If you're a fan of Poe, or you're looking for some dark and ingeniously plotted literary fiction, here's a novel for you. It's stark and wild and brooIf you're a fan of Poe, or you're looking for some dark and ingeniously plotted literary fiction, here's a novel for you. It's stark and wild and brooding. And it's a lot of fun (in a harrowing way) to see Wyld work backwards to unfold the intricacies of how her heroine goes from a happy family life in Australia to owning a farm on an English island where someone--or something--is mysteriously killing her sheep. The last 20 pages are totally unexpected, and the last sentence is haunting....more
4.5 stars. When you read Franzen, you just have to accept that you’re signing up for some soapboxing: there are always going to be a handful of Grand4.5 stars. When you read Franzen, you just have to accept that you’re signing up for some soapboxing: there are always going to be a handful of Grand Themes to be writ large, with plenty of moments where the narration is unmistakably the author’s voice. Franzen has accepted the role of novelist as “public moralist” (Google the New York magazine article), and he’s carrying this blazing torch unmistakably in Purity. Prose style is dialed back while his canvas expands, moving in a purposely disjointed way from Oakland to East Germany to Bolivia and Denver, focusing deeply on a particular setting or character for dozens and dozens of pages and then yanking you in a different direction entirely.
It’s sometimes exhausting, but it’s absolutely worth it. The key Grand Theme here is information: who owns it, how the possession of it can bring a power both liberating and destructive, how an authentic modern sense of identity is inextricably bound to—if not overshadowed by—its digital counterpart. To me, what makes it all kind of thrilling is the way Franzen does dialogue and third person close; it’s hard to think of many other writers who are using these devices so profoundly. His characters are just as fully three-dimensional as the Lamberts and the Berglunds in The Corrections and Freedom, sometimes maddeningly so. But to see the complexity of their humanity as they navigate a truly disturbing world—to feel vulnerable, deliberate with themselves, get angry, act completely irrationally, commit a crime, repress a longing, lust for someone, feel wildly hopeful, fall in love—is why this kind of fiction is beyond worth the price of admission. Franzen can write stories that feel increasingly rare: Purity makes a lot of claims, but it makes those claims with a beating heart. ...more
Where to begin? I could go on, but really, you just need to read this immediately, preferably with a pen in hand. It's gorgeous and unforgettably moviWhere to begin? I could go on, but really, you just need to read this immediately, preferably with a pen in hand. It's gorgeous and unforgettably moving. It's sad and enraging in its many exquisite and shameful truths rooted in history and the everyday--not just about race but human nature itself. It's also life-affirming, at times joyous, and relentlessly revelatory. Every word Coates has penned here feels essential, forged from poetic steel. It feels destined to be read long after all of us are gone--I would bet anything on that....more
Great stuff. Deeply researched, full of Larson's vivid trademark you-are-there details. More than anything this is a book about WW1, telescoping out fGreat stuff. Deeply researched, full of Larson's vivid trademark you-are-there details. More than anything this is a book about WW1, telescoping out from the Lusitania to paint a picture of the world's mindset (or at least the western world's) prior to it: optimistic, carefree, almost willingly naive about what was to come. And of course it mines all the folly and idiocy and twists of fate that come with war; it's awe-inspiring to think of how the Lusitania's sinking could have been prevented and how it was enabled (a dark shadow on Churchill's otherwise heroic reputation, among other things). The fate of the ship lies at the nexus of pride and arrogance that kindled WW1 in the first place, and for me--seldom a reader of history--that's the beauty of Dead Wake: it finely details a single event that opens a huge window into a corner of the past that we think we have passable knowledge about. And even though it's hindsight throwing a kind of gut punch, it's haunting in exactly the right way: mournful, respectful, wise, and also kind of thrilling....more
A work of art. Stunningly written, and incredibly original in its braiding of memoir and nature writing and history. In a nutshell: Macdonald, a naturA work of art. Stunningly written, and incredibly original in its braiding of memoir and nature writing and history. In a nutshell: Macdonald, a naturalist and academic in Cambridge and devoted falconer since youth, adopts a goshawk (a famously difficult and murderous bird) in the wake of her father's sudden death. What follows is not just a memoir of grief and nature's salvation, but a movingly developed parallel to the story of T. H. White--The Sword in the Stone author and novelist whose fraught life and quest to raise a goshawk Macdonald finds striking solace in. This thread can sometimes feel a little overdeveloped, but it's still vital to the book, and like nothing I've ever encountered in a memoir. ...more
Meh. The pacing is not bad here, but the use of the first person feels awfully heavy-handed in this book, enough so that I ended it feeling like I'd jMeh. The pacing is not bad here, but the use of the first person feels awfully heavy-handed in this book, enough so that I ended it feeling like I'd just read a breathy, borderline histrionic soap opera. Gone Girl is better (if one must make the comparison). But The Girl on the Train could be salvaged by a tightly-edited movie adaptation that takes us out of the characters' own narrations and casts some terrific actors....more
Though Dept. of Speculation isn't really a novel--it sometimes feels like a prose poem or a string of aphorisms--it's an incredibly original and econoThough Dept. of Speculation isn't really a novel--it sometimes feels like a prose poem or a string of aphorisms--it's an incredibly original and economical gut-puncher about marriage and parenthood and anxiety and ambition. Beautifully, even fiercely, written....more
I really loved this book--it's an engrossing mix of narrative reporting and memoir (though more the former) that goes beyond the headlines about RussiI really loved this book--it's an engrossing mix of narrative reporting and memoir (though more the former) that goes beyond the headlines about Russia to reveal it as a kind of deeply, psychologically warped reality show. This is a place where illusion is so ingrained into the fibers of power and money that run the country that it’s a joke to imagine a shred of objectivity anywhere. The nation has been whiplashed by history, one regime crumbling into the next, from communism to democracy to a mafia state to oligarchy. So the Russian elite have come to indulge in the act of dissimulating in order to adapt; they know that ultimately, “everything is PR.” So conforming to the current authority, Pomarantsev writes, is “raised to the level of aesthetic act.”
Pomarantsev is a Russian-born British TV producer, and when he goes back to his parents’ homeland, he has the chance to document some incredible human narratives: a prostitute who commits suicide after descending into a cult that masquerades as a self-improvement support group, a gangster-turned-director of films about his own life, and a self-made Moscow multimillionaire businessman who wheels from the daily m.o. of corruption and government bribes to throwing fabulously hedonistic parties at night. These are just a few of Pomarantsev’s threads. Beyond them, of course, lies the Kremlin, the sun around which life in Russia must revolve, owning “all forms of political discourse, [not letting] any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.”
These human stories are all powerful testaments to just how deep a reach the state can have in citizens’ lives. Putin is rarely mentioned by name here, but the roles he plays as a kind of postmodern dictator aim to keep the population “entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares.” As Pomarantsev points out, there’s no room for true opposition, because even “liberal,” western-leaning parties are state-sanctioned, their discourse actually controlled by the Kremlin itself. Consequently, no matter your place in Russian society, to be a member of it is to be “encouraged to have one identity one moment and the opposite one the next...you can leave all your guilt with your ‘public’ self. That wasn’t you stealing that budget/making that propaganda show/bending your knee to the President, just a role you were playing; you’re a good person really. It’s not so much about denial. It’s not even about suppressing dark desires. You can see everything you do, all your sins. You just reorganize your emotional life so as not to care.” ...more
I had mixed feelings about The Goldfinch. I thought it far from deserving the Pulitzer, and it veered between surprisingly boring and genuinely movingI had mixed feelings about The Goldfinch. I thought it far from deserving the Pulitzer, and it veered between surprisingly boring and genuinely moving. Tartt’s settings and set pieces were so real that they were thrilling on their own, too, and I was glad I read it.
So I picked up The Secret History. Forget the fact that Tartt isn’t exactly a prose stylist, and that The Secret History’s characters are unlikeable and essentially jaded middle-aged navel-gazers stuffed into the bodies of drugged-up young adults. That didn’t bother me as much as it could have, and I thought the first half of the book was pretty engaging. (And to be fair, this is a debut novel impressive for its absorbing setting and its obsession with all the perverse and mysterious beauty inherent in studying the classics. The elevator pitch--Why did a group of eccentric, well-to-do young scholars conspire to kill their friend at a small Vermont college?--is a great hook.)
Things really went downhill in the second half, post-Bunny’s death: could it be any more obvious that Tartt hardly took an edit on this? My wife used to work for a book editor, and after this editor met with Tartt when The Goldfinch was being shopped around, the takeaway was that edits were going to be light. So here is a writer defensive of her words--somewhat understandable when you spend a decade writing a novel--but the obvious downside is the sheer amount of description that bogs down The Secret History, that makes you feel so passive to be its reader. Richard tells and tells and tells, and this is sometimes narratively artless and stultifying. How about the prelude to Bunny’s funeral, which chronicles his loathsome Connecticut family? This has to be the most needless chapter in literary fiction from the last 25 years. I hate wanting to skim, but there were more than enough moments in The Secret History where I just wanted to know what the hell was actually going to happen next, to see the great revelation about what was motivating these characters.
Richard is certainly an unreliable narrator, but not in the mesmerizing way of Gatsby or Holden Caulfield or Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Instead he’s unreliable in his ability to tell a really good story, and by blathering on in so many stretches it’s as if he’s looking to suspend any chance of arriving at a deeper consciousness about what’s really motivated him and his friends to architect a murder. He is supposed to be oblivious and naive, I realize, but he evolved out of this much too slowly for me.
Another thing: Julian. It was such a missed opportunity to explicitly make him a more sinister part of the plot, to have sponsored Henry & co.'s murderous bacchanal, to have been a party to Bunny’s murder all along. I guess it's left up to the reader's imagination, and perhaps it was Tartt's intention to keep the suggestion so subtle as to be fleeting. (Or to assume the reader would understand that Julian's teachings--which happen off-page--were a big catalyst.) But I really thought the novel was going to indulge that direction more, and I was disappointed when it didn't....more
This is only my third Stephen King book after I read The Shining and Doctor Sleep back-to-back last year. It's not exactly a rip-roaring thrill ride--This is only my third Stephen King book after I read The Shining and Doctor Sleep back-to-back last year. It's not exactly a rip-roaring thrill ride--it's pretty benign at most points--but the ending? Forget it. It's been billed as one of King's most terrifying, and I'm inclined to believe that. It's also DARK. Darker than hell, you might say. It gave me an all-too visceral nightmare, and I can't remember the last time that happened....more
I'd read some mixed reviews of The Children Act, but it's short enough that I didn't mind giving it a try, and I usually love reading McEwan. It's notI'd read some mixed reviews of The Children Act, but it's short enough that I didn't mind giving it a try, and I usually love reading McEwan. It's not quite the gut-punch that the slim-but-brilliant Amsterdam, Black Dogs, or The Comfort of Strangers are. But for its short length it impressively manages to be a lot of things: the portrait of a potentially dissolving marriage, a character study of a brilliant judge, a life and death court case, and the undercurrent of gnawing anxiety in urbane society....more