mention of poop). There's copious amounts of profanity on every page. AND WHEN IRBY WANTS TO MAKE HER POINT SHE DOES IT IN ALL CAPS. She wants to make her point often. Which means A LOT OF CAPS. Which is fine. Irby writes a popular blog, and her writing is fast-paced and infectious. I would compare her style to Lindsay Hunter--short words arranged into run-on sentences, with an almost Kerouacian stream-of-consciousness feel, but with a focus on shock instead of beauty. The many facets of Irby's character--the not-so-young young person who can't balance her checkbook, the poor black girl who grew up in the rich white suburbs, the young urbanite trying to navigate the sexual mores of the early twenty-first century, the daughter of parents who died when she was still in her teens, the perpetually sick Crohn's sufferer--make Meaty an entertaining and memorable read. Irby is also a very funny writer. Though her methods aren't subtle, and this book is aimed pretty squarely at an audience that isn't me, I found myself chuckling out loud every page or so. I can only read so many lines about dying "alone, in giant panties that come up to my chin, with crumbs under my tits, and a half eaten cat face" before just giving in and laughing. You have to hand it to Samantha Irby. She's persistent. Her experience as a stage performer comes through on the page. She knows how to win her audience over.
But there's still more. Meaty was published last month by Curbside Splendor publishing here in Chicago. This is the first book by Curbside that I have purchased or read, but I have to say that as an object the book is impressive, with a slicker, more professionally produced feel than what I'm accustomed to seeing from small presses. And, notably, Meaty is about to be featured as a holiday selection in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Authors program. I don't follow B&N Discover very closely, but this has to be the first time a publisher this tiny--Curbside looks to have published ten or so original books as well as several anthologies thus far in its short life--has landed a book on that list. The idea that such a thing is possible is big news, or ought to be. We've all heard that about the seismic shift happening in publishing right now, from big to small, from New York outward. Or at least I've heard about it. Again, and again, and again. But I've never once listened or cared. I've always thought that in a best-case-scenario, small-scale indie publishing and large-scale New York publishing will continue to exist in separate spheres, but that the more likely scenario is that there will be overlap when New York reaches into the indie world to rob it of it's most promising (i.e., most lucrative) talent whenever it becomes aware of some success. Which has happened recently with some YA authors of genre fiction, and may yet happen with Samantha Irby. But Meaty landing on the B&N Discover list feels bigger than that to me, because what New York publishing relies on in order to keep reaching over into the indie world and plucking the best talent out whenever it wants to is prestige. And one example of prestige is a place on that list. So when a tiny publisher from Chicago gets a spot that Knopf wishes it had, that means something. It takes that much prestige away from Knopf and gives it to Curbside. If this prestige gap continues to close, then certain writers might be less inclined to put up with the less appealing parts of the New York publishing experience (i.e., agents who are perpetually on Safari in Africa, publishers that put money ahead of art every single time) and start looking elsewhere. At least that's what this news made me think.
But back to the book. Perhaps more than anything, what I enjoyed about Meaty is seeing my little corner of Chicago through the eyes of someone who is so distinctly not me. This book isn't perfect--it loses focus pretty badly somewhere between the cringe-worthy television pitch and the recipe section that features such gems as "Beef Taco Casserole, WHAT"--but it's frank, funny, entertaining and well worth the read. ...more
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1bYzD1v
On the one hand, Eric Kennedy's storMy review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1bYzD1v
On the one hand, Eric Kennedy's story is that of a familiar American rise and fall. College, followed by a period of wandering, then love and marriage, followed by parenthood. A decent job gives way to better job--in real estate, set up for Eric by his generous father-in-law--and early middle-age is marked by a period of relative prosperity and contentment. But unhappiness creeps in. The real estate market crashes. A period as a "stay at home dad" follows. Eric's wife Laura is troubled by his sometimes erratic parenting style. She remarks that she doesn't feel like she knows him. And so: divorce, shabby apartment, shared visitation. Eric feels a bit blindsided by it all.
So far, Eric seems to fit within a category of masculinity more than adequately represented in recent literary fiction--the limp, withering sad-sack (LWSS); the emasculated, pudgy Viagra-user (EPVU).
But one powerful reason that Schroder rises so high above recent novels featuring such characters--I'm thinking of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison and A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, but there are literally hundreds of others to choose from--is that Gaige's protagonist, despite the many similarities, is emphatically not an LWSS or EPVU. Eric Kennedy is flawed but wonderfully complex. Schroder is the fourth book I've given 10 stars to here at CCLaP, after Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, Richard Ford's Canada, and Rebbecca Lee's Bobcat. Which means that I recommend this book to everyone. I think anyone who reads it will be richer for it.
That said, Schroder is a difficult novel to write about. It's graceful and elegant, and yet there's a mean streak that runs through it. It's a very smart novel that takes much of structure from Nabokov's Lolita. The resemblance is close enough that I recognized it immediately even though I read Lolita in high school, when my mind for reading (and especially reading Nabokov) wasn't fully formed. Schroder is also one of the most well-written books I've read this year, and it's very confidently presented. And yet, despite the big brain at work Schroder has a breezy, entertaining quality. It's suspenseful, quick, and at times even thrilling.
The plot goes something like this: Eric Kennedy was born Eric Schroder. The fateful transformation from Schroder to Kennedy takes place after a childhood doctors visit, during which young Eric reads a brochure for a summer camp in the waiting room. He steals the brochure, takes it home, and it becomes a powerful fantasy for him. Eric's life so far has been very unlike the carefree lifestyle depicted in the brochure's pages--born in Germany, abandoned by (or torn away from) his mother at a young age, transported to a new immigrant life in America, where he and his father fail to fit in. Gaige's description of Camp Ossipee bears a resemblance to the summer camp at the center of Phillip Roth's 2009 novel Nemesis. Its a place where you can become a whole new person. Eric Schroder fills out the application on the back of the brochure, but instead of "Schroder" he writes the last name "Kennedy." On the spot, he concocts a new history for himself--a childhood as a member of fallen aristocratic family, a hazy connection to the "other" Kennedy's. As Eric Kennedy, he applies for and receives a scholarship to the camp. And at Camp Ossipee he does become a whole new person. And he likes the new person better than the old. The new person's name is of course Eric Kennedy, and so he keeps it. When we meet Eric, he has gone to college, gotten married, had a child and succumbed to divorce, all as Eric Kennedy. Now he's stuck. He's mired in a custody battle with his wife, but he can't challenge her in court, because if he did his true identity would be found out.
The genius of this concept is that its so easy to empathize with. Literally everyone has been struck at one time or another with the desire to be more than who we are, so we can understand why Eric would take on his new identity. Starting the story at a place where we can relate to Eric is important, because his decisions quickly go from bad to worse. Soon, we're watching in something close to horror as he engages in a slow-mo train wreck of a high speed chase with his father-in-law, and then kidnaps his daughter. The bulk of the novel is the ensuing father and daughter road trip. We watch as Eric makes one questionable decision after another. He seems almost determined to prove to us that he is a bad person--he tries to lock his daughter in the trunk of his stolen car, he abandons her to have drunken sex, he loses her asthma medication--but we never lose our sympathy for Eric, or our ability to relate to him.
In last week's New York Times Book Review there was a column that asked the question of whether there was a "Great American Novel" written by a woman. The answers the dueling columnists gave were unsatisfactory to me--variations of "what is a 'Great American Novel' anyway?" Well, I would like to nominate Schroder for that status. This novel tackles the big themes of its day, has a ripped-from-the-headlines plot, and is filled with impeccable writing, but one of it's major strengths--the extreme empathy with which Gaige approaches her protagonist--is distinctly feminine.
I know, I know. Equating femininity with empathy is reductive. In fact, the thought may be borderline sexist. And I started this review with a mini-rant about LWSS and EPVU protaganists and the reductive view of masculinity that they perpetuate. I guess my point is that I'm not sure that a male writer could have been so generous with Eric, and that the idea discussing the great American novel with the qualifier "written by a woman" attached, while potentially reductive, might be more worthwhile than it seems.
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1e7glsW
"All night in darkness the water speMy review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1e7glsW
"All night in darkness the water sped past."
How you react to that sentence--this novel's first--will likely determine how you react to James Salter's All That Is. The sentence is chiseled to its essential core--it tells us that we are on a boat, that the boat is traveling through the night--and yet the words manage to retain a healthy amount of a certain kind of masculine poetry. If we read a little further, we find out that the boat in question is a Navy warship, and that it is carrying our protagonist Phillip Bowman into battle. We find out that it's the end of the World War II. Of the sinking of a great Japanese warship, Salter writes: "It was not a battle, it was a ritual, the death of a huge beast brought about by repeated blows. [...] Near the end of the second hour, listing almost eighty degrees, with hundreds dead and more wounded, blind and ruined, the gigantic ship began to sink."
The beginning of All That Is is the end of the war, so it makes sense that the few pages describing battle scenes are the most descriptive and beautiful in the novel. This is the story of a postwar life, a life lived in war's ever-widening shadow. By chapter two we've followed Phillip to New York, where he gets a job as a book editor. We follow him through a failed early marriage and several love affairs. There is a healthy amount of the sex writing Salter is known for. We get sex from both the male and female point of view, written with a kind of ultra-compressed, lyrical minimalism. "She reached down and slipped off her shoes," Salter writes. The sentence contains volumes. The author seems to have a fascination with zooming in on his characters at moments when their guard is down. Salter also makes liberal use of another technique, which, for lack of better phrasing, I'll call "opening a portal" into his characters' lives. For just a few sentences, or a paragraph, or sometimes an entire chapter, he'll let us see what the world looks like through the eyes of a certain character. Salter's mission is to express the life's wideness, and to express Bowman's own wonder at it. Salter's purpose isn't so much to allow Bowman to come to any conclusions about what he has seen as it is to chronicle his experience.
All That Is is an exercise in the type of compression that Hemingway specialized in--what Hemingway himself called "poetry written into prose"--taken to an extreme that Hemingway might have reached had he lived and written effectively for another thirty or so years. I don't mean that All That Is is better than Hemingway's best work, but I do believe that Salter takes it to a level that Hemingway wasn't able to reach in his lifetime. Part of the accomplishment of this novel has to be Salter's expansive focus. Besides Bowman, we get the "portals" into the lives of twenty or so other characters. The narrative spans fifty years.
On the surface, Bowman's life ends up looking a bit sad--he never has children, never finds true love, and never becomes as rich or successful as some of his contemporaries. Bowman's life also doesn't provide much of a plot or plot arc. He doesn't so much begin as find himself involved in a war. In the middle of the novel, directly after the war, Bowman is characterized mostly by desire. He strongly desires conventional comforts like love, marriage, a career. But desire fades. Toward the end of the novel, Bowman is having dinner with his boss. Salter writes that, "Their dog, a black Scottie, didn't even bother to sniff him." Ouch. Bowman doesn't come to an end so much as lose his spirit.
The closest thing to an arc in All That Is is provided by Ezra Pound. (Incidentally, Pound also made an appearance in Salter's last book of fiction, 2005's Last Night. The title of the story "My Lord You" in that collection is taken from Ezra Pound's translation of the Chinese poem "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter"--this probably doesn't suggest Pound fandom on Salter's part so much as it suggests that he was engaged in the writing of All That Is a decade or so ago when he was working on the story.) Early on in the novel Bowman tells his wife Vivian he "was reading about Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth's." Vivian asks what Pound was there for, and he tells her, "probably because they didn't know what else to do with him." He describes Pound as "a towering poet," then goes on to explain, "he made some broadcasts for the fascists in Italy. [...] He had obsessions about the evils of bank interest, Jews, the provincialism of America, and he talked about them in his broadcasts. He was at dinner in Rome one night and heard the news that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor, and he said, my God, I'm a ruined man." Vivian says that Pound doesn't sound crazy, and Bowman agrees. Bowman's refusal to accept what he views as the flawed prevailing wisdom about Pound--that he lost his mind and turned to spewing mindless ugliness--is what youth and vitality looks like in this novel, at least when youth and vitality isn't finding expression by more carnal means.
Toward the end of the book, Pound makes another appearance. At least a decade has passed, and Bowman's marriage to Vivian has long since ended. Bowman is out to dinner with his boss, and the publisher's wife Diana is discussing the Bollingen Prize, which was awarded to Pound for the Pisan Cantos in its inaugural year of 1948. "They did it as soon as they could," Diana says. "You don't honor someone who's thrown sewage on top of you and stirred up ignorance and hatred." Bowman lets the comment pass. It's not that his opinion about Pound has changed in the intervening years, so much as that he no longer holds passionate opinions at all. It's no coincidence that in the chapter immediately following, Bowman makes a desperate (and apparently successful) attempt to reassert his manhood.
All in all, this is a beautiful, difficult, and sometimes puzzling novel. Though Salter takes many cues from Hemingway, I'm not sure Hemingway himself would have found this intense focus on the everyday to be worthwhile. ...more
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/18QA7Yg
Is there a place in modern literaryMy review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/18QA7Yg
Is there a place in modern literary fiction for the protagonist who has it all? What does "having it all" even mean? In the case of Peter O'Hara, the hero of Chicago author Dan Burns' heartfelt but uneven debut novel Recalled to Life it means a breezy life in the Chicago suburbs replete with a devoted wife, precocious child, rescue dog and comfortable house. All of this is bought and paid for by an important job in the Loop, where Peter is a junior partner in a large architecture firm, with a small but hand-picked team working under him. These features of a fine, American life are presented without irony. Peter has his youth and health. He has a full head of raven-colored hair. He has enough money to pay for his father's care in an upscale assisted living facility, then has the money to add-on to the family's house and hire full-time live-in help when his father's situation changes. In short, Peter is basically happy, and he has every reason to be.
The Chicagoland suburbs in Recalled to Life reminded me a bit of New Jersey in Richard Ford's The Sportswriter novels. And Frank Bascombe in those novels is of course a good example of another character who is basically happy. But Bascombe is happy despite having a lot less than Peter O'Hara has here, and Bascombe wears his happiness in a wary, hard-won way, as if it's a philosophy or way of life instead a mood. When Bascombe faces challenges, the reader gets the sense that there's much more at stake than simply happiness. And despite all the effort, Bascombe might not be very happy at all. Certainly Ford's narrator isn't as "admirable" as Peter O'Hara is in this novel. Not since reading Ayn Rand as a teenager have I encountered a character I was so clearly supposed to admire.
But what prevents Recalled to Life from being as evocative as The Sportswriter--other than small weaknesses in descriptive language and sentence construction that pepper the manuscript--is that there isn't enough at stake for Peter O'Hara. Sure, life throws some curveballs in the course of this book. His father Jack--afflicted with an Alzheimer's-like ilness--experiences a miraculous recovery and moves in with Peter's family. This added pressure at home causes Peter's work at the architecture firm to suffer. But the character Dan Burns has created is too happy, too confident and too well-adjusted for any of this to actually threaten the O'Hara family's well-being. It turns out that the most estimable characters aren't always the most entertaining. ...more
My review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/GA2qjn
Philipp Meyer's 2009 novel American RMy review from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/GA2qjn
Philipp Meyer's 2009 novel American Rust was one of the few literary debuts to break through that year, generating positive reviews in major publications, earning Meyer a spot on The New Yorker's 20 under 40 list, and creating a lot of hype around this recently released follow-up, The Son. Like all breakthrough novels, the reasons for American Rust's popularity were part luck, part timing, and part Meyer's talent. The book was about de-industrialization in rural Pennsylvania--a key scene takes place as the two heroes are taking shelter in an abandoned factory--and happened to be published during the economic crisis, when readers' interest in stories of victims of the recession was at its highest. Despite having undeniable potential, I thought American Rust was a disappointment. The problem with that novel was mostly with Meyer's storytelling abilities. The plotting gets wild, characters' behavior gets erratic and unbelievable, the writing gets loose. It's a book I wanted to love, and for the first hundred or so pages I did, but it ended up making me groan one too many times to earn anything like a ringing endorsement. I remember talking to a friend about American Rust, trying to describe it and build my friend's enthusiasm momentarily before feeling shame or embarrassment mixed with the certainty that if my friend were to read the book he'd see it for the work of schlockery that it is, at which point I backtracked from the endorsement and recommended Lorrie Moore's Gate at the Stairs, which came out around the same time, instead. Moore's novel has its own problems, but the comparison of the two novels is worthwhile. The difference is that Moore's novel feels like real life, while Meyer's novel feels like a writer fleshing out (i.e., making longer) a detailed outline.
Despite all this, as I said, the first hundred pages of American Rust were very good. The potential was undeniable. Enough so that I was genuinely excited to read The Son. Reviewers were tossing around comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and phrases like "Great American Novel." The book is blurbed by Richard Ford, who calls Meyer "an impressive and multi-talented storyteller." I've never had dinner with Phillipp Meyer, or drinks, or met him in person, which Ford must have, because he's clearly judging Meyer's abilities on something other than The Son. Apart from being a good or great novel (it's neither), this book certainly can't be taken as evidence of storytelling ability. The problems are shared with American Rust. A very strong first hundred pages, which quickly becomes repetitive and boring, due mostly to overly rigid and amateurish structuring on Meyer's part.
The Son begins in the spring of 1849 on the hot plains of Texas, as we watch a band of Comanches ruthlessly murder a family of settlers. The sole survivor of that massacre is Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by the Indians, then ends up becoming a member of their tribe, which he leaves after most of them die of smallpox. Eli grows up to become an Indian hunter, then a rancher. Besides murdering at will, Eli also fathers offspring. The Son is narrated by representatives of three generations of McCulloughs: Eli, his son Peter, and his great-granddaughter Jeannie.
The offspring are the problem. Jeannie is a Scarlett O'Hara type cliché. Peter is a bit wooden, and his romantic swooning is hard to take. The main problem though is that neither of these characters (nor the narratives they occupy) are particularly compelling, especially when viewed in comparison to Eli, who rules this book and hangs over both of Peter and Jeannie's lives like a shadow they can never escape.
I'm not going to knock Meyer for a few problems in a five-hundred page novel. After all, there might be some reader out there who finds it engaging and suspenseful to have a character engage in a semi-conscious death-dance across five-hundred plus pages. There might be a reader who finds the disturbing butt-sex scene (the dutiful frontier wife doesn't want to get pregnant) in the middle of the book to be, sensual, sexy, or well-written. But to criticize Meyer's every misstep wouldn't be quite honest. The truth is that The Son does meet some minimum criteria for readability. And the subject matter does successfully evoke a feeling of Americana.
The real problem with this novel, and the only one it can't hope to escape, is structural. The narration switches too reliably: Eli, Peter, Jeannie, Eli, Peter, Jeannie, Eli, Peter, Jeannie. Certainly, a "storyteller in the good, old sense" would have no use for such a structure. Think about the last time you heard a good story; did the teller stop ever ten minutes and say, "now, wait a minute, let me catch you up on John?" That's ridiculous. A real storyteller would catch you up on John when you needed to be caught up on John, when knowing certain facts that were essential to the larger story became necessary. When Meyer constantly switches narration, it doesn't feel like he's acting out of duty to his reader, but instead like he's bound himself to a too-simple structure. When the author is so focused on maintaining control over his story, any opportunity for reaching emotional truth, which is necessarily messy and is the realm of all art, is irrevocably lost. ...more
I picked up this book at the YMCA Greater St. Louis Book Fair this past weekend, and I was surprised by how good it was. I've been collecting first edI picked up this book at the YMCA Greater St. Louis Book Fair this past weekend, and I was surprised by how good it was. I've been collecting first editions of Roth's books, but the only one I had read so far was 2006's Everyman, which I didn't think much of. Anyway, my wife and I were camping at a state park, I'd forgotten to bring any reading with me, and so I gave this one a try. Yeesh. Something about the nostalgic tone, the character of 23-year-old Bucky, the summer in Newark in 1944 setting, the straightforward writing--whatever it was, Roth hooked me right away. By the time the first 100 or so page section ended with an unexpected twist that remade the book into something other than I thought it was, I realized I was indeed in the hands of a master. Also, the meditation on how a small moment of weakness that ought to be insignificant can ruin a life. And the idea that a person's idea of right and wrong can so easily become twisted. And to tell the story so quietly. There you have it. I bow before you, Philip Roth. Never thought the day would come, but it has. ...more
I happened upon this book of stories at a library sale not too long ago, about the time Lasdun's latest book On Being Stalked was being talked about.I happened upon this book of stories at a library sale not too long ago, about the time Lasdun's latest book On Being Stalked was being talked about. It's Beginning to Hurt ended up being the best book of stories I've read since stumbling across Thom Jones's Cold Snap in a similar manner several years ago. Punchy but somehow elegant language, painful interiority, and a sense of something akin to embarrassment, shame or puzzlement. In short, something close what my own interior world looks like on a daily basis, but better stated. Lovely stories....more