It took me awhile to be seduced by this one, but once it happened, it was nearly complete. Pretty bold to just lay your main plot point out there in t...moreIt took me awhile to be seduced by this one, but once it happened, it was nearly complete. Pretty bold to just lay your main plot point out there in the title, but the book was about much more than that. History. Memory. Legacy. And yes, Irish prep school boys calling each other "Van Blowjob."
By the end of these 650 some pages, I really didn't want to leave this school, despite the fact that it had been nearly destroyed. But, so had my heart, dear Goodreads readers. So had my heart. (less)
It's a sad day when a man has to give a Michael Chabon book two stars. On the whole, though, I found this indulgent, overly-fussy, and populated with...moreIt's a sad day when a man has to give a Michael Chabon book two stars. On the whole, though, I found this indulgent, overly-fussy, and populated with characters I couldn't quite bring myself to care about. There's many an inventive sentence here, but I wish good old M.C. had taken a little of the energy he put into dropping those multi-semi-colon-pop-culture-referencing-mini-paragraphs and given this baby some more narrative urgency. I know he can spin a yarn with the best of them. This one was more like an intricately-patterned, itchy sweater. With suede elbow patches. And a zipper. (less)
I have long avoided academic satires for two main reasons. The first is that I myself am an academic of sorts and I already know how ridiculous I am....moreI have long avoided academic satires for two main reasons. The first is that I myself am an academic of sorts and I already know how ridiculous I am. Second: the genre has always seemed to me like shooting fish (with PhDs) in a barrel.
But now, I'm going on the academic job market this year, so I've decided some comic relief about my chosen profession might be a good thing. The main reason being: if I can tell myself on some level that it's all a giant cluster-cuss of ego-surfing solipsistic lunacy than I won't feel as bad when no one hires me.
I decided to start with Russo because, quite simply, I like the cut of the man's writing jib. It's probably not cool to like Richard Russo anymore (if it ever was). He's a bit too good humored and dare I say, optimistic, for the average literary reader. And many of his books get made into movies that your parents like. But still, I turn to Russo for humanism. Not specifically for the fundamental good in people, but for the ways in which he seems to understand the small humiliations, irrational desires, and fleeting joys that make up much of our lives and the way he forgives us for our inability to make sense of all this. He finds something noble and big-hearted in even the most dispiriting aspects of contemporary American culture. Like, say, for instance, the way a college is run.
The familiar tropes show up here from page one. Lots of tweed. Department in-fighting. Feminists vs Old Department Dinosaurs. Heavy drinking. Philandering. Student protests. And of course, Delusions of Grandeur. However, navigating it all is a Henry Devereaux, Jr, a reluctant department chair, ex-writer, and career ironist. Aside from all of the very funny set pieces, and academic gags, the pleasure in this book is in watching the evolution of a character whose mask and essence couldn't be more different. He deflects the silly, sorry state of his life and career with puns, sarcastic quips, and cutting bon mots. He rarely says anything he means. Yet, as the novel progresses, he's forced to make decisions that bring him ever closer to figuring out what he really believes, something he hasn't really thought about in twenty years.
My only substantive complaint about the book is that Russo has a kitchen sink approach to comedy. Aside from Henry's problems with department cuts, he also has an estranged father moving back, a delusional mother, a crazy father-in-law, a secretary he might be in love with, a possible gall stone problem, a daughter on the outs with her husband, a vendetta against an aggressive goose, a possibly unhinged writing student, and other handfuls of daily tribulations. All of this keeps the yuks coming, but at times seems more like piling-on than plotting.
In the end, however, I think The Straight Man had the effect I was looking for. I got to laugh at myself and the club that would have me for a member (at least for now). And I got a worthy protagonist in the bargain. Now if only I could figure what I truly believe...
And Dinaw Mengestu walks many a tightrope in what may seem at first to be a relatively small novel in scope. The major rope he...moreIt's all about balance.
And Dinaw Mengestu walks many a tightrope in what may seem at first to be a relatively small novel in scope. The major rope he must walk is between the personal and the political. When a character's past is steeped in revolution and trauma, it can be hard not to let that take over a book. And, alternately, one of my biggest fears about this novel was that our protagonist, Sepha's present story was never going to compete with the political upheaval that split his family in Ethiopia. In his new life, he mans a dying convenience store in D.C., and gradually becomes infatuated with a white gentrifying-type lady in his neighborhood named Judith. Can this tale really pull its own weight compared to angry mobs, and the downfall of his entire family?
The answer is: most of the time. While I thought the love-esque story could have risked more, I did like the way the present material had such a distinct melancholy mood and pace compared to the emotionally-charged flashbacks. Sepha is a meditative dude, and he and his fellow immigrant drinking buddies like to talk about what America is and isn't. They all have warring philosophies based upon their own difficult attempts to find a place of their own in our nation's capital. The material with Sepha's friends really shines in its combination of gallows humor (they often try to stump each other with African coup trivia), and the very earnest desire they share to help one another through the daily misfortunes of life in D.C.
The true gem in this novel though, is the relationship between Sepha and Judith's biracial daughter, Naomi. This is probably the real "love story" in the novel. Naomi lets Sepha fill the role of her absentee father with a child's open willingness. She's precocious but desperate for an authentic parental relationship. Sepha lets himself fall headfirst into a relationship with a daughter he'll never have. Like all great loves, it isn't meant to be. And the moments where this becomes clear to Sepha are among the most heart-rending in the book.
At times I wished the book would have left the confines of Sepha's store and street a bit more often. Sure it was a great microcosm, but I'll admit to some claustrophobia down the stretch. And as I mentioned, the interactions with Judith The Gentrifyer could have used some of the emotional impact of the daughter's story. But in the moments where Mengestu's novel truly transcended the confines of its tiny frame, it really came to life. The personal is political. The two can't be separated. Once we were in a place to see that, the small actions of a store clerk became much more. (less)
I would like, if I may be so bold, to try a revolutionary new rating system for this particular book. Since the novel I'm reviewing is divided into th...moreI would like, if I may be so bold, to try a revolutionary new rating system for this particular book. Since the novel I'm reviewing is divided into three distinct "Parts," I would like to rate each of these individual parts separately (!!!!!!!).
This isn't just because I'm bored of giving a book only one rating (though, truth be told, I am sort of bored of doing that) but because I had very different reactions to each of the three sections.
So here goes:
PART 1 -- RATING: 4 Stars
It's hard not to get directly on board with the beginning of this book. It starts with a first personal plural voice from some kind of God Consciousness/Choral Voice Of The Multiverse. And this voice is all knowing. It is articulate, caring, and slyly funny. Also this voice is speaking to our narrator, Junior Thibodeaux, when he is fetus, just chillin in his mom. And it is speaking to him about the end of the world, which is coming in thirty-six years via one big-ass comet.
For a good long time after these initial revelations, delivered with a serious acrobatic use of POV I might add, I was pretty drunk on the premise of this book and thus willing to follow it through the significantly less mind-expanding worlds of our narrator's coming of age story. It helped, however, that Currie Jr. was at his best with the young Thibodeaux. A love-at-first-sight moment set against the Challenger disaster was masterfully staged. And the early family life of Junior came across believably, if a little heavily weighted toward substance abuse and some familiar "dysfunctions."
On the whole, though, the opening section dazzled with the revelation of its main conceit, it found a solid pace, and it presented the Thibodeauxs in a way that felt just realist enough to keep me emotionally involved in the prospect of comet-based catastrophe to come.
PART 2 -- RATING: 2 Stars
The dreaded dip.
It's rare to find a novel that doesn't sag a bit around the mid-section. They're all a bit like gym teachers in that way. But, even though I stayed interested in Junior's existential growth in the face of his knowledge in Part 2, I also could have used some less repetitive and slightly far-fetched examples of his "what's-the-effing-point" phase. And the major developments in his life (He's now an expert on the comet! He has the ability to cure cancer!) felt like they were all supposed to be explained simply by the fact that he was in the Gifted and Talented program in Part 1 (oh, and also the God/multiverse voice provides a few cheat codes every now and again). By the end of this section, I found myself hoping the comet might land sooner than expected.
PART 3 -- RATING: 5 Stars
Greatness. Pure greatness. Like sugar to the veins.
I'm going to resist the powerful urge to spoil and spoil again, but I won't. I won't spoil! I'll just say that Currie Jr. found a way to end his book that not only gave it twice as much depth, but that also completely confounded and satisfied me at the same time. The God/Other Thing voice plays a big part in this. And all of the big philosophical ideas surrounding our eminent demise finally came to feel visceral and resonant. Of course, it was easy to read the book all the way as just an exaggerated version of the holy-shit-I'm-going-to-die-someday-no-matter-what-so-why-does-anything-matter-at-all condition that affects everyone at some point (or constantly...). But oddly enough, it wasn't until the right combination of human drama and the possible end of everything arrived that I felt this keenly. Yet, when I did, it was a glorious surrender to the fictional moment.
I really imagined what it might be like to stare down the void, and it was comforting in a way that the best fiction should aspire to. It wasn't falsely comforting like the way I used to feel in Sunday School. And it wasn't indulgent despairing like the way I used to feel in high school. It was just a cogent moment of humbling realization, and even when the sentiments of the title come swooping in at just the right time, I couldn't resist them. In fact, I was ready to believe them.
This took me the entire summer--picking it up, putting it down-- to read. Mainly because my capacity for vicarious depression is not as large as it on...moreThis took me the entire summer--picking it up, putting it down-- to read. Mainly because my capacity for vicarious depression is not as large as it once was. I have too many things to say about this, and not enough time to say them. So I'll boil it down: it's absolutely amazing that such big-hearted fiction was written by a man who spent so much of his life feeling sad, guilty, and fraudulent.
But without those feelings would there have been such a lifeblood of pathos in the work? I'm pretty sure the drinking didn't help his writing (it almost killed him, for one thing), but the sense of living a double life...maybe that was key to the equation.
If you can possibly find the time, I would recommend reading the short stories along with this, checking out each story as it's mentioned in the biography. It makes for a fascinating intersection of life and art. The way he chose to alter events from his own life to turn them into the stuff of fiction is a glimpse of process that any writer will geek out on. His instincts in this area were second to none.
Let me begin by saying that the first chapter of this book is a 5-star chapter. No doubt about it. And the first sentence...yeah, that's a 5-star sent...moreLet me begin by saying that the first chapter of this book is a 5-star chapter. No doubt about it. And the first sentence...yeah, that's a 5-star sentence.
"Fame requires every kind of excess."
What a perfect way to begin a first-person novel about an aging rockstar/one-man-zeitgeist. And one amazing feat of this chapter--and the book as a whole really--is that, despite how few details he reveals, we believe that our narrator, Bucky Wonderlick, has bathed in the putrid, holy waters of this excess.
In fact, he has given everything to this excess. He has imparted "erotic terror to the dreams of the republic." He "feeds himself on outrage" which includes "hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs."
This is the man who wants to talk to us for the next 265 pages about why he left in the middle of a tour to hole up in a rundown apartment on the titular "Great Jones Street." And believe me, I want to listen.
But more specifically, I want to listen most when he actually treats the reader like a confidant. While I enjoyed all of Bucky's semantic riddles that he weaves with members of the media, managers, and desperate band members (think an even more glib and witty version of Dylan circa "Don't Look Back")I felt a bit disappointed down the stretch that DeLillo never allowed his creation a real sense of human vulnerability. I can't imagine him actually having had a childhood. It's also impossible to think how he first got to where he is now.
In his effort to make Bucky a soul-drained wanderer in a hyper-real media culture, DeLillo might have actually drained the man's soul, which leaves us mostly with a very clever satire, punctuated with moments of entrancing darkness. I can see how this might be enough for some readers. The sentences alone are glorious. Yet, without spoiling too much, our hero has a non-reaction to a very important death, only a passing interest in another very important death, and no interest whatsoever in having an actual conversation with anyone. I felt myself wishing to have just a few moments of the kind of x-ray a true rock tell-all promises.
Though, in its favor, add a nice drug-related payoff down the stretch, the best band manager in fictional history, and a hilariously sad hack writer who haunts the upstairs of the building.
There was much to like here. It's just hard to fall in love with cleverness and bile. Especially bile. But I suppose Bucky has lost his capacity for love, and it might have been too much to ask to wish I felt a heart beating in his tale. (less)
Tom Perrotta is like great comfort food. He isn't too fancy; he doesn't value style over substance; he doesn't try to be something he's not; and his n...moreTom Perrotta is like great comfort food. He isn't too fancy; he doesn't value style over substance; he doesn't try to be something he's not; and his novels would probably taste delicious dipped in ketchup.
This is by no means a bad thing. While his prose rarely dazzles me, he's a great storyteller and he's amazing at getting inside the hearts and minds of seemingly forgettable suburbanites. A lot of his books follow the same general premise. He takes those who think they're safe and puts them in a position of uncertainty and danger (see the child molester moving into the happy neighborhood in "Little Children").
The premise of this book stays along similar lines, but just goes bigger. The residents of Mapleton are living in the aftermath of what might have been the Rapture. Whether it was or wasn't is up for grabs, but what isn't up for grabs is the fact that people's family members, lovers, teachers, even beloved celebrities disappeared by the millions on October 14th (a date that takes on a September 11th-esque importance in the book). The varying ways that Perrotta's ensemble cast responds to this rapturous event allows him to explore a multitude of odd and oddly-feasible human responses to tragedy and the unknown.
Especially in the early pages, Perrotta excels at showing these average joes and janes re-thinking everything they thought they knew about the world. Two main characters join cults of a very different order (and it is a particularly impressive feat that Perrotta makes their reasons for joining convincing and even beautiful). Teenagers lose themselves in meaningless sex and drinking (so things haven't changed much for them). One man tries to pretend the "sudden departure" hasn't happened at all. And an older woman contemplates becoming someone else entirely to leave her old memories behind. All of this is very compelling and handled with Perrotta's typical salve of humor and pathos. I was sailing along, enjoying the seemingly effortless pull of his characters' developing dilemmas for about two-thirds of the book.
But somewhere along the line, things started to jump the rails a bit for me. For one thing, he began shifting third person perspectives with much greater frequency as the book progressed. And this carousel of characters, combined with really forgettable names (Jill, Tom, Kevin, etc.) left me confused, at times, about whose story I was reading. By the time I remembered all of their exposition, I was nearly at the end of their two or three page update. It also undercut a lot of the momentum of each story. I like the idea of seeing all of these reactions to the event in theory, but Perrotta might have done better to really explore the top three mains and treat others as secondary characters. The surplus of characters may also have contributed to my dissatisfaction with the ending. I could really feel the pressure to wrap it all up, but it resulted in a lot of rash, unbelievable decision-making down the stretch.
While his signature gifts were still there, and he was working with a great premise, this novel might ultimately have been spread too thin to really impact me the way I hoped it would. (less)
The following review is actually just a hastily patched-together conversation I had with my wife while I was finishing this book. It took place on the...moreThe following review is actually just a hastily patched-together conversation I had with my wife while I was finishing this book. It took place on the first nice day of an early Minnesotan spring, as we strolled around a lake with nice Midwestern families, dodging puddles from snow melt.
Me: You know that book I've been reading all the time lately? Wife: Yeah. Me: Have I told you how crazy it is? Wife: Not really. What's crazy about it? Me: Well it's this really odd satire of sexual harassment in the workplace where this guy invents a system whereby Lightening Rods have sex with high-performing employers in order to keep them from sexually harassing other women? Wife: So they hire prostitutes? Me: Well sort of. But not really. The Lightening Rods actually work in the companies doing other things, like secretarial work. The system is totally anonymous. Wife: How? Me. Well. Basically, they stick their asses through a wall in the handicapped bathroom. Wife: Why are you laughing? That sounds horrible. Me: I guess. But the book has this nonchalant tone that makes all of this funny somehow. It's obviously a terrible thing, but the combination of the satire and convincing quality of the argument makes you feel complicit somehow. It's weird. Sometimes I really think it's funny. And, other times, when I stop to think what's actually happening, I feel like a monster for laughing. Then I think about this guy I knew who worked for the Japanese stock exchange who had to take his clients to strip clubs whenever they came into town. It was almost similar to this. When the big guns visit the office, you reward them with sex in some form. I'm sure escorts were involved sometimes. We're closer to this kind of thing than you think. Wife: Want to walk out on that dock? Me: Sure. Wife: I don't understand how women could have sex with someone through a wall and then just got back to work. Me: Yeah. It's weird. I guess I don't either. Some of them are kind of traumatized. Wife: I don't think I would like this book. Me: You might not. Wife: And why do these high-earners need this sexual release? I don't get the correlation? Me: According to the book, they're the ones most likely to harass women and get the company sued. They're impulsive and overly confident. It's satiric. Wife:... Me: The first 100 pages were really good. But I'm getting a little bored of the thought experiment. Still, I'm kind of amazed that the author made this wild plot device fly. I wonder what I would think if a man had written this? Wife: Should that make a difference? Me: I don't know. Should it? Wife: There aren't very many fathers out here with their kids today. Me: Yeah, just a couple. Wife: So are you going to finish the book? Me: Uh huh. Wife: I can't tell if you actually like it. Me: Me neither. Honestly I thought it would be sexier. All the reviews I read made it sound like a book about sex. But it's really not. It's a book about corporate culture and sexual harassment more than sex. It's probably one of the un-sexiest books I've read. In fact, it's kind of hard to imagine what the sex would actually be like. Wife:... Me: Look at those ducks swimming in that freezing water. They look so calm. Wife: Yeah. (less)
I had a hunch when I first read the excerpt of this book in the New Yorker that I wasn't going to like it quite as much as the back list. But I must b...moreI had a hunch when I first read the excerpt of this book in the New Yorker that I wasn't going to like it quite as much as the back list. But I must be clear: Eugenides had a lot to live up to in my eyes. I was hypnotized by The Virgin Suicides when I first read it in college, amazed at the sheer bravado of the plot and the bold technical follow-through. Likewise with Middlesex, another risky, possibly-sensational conceit, ultimately handled with great humanity and grace. In fact, those two books immediately became two of my favorites of all time. Here was a writer with a dark, wild imagination for original stories, and his ideas never seemed to collapse beneath the weight of their own cleverness. He was funny, he was strange, and his prose style was so controlled and addictive.
So, when I read the pages (from the Mitchell Grammaticus section) before the book came out, I couldn't help feeling that they were beautifully written, but a bit on the tame, semi-autobiographical side, with little of the narrative panache I had so come to appreciate. And I ultimately felt similarly about the book as a whole when I set it down. Yes, I enjoyed the prose and many individual scenes, but, altogether, it left me underwhelmed. Also, despite the fact that it's comparatively understated as a story idea, it felt the most heavy-handed of any of his books.
I know it's a little unfair to begin by holding up this book side-by-side with his other works; the truth is I might have liked this better if it was a first novel and I didn't have my past loves to compare it to. Also, after reading Freedom, I was probably a bit tired of reading David Foster Wallace as a fictional character, and, generally, the idea of a big psychological realist book about a love triangle saturated in intellectual and romantic crisis seemed a little less fresh. But...what are you gonna do?
So how about a break for some of my LIKES? Here goes: More than anything else he's written, I did find the Marriage Plot thematically rich and idea-driven. And here, perhaps, was the element of risk. I enjoyed, at times, the way Eugenides so directly took on Mitchell's religious pilgrimage, whisking us through each step along the way, with a nice balance of interiority and action. It was often the contrast between his intellectual justifications and the sad forced actions he chose to take that made those sections work. Madeleine's sections were more successful at this in the beginning with the emphasis on her marriage-related senior thesis. Later, the intertexuality came on a bit strong, and more and more, her life seemed wholly defined by which man she wanted to be with. Leonard was alternately the best and least developed character in the book. I think Eugenides was right to devote only one lengthy section to his POV, but he often felt a little one-note to me. That note, To quote Jimi Hendrix: "manic depression is a frustrating mess." I did like his ideas about medication vs mania, and his theory that many great things had been discovered in a manic state. But again, the obvious parallels to DFW (the chewing tobacco, the bandana, the brilliant/depressed oddness) were distracting.
Well, so I guess I already started moving toward the DISLIKES. But, I think maybe my frustrations with this book come down to some pretty subjective and possibly unfair sticking points. E.g.: I'd rather read about charming hermaphrodites and suicidal virgins than recent college graduates learning that all their critical theory hasn't prepared them for a world teeming with illogic and suffering. And while the romantic (or marriage) plot did its work as a deeper connecting force in the book, I never found myself engaging in the kind of vicarious heartbreak and yearning I hoped to feel.
It's hard not a praise a book with such lovely prose and impressively integrated research about everything from religious studies to yeast cells, not to mention one that takes on such big thematic questions. But I wanted more. I wanted a greater depth of feeling and that old Eugenides touch of oddness. Clearly that's not the book he wanted to write. That's cool. Just let me know when he decides to take a break from being Important (with a capital "I") and returns to being one of the best storytellers around. I will be delighted.
What does one do when one is sick on a Saturday Night? Apparently, one drinks Yogi Digestion Tea (One was out of Throat Comfort) and writes Goodreads...moreWhat does one do when one is sick on a Saturday Night? Apparently, one drinks Yogi Digestion Tea (One was out of Throat Comfort) and writes Goodreads reviews at 9:40.
Part of me thinks that if I wasn't suffering from a bad cold with side effects of crabbiness I would have given this book a better review. As it stands, I think it's more in 3.5 territory. It's a good collection of stories, and there are some gems to be sure. But ultimately, for me, Meloy's greatest strength was also her greatest weakness. That dual quality: the spare, condensed quality to her tales.
Much of the time this brevity comes off as a lovely, understated grace, a light touch that comes from a seasoned short story writer. Time passes smoothly and quickly. Personal histories unfold and disappear before you even know they are important. An entire story might rest on the turn of moment that doesn't even seem like a climax: whether or not someone turns a car around, makes a phone call, or returns an embrace. Sometimes the sum of these small gestures creates an ethereal beauty, a perfectly struck note that lingers long after the story is over.
Other times, I couldn't help feeling like some powerful material had simply been rushed.
There are varying philosophies about whether a good story should leave you wanting more, or if it should feel complete and perfect in its own compact wholeness. Sometimes I wish I thought the former (it seems more like life and wiser somehow), but damn-it-all, I like the latter. I like the feeling that the author had one stab at these lives, this moment, and they gave us everything they had. Some of the stories in this collection felt brilliant in their combined degree of depth and brevity. Others felt like they were just an introduction into a world cut short.
It should also be mentioned that the title of the collection really acts as a central theme that unites these stories. Nearly all of these tales end on moments of indecision or a feeling of wanting contradictory outcomes. And I like the theme. It seems to flout the idea, so often present in fiction, that a character has one strong central desire. But, more often than not, don't we have a thousand conflicting desires? Meloy's contention that her characters always want two things at once seems downright subversive in moments when you think about it in terms of character motivations. But, again, it also leads to stories that can feel prematurely brought to a close or needlessly complex. I felt, during a few of her endings, that she was warping things intentionally to conform to her collection's thesis statement. Just a little bit.
On the whole, I enjoyed these stories. Every one of them is a story worth telling, and the human interactions at their core are often surprising and poignant (not to mention occasionally funny and sexy). There were just moments when I wanted to say "No, don't do that thing you always do! Ride this one out a little longer. It was just starting to get good!" But books can't hear irritable men with colds. So instead it kept doing what it did.
And now that I think about it, I am not unlike one of Meloy's characters in that I wanted her delicate touch, but I also didn't want it. I wanted it both ways! What an amazing meta-fictional moment I've had on this depressing Saturday night!
I'm going to celebrate with some more Digestion tea.
Man, I really didn't want to like this book. And here, quickly, are the reasons why:
Number 1) Pure jealousy. Harbach got paid like a bajillion dollar...moreMan, I really didn't want to like this book. And here, quickly, are the reasons why:
Number 1) Pure jealousy. Harbach got paid like a bajillion dollars for his very first novel. I was paid slightly less than that. Okay, a lot less than that.
Number 2) I don't like n+1 magazine, of which he is the co-founder. I find it pretentious and boring. I would honestly rather read Cat Fancy.
Number 3) Harbach wrote an article about MFA vs. New York writers that was, in a word, uber-douchy. And anyone who weighs in on that argument has already told you something about themselves that you'd be best off not knowing.
So, as you can see, I had all my petty reasons amassed into an army of pre-read hatred. I was ready to unleash the critical beast and be confirmed in my belief that all hyped literary things are, at heart, overrated, particularly new "it" books written by new "it" writers.
Then I read it.
And I'll be damned if it isn't a really good book. It's not earth-shattering. It's not even particularly person-shattering. But it's great storytelling, particularly when it comes to the friendship/rivalry of the two baseball players at its core.
Harbach writes sports with a strong balance of precision and emotional coloration. He literally had me on the edge of my seat during his masterfully-imagined game days. I felt like I could see the whole field expand in front of me, but, on top of the action, I had access to the internal state of the players. And when it came to the wondrous and beleaguered Henry Skrimshander (a note: the names in this book will either be the best or the worst names in literary history, depending on your personal taste), it was fascinating to get inside the mind of a natural who is beginning to deal with the unnatural. And it was just as compelling to see the game from the eyes of Mike Schwartz, the old soul team captain who pops "Vikes" like they're beer nuts.
Off the diamond, Harbach was a little less successful, but still batting at decent average (Ha! A baseball pun). While I had moments of disbelief with the gay affair that takes up a bit more page space than it likely should have, it was never completely bungled. And the lone female character, Pella, avoided token status with a compelling backstory and a believable case of indecision. Her life is pretty much defined by the men vying for her affections, but it helps (a tiny bit) that she admits this early on and tries to free herself of the affliction.
The prose is a seemingly-effortless mix of clarity with flourishes of the lyric, particularly in moments of high action. I also really liked all the poetic waxing about America's pastime and the art of being a shortstop.
On the whole, this was a solid meaty book about surprisingly interesting meat-heads. I cared. I invested. I wanted to be in the locker room of Westish College, post small-stakes win, all the while contemplating suffering, love, perfection, and the infinity pattern of a baseball's red stitching. But when I was done, I was happy to go back to being a barely-coordinated nerd. Less chance of a pulled groin. (less)
Really, Goodreads, an average of 3.64 stars for this book? Have you no heart? Have you no compassion? But more importantly, have you no appreciation f...moreReally, Goodreads, an average of 3.64 stars for this book? Have you no heart? Have you no compassion? But more importantly, have you no appreciation for a stirring technically-complex piece of writing? I apologize for lashing out at a nameless horde of readers and star-givers; I suppose that's an alienating way to begin a review. But I have this obnoxious quality that kicks in when I really admire a book. I just want to defend it against any possible attack! I want to pat it on the back and tell it to keep being it's awesome self no matter what some may say. Say Her Name is one of those books.
Technically, it's a novel, but read any interview with Goldman and he'll readily admit that nearly all of the main narrative is based on life events, and specifically, the untimely death of his true love, Aura Estrada. He said in one such interview that he didn't want to call it a memoir because he doesn't trust his memories of the way everything actually happened. He was too fraught with grief, guilt, and even possible delusion. Of course, memory is always fallible, and memoir is always subjective, but Goldman wanted to take extra precaution, and, I'd like to imagine, extra liberty with this story. So he turned to fiction. The result is not only a heartbreaking love story, and a painfully honest story of grief, it's a powerful search for the truth of an event through language and causality.
And Goldman tries everything to arrive at that elusive truth. He tells. He shows. He gives us excerpts from Aura's diaries and short stories. He writes close to her point of view as a child. He even writes close to her mother's point of view. He studies the science of waves (his wife's killer; this is revealed early). He deconstructs linear time. He writes short chapters. He writes long chapters. He speaks directly to Aura and to the reader. He tries with all his might to understand how and why this could have happened, and what he is supposed to do in its aftermath. And all of this formal experimentation does not distract from the story. Somehow it makes the content even more raw and visceral.
Mostly, this is because of Goldman's candor. He is not afraid to show the ugly side of his grieving, and to expose us to his anger and self-hatred along with his wondrous capacity for empathy and humor. His drinking, his promiscuity, his naked fear and animosity toward Aura's mother (who has blamed him for his daughter's death), is all on the page. And contrasted with the love story at the book's heart, it provides an unadulterated look at the way loss can turn everything upside-down.
So maybe, Say Her Name, my five stars will push you ever close to 3.65 or, dare I say it, 3.66. Either way, this book deserves to be read widely. It's not just a memorial, a memoiristic fiction, or fictiony memoir. It is a deeply-affecting piece of writing about something both specific and universal. (less)
My teaching schedule is a tad hellish right now, and it's a miracle that I was able to read anything for pleasure. But somehow I snuck something in. S...moreMy teaching schedule is a tad hellish right now, and it's a miracle that I was able to read anything for pleasure. But somehow I snuck something in. Something small. And I enjoyed this little book. It wasn't mind-bending, life-sustaining, or hyphen-inducing in any grand way, but it was notable for its somehow pleasurable melancholy tone and its powerful compression of a single man's life.
While at times I felt distant from Mr. Robert Grainier, bridge-builder/homesteader/tree-feller/hermit (Okay I lied about the hyphens), when the book ended on page 116, I felt as if I knew pretty much everything I wanted to know about the guy. There were times I wish Johnson had allowed us more access to his stoic hero's vulnerabilities, much in the same way I often wish Hemingway's protagonists would feel things once in awhile. But there was much to read into Grainier's life as it passed by the reader like one of the many trains mentioned throughout, slowly disappearing around a bend, only to reappear later, much the same, still puffing away. Robert Grainier builds cabins, drives horse carts, takes a ride in one of the first airplanes ever, walks the remains of a great fire, mourns the death of loved ones, and nearly kills a man for no reason early in his journey. He even encounters the rare mythical creature in the dead of night.
Johnson seems to be after some kind of bootstrap-pulling American everyman from another era, one who has a hard time changing along with his country as great hunks of time pass by. Instead, Grainier remains almost pathologically loyal to his idea of home and to the memory of the few good things he once had. And there is a feeling here of watching a life that might not usually be examined. One of a man who chose to engage only as much as he needed to with his time and place. The kind of person everyone might see on the fringes of their town, but never stop to think about. Which is a pity, Johnson seems to say, since there are a few things he might be able to teach us.