Marisha Pessl’s first novel created quite a stir when it came out last summer, and was named one of The New York Times Book Review’s ten best books ofMarisha Pessl’s first novel created quite a stir when it came out last summer, and was named one of The New York Times Book Review’s ten best books of 2006. It’s easy to see why.
Blue van Meer hasn’t had a normal childhood since her mother died in a car wreck when Blue was five. Since then she’s moved from town to town, absorbing abstruse information from her pompous father, a college instructor in backwater schools, who seldom stays more than a semester in any one place. She adores her dad, who’s now promised to stay put for her entire senior year of high school.
She’s astonished to be adopted by a sort of tightly knit social elite, a group revolving around Hannah Schneider, a charismatic film instructor. From the book’s beginning, we know that Schneider will be dead by the end of the school year, an apparent suicide. The fascination Blue and her friends have for Schneider leads them to spy on her, discovering seedy affairs (possibly including Blue’s father), and finally to doubt that her death was self-inflicted. Blue’s attempts to prove this pulls the rug out from under several things we thought we knew. I like having the rug pulled out from under me.
The story is more than serviceable, but it’s Blue’s voice, brainy and esoteric, and the novel’s structure that make this special. The book is arranged as a syllabus, every chapter being named for a literary classic. Oh yes, there’s a test at the end. --John
Thomas Pynchon’s time may have come and gone. It’s been 33 years since his novel Gravity’s Rainbow won the National Book Award. Even then, many more pThomas Pynchon’s time may have come and gone. It’s been 33 years since his novel Gravity’s Rainbow won the National Book Award. Even then, many more people started it than finished.
Writing a thousand page novel every ten years or so, may not the best strategy for cultivating an audience. He can also lose readers with his allusive, elliptical style, his long discursions into obscure scientific topics, his juvenile sense of humor, his penchant for bizarre conspiracy theories, and the sheer mass of his novels, which can make the beginning hard to remember by the end. He’s a writer for readers who want to be challenged.
There must be well over 100 characters and dozens of subplots in Against the Day, many of them quickly abandoned, a few narrative threads tie the book together. The Chums of Chance storyline fondly parodies boys’ literature from early in the last century. Think Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, with maybe a touch of Horatio Algier. The Chums are balloonists, sent on mysterious missions around the world. Pynchon delights in gradually debauching their innocence.
Another recurring story is that of Webb Traverse and his children, which begins as a western pastiche. Webb, radicalized by the labor politics of Colorado mining in the late 19th Century, evolves into an anarchist bomber. When he’s assassinated by the mine owners, his three boys, Reef, Frank, and Kit, recognize revenge as their duty, while Webb’s daughter, Lake, runs off with the killer.
Other story lines involve disputes among mathematicians, spies, scientists, psychics, and metaphysicians, mostly having to do with access to other dimensions, other times, and the apocalyptic threat of invasion from them.
Probably the ideal way to read Pynchon would be next to a high speed connection to Google. His range of allusions and references is dazzling, encompassing, for instance, higher math, geology, metaphysics, several languages, history, and religion. Incredibly, Icelandic spar, whose doubly refracting powers, he suggests, may provide access to other dimensions, turns out to be a real substance.
Tracking down all these allusions tho, would easily double the time it takes to read the book, which is already substantial. Best of luck to whomever checks out Express copy (two week loan, dollar a day fine after that). I couldn’t skim, couldn’t listen to music when reading it. Averaged about 30 pages an hour. Loved it.
It seems to be about his usual things. The downtrodden laborers here are an easy cognate for the preterite of his early works. He’s clearly on the side of music, joy, drugs, ecstatic experience, and against the machinery that makes our lives drudgery. He doesn’t so much show us this as tell us through his characters, which is maybe a flaw in his conception, a weak narrative strategy.
His early works, especially, dwelt on the laws of thermodynamics, and it’s disconcerting, having invested many hours of reading, to realize that the Second Law may be the organizing principle of the novel—entropy will increase; organization breaks down. If the damn thing ultimately makes no sense, that may well be the point. --John
Marvel’s various Ultimate series began as retellings of classic Marvel comics, simplifying decades of back-story for readers who would otherwise neverMarvel’s various Ultimate series began as retellings of classic Marvel comics, simplifying decades of back-story for readers who would otherwise never catch up. The Ultimate versions can have interesting differences with “real” versions. In “real” life for instance, the Fantastic Four was the first big Marvel hit, but in the Ultimate universe, the Ultimates (Avengers) are more established, and the FF recent additions. Even more confusing is the central role of Nick Fury, who’s now a Black man in (most, but not all) Ultimate stories.
Spider-Man was the first Marvel character to get the Ultimate treatment, and ICPL’s newest is one of his best. It begins with a team-up with Spidey’s new girlfriend, Kitty Pride of the X-Men, which evolves into a jungle adventure with the X-men being hunted by anti-mutant racists. There’s a nice twist at the end that saves Peter Parker from getting busted by his Aunt May. Appearances by Blade, Daredevil, and the Punisher follow. While none of these characters really does it for me, the storytelling remains good, the artwork top-notch.
“Wait a minute,” you’re thinking, “back up. Everybody knows from the movies that Peter Parker’s in love with Mary Jane. What’s this about a new girlfriend?” Good question. Mary Jane knows about Kitty, and confronts Peter here, a touching scene. Author Brian Michael Bendis writes the best dialog in the business, and is at his best when Peter talks to the women in his life. --John
One of the horrifying premises of James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love is apparently true. When political prisoners in Siberia escaped, they had to tOne of the horrifying premises of James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love is apparently true. When political prisoners in Siberia escaped, they had to travel such vast distances to safety, they sometimes took a weaker prisoner along–as food.
Vivid characters abound here. There’s a drunken shaman with a third eye and an albino assistant. There’s Anna Petrovna, whose husband has left her to lead the local cult that practices ritual castration to attain purity (another documented practice I was happier not knowing about). Anna doesn’t lack for company tho. The town is occupied by Czech soldiers, who switch sides, depending on who happens to be winning the Russian revolution at the moment. Most vivid of all is Saramin, a revolutionary who has escaped the White Garden, a prison camp, and warns the town of the monster who stalks him.
This is a bloody book, but there’s nothing formulaic about it, as is so often the case with bloody books—war stories, horror, thrillers. It’s startlingly original in concept and execution. Its prose is wonderful. It’s got those take-your-breath-away revelations that make you rethink the whole story. It’s very bloodiness serves to show the folly of extremism. --John
Lee Irby’s second novel, The Up and Up is like a mash-up of ‘30’s movies. You’ve got your noir tough guy, tarnished, but looking for redemption. You’vLee Irby’s second novel, The Up and Up is like a mash-up of ‘30’s movies. You’ve got your noir tough guy, tarnished, but looking for redemption. You’ve got your even tougher guys, trigger-happy and psychotic. You’ve got your rich society ladies stock characters from any screwball comedy. You’ve got your femme fatale. You’ve got glamorous Palm Beach night clubs. You’ve got a jailbreak. You’ve got crooked cops and real estate swindles. You’ve got your drunken, European cuckold for comic relief, and you’ve even got Joseph Kennedy and Gloria Swanson sneaking around behind his back. The period detail is a treat, the slang a hoot. It’s a fast read, brisk and breezy. --John
I still remember being twelve years old and walking home after seeing Ray Harryhausen’s movie Jason and the Argonauts. I was absolutely exhilarated. WI still remember being twelve years old and walking home after seeing Ray Harryhausen’s movie Jason and the Argonauts. I was absolutely exhilarated. While Harryhausen’s style of stop action animation seems primitive compared with today’s CGI effects, it was state of the art at the time, and I realized that movies could show me things I’d never see in real life.
I just found out this year that there was a text version, rather than an oral tradition, so I ordered Jason and the Golden Fleece (the Argonautica) by Apollonius of Rhodes. It’s a pretty dry read, but I was surprised how much of the story found its way into the 1963 movie.
The catalog of Greek heroes, for instance, who joined the voyage, shows up in both the movie and book. So are the giant statue Talos (who attacks the ship), the Harpies who plague the prophet Phineas, the clashing rocks (held apart by Athena in the book, Poseidon in the movie), the giant serpent guarding the fleece (a Hydra in the movie), and the army that springs from the ground when the serpent’s teeth are planted (skeletons in the movie).
Harryhausen and nominal director Don Chaffey rearrange many of the scenes and omit others all together. Medea’s role gets reduced to that of babe in skimpy outfit and she deserves better. While I can’t in good conscience recommend the book (which lacks the Bernard Herrmann score, among other things), the movie still gives me a thrill. --John
Louise Erdrich portrays a marriage here, that’s nearly as appealing as it is appalling–intimate, creative, and doomed. Historian Irene America has begLouise Erdrich portrays a marriage here, that’s nearly as appealing as it is appalling–intimate, creative, and doomed. Historian Irene America has begun keeping two diaries. The one her manipulative, suspicious husband Gil reads is pure fiction, designed to torment him. She keeps the true diary in a safe deposit box. Gil is a highly accomplished painter, whose subject, since they met, has been Irene, often in intimate works that border on exploitation.
Erdrich packs incredible resonance into 255 pages, relating the mutually abusive relationship to politics, art, history, and more. The elephant in the room goes unmentioned–her own creative and tragic marriage to Michael Dorris, which ended in his suicide. This is fiction tho, not biography, and Erdrich creates art from her own history. Parts of this are hilarious, particularly the games the couple play with a marriage therapist who’s WAY over her head.
I thought Jonathan Lethem’s latest, Chronic City, was kind of a dud, but came across this on the staff picks shelf downstairs, and because I liked MotI thought Jonathan Lethem’s latest, Chronic City, was kind of a dud, but came across this on the staff picks shelf downstairs, and because I liked Motherless Brooklyn so much, decided to give Lethem another chance. Good choice.
Two kids in Brooklyn, one black, one white–Mingus and Dylan (get it?) bond over comic books, then grafitti, tho they could hardly be less alike. Dylan’s a misfit, integrating schools nearly singlehandedly, awkward, son of an absent mother and a reclusive artist father. Mingus, son of a soul singer, is just plain cool, comfortable in most situations, extending a degree of protection to Dylan.
This covers quite a bit of ground–the sociology of race and class, drugs, rock criticism the occasional superpower, and some gorgeous prose. Thanks, staff picks. --John
Sebastian Faulks examines seven main characters in London over seven days in December, 2007. One is a chutney manufacturer, who’s invited to BuckinghaSebastian Faulks examines seven main characters in London over seven days in December, 2007. One is a chutney manufacturer, who’s invited to Buckingham Palace, even as his son plots jihad. (The kid’s Scottish accent is hilarious in this context, as is the way his group exchanges information–on a porn website.)
A hedge fund manager plots a ruthless takeover of a bank, with consequences that could go worldwide. His son, whose pot smoking is getting out of control, meets a soccer player new to the UK. The kid is torn between rooting for his home team, or this new player, who could make his fantasy team better. The athlete’s new girlfriend has posed for a pornographic website in the past. Yes, that one.
Also, a lawyer who’s having trouble getting over his last lover meets a client who escapes reality into online games, again raising the question of reality vs living online.
Best of all, there’s a venal, savage book reviewer. One of his previous victims is now judging the Pizza Palace literary awards, and the reviewer’s own book is a candidate, meaning some groveling is in order. He also coaches the chutney manufacturer, who’s worried the queen might with to discuss literature. Fat chance.
These characters interact in surprising ways. This is pretty sophisticated humor, slowed a bit by digressions on the Koran and detailed explanations of financial chicanery. Good stuff. --John
Forget John Grisham. Scott Turow writes the courtroom novels people will still be reading next century. His newest revisits the cast from his first (aForget John Grisham. Scott Turow writes the courtroom novels people will still be reading next century. His newest revisits the cast from his first (and best) book, Presumed Innocent. Rusty Sabich, exonerated of murder charges decades ago, has revived his legal career to the extent that he’s running for the state’s Supreme Court. When Rusty doesn’t report his wife’s sudden death for nearly 24 hours, his old nemesis Tommy Molto sees enough suspicious activity (like Rusty’s affair with Anna, a much younger lawyer) to file charges again.
Rusty’s son Nat, already devastated by his mother’s death, falls in love with Anna himself, after she has broken up with his father, and much of the tension here comes from the inevitable shattering of sweet young Nat’s world. Turow switches points of view expertly, so we get a variety of perspectives.
The trial is a seesaw affair, of course, with dramatic revelations on both sides. Grisham can do this. What he can’t do is create characters with the depth of Turow’s, write prose this lucid, or drop the bomb when you think the story is told. I nearly broke my jaw on the floor in 1987 at the end of Presumed Innocent, and if the new book’s ending doesn’t equal that, neither has any other book since then. --John From ICPL Staff Picks Blog...more
Showing a pre-publication copy (thanks, Jason!) to a friend, I surprised myself a little by saying “Greatest living author.” My wife is fond of pointiShowing a pre-publication copy (thanks, Jason!) to a friend, I surprised myself a little by saying “Greatest living author.” My wife is fond of pointing out how fatuous such pronouncements are (thanks, Mary!), but I maintain they’re for the sake of discussion, not objectively verifiable claims.
David Mitchell, 41, has only written five novels, but they show enormous range, from the astonishing metafictional fireworks of Cloud Atlas, to Black Swan Green, his character-driven, semi-autobiographical story about growing up in Thatcherite England. Mitchell, who lived in Japan for eight years, sets this novel in 1799, where the Dutch monopoly on trade with the Japanese is being threatened by the English. Clerk Jacob de Zoet, a rare honest man in the Dutch East Indies Company, falls in love with a disfigured midwife, who is exiled to a sinister nunnery, by a warlord whom Jacob has angered.
At once a love story, a political thriller, and an eye-opening historical novel (The Dutch had a monopoly with the Japanese?), the book carries enough detail to make a very alien time and place seem familiar. Detailed characters. Gorgeous prose. Surprising plot twists.