Typical Gladwell - making the obvious "unobvious" and the counterintuitive "tuitive." This one, however, doesn't seem as coherent, well-put-together,Typical Gladwell - making the obvious "unobvious" and the counterintuitive "tuitive." This one, however, doesn't seem as coherent, well-put-together, or as well-argued-toward-a-single-point as his other books. Still a lot of to be interested in here......more
David Foster Wallace once said something to the effect that a good book teaches you how to read it. That is precisely the case with Dave Eggers' hilarDavid Foster Wallace once said something to the effect that a good book teaches you how to read it. That is precisely the case with Dave Eggers' hilarious new dystopian satire The Circle — about a young-20s woman named Mae, and her meteoric rise through a Google-like company dedicated to making everyone's lives better and more efficient. (Or, taking over the world. Whichever.)
From signals very early on in the novel (and over the course of the rest it, as well), we learn quickly not to take this too seriously. It's a novel that's very much intended to be funny. And it really, really is. From the ultra-cheesy product names that "Circlers" introduce with pure earnestness — like a camera called SeeChange, or (my personal favorite) a way to vote electronically called Demoxie (democracy + moxie, natch) — to the goofy slogans like "All that happens must be known," and "Privacy is theft," this is less like Orwell's 1984 and more like Bill and Ted's 1984.
But so, the novel has been getting somewhat mixed reviews, which, to some degree I guess I understand. If you read it as a serious cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, then, yeah, I can imagine you might push back and label Eggers a Luddite and his novel a clunky mess. But I don't think that's the case. I loved this book. And think you will too, especially if you keep in mind these five tips:
1. Don't go in expecting to dislike it — For whatever reason (I'm at a loss to explain this), Dave Eggers has become a target of cynicism, so some readers have gone in to this novel sharpening their hatchets. I don't get this — for Eggers or for any novel. It's a lot more fun to go in expecting to enjoy a novel. So do that.
2. These are serious issues, but a not-very-serious novel — As Jon Stewart and The Simpsons say, "Mmmm...that's good satire." Yes, the issues Eggers brings up — disappearing privacy, addiction to social media, one company ruling the world (?) — are real issues, and if you do a thought experiment (which, in some ways, this novel is) about taking all these issues to the worst possible place, then yeah, shit! This is scary. But Eggers isn't really worried about that. And we know he's not because he has too much fun making fun of all these possibilities to believe he actually thinks things like cameras literally everywhere could really happen. Here's another random example of how funny this novel is: Mae has just been recorded getting frisky with her new boyfriend. She's furious, and asks him to delete the video. But he won't, and her friend Annie explains why: Because, for the leader of the Circle, deleting information is like killing babies. "He'd weep. It hurts him personally," she explains to Mae. Mae replies: "But this baby's giving a handjob. No one wants that baby. We need to delete that baby." I mean......
3. This isn't OUR America. It's a dystopian version of our America — "My God, Mae thought. It's heaven." That's the opening line of the novel, and it's quite the ironic tone-setter. Dystopia is only dystopia to those who aren't on board. But what really indicates that this story doesn't take place in the real world is that almost none of the things that happen in this novel could realistically happen in real-life (politicians wearing cameras 24/7 so that they're totally transparent, for instance). Oh, and one point there's a reference to the demise of Facebook. Yeah, this isn't the real world.
4. Of course, the technology is ridiculous. Of course it is — Eggers has gotten dinged a lot for not understanding technology, being way too simplistic, and writing about totally unrealistic tech products — like the product the Circle is founded on called TruYou, an online profile which allows you, from one profile, to comment on blogs, zing (the Circle version of Twitter), pay bills, store passwords, find love, and do just about everything else on the Internet. Of course, it (and many of the other products the Cirlce has created) is ridiculous. But you don't think Eggers knows that? Give him some credit. He's not a stupid guy.
5. Accept that it's far from perfect. But it's still pretty good — At some point, all the product presentations start to get a bit repetitive and silly. Eggers has made his point, but he continues to hammer it home. What's more, there's a lot about kayaking. Mae kayaks. A lot. The kayaking parts were boring. And I can certainly see how women would be annoyed by Mae — she's a bit flighty and constantly finds herself in the thrall of lust for no particular reason. Eggers doesn't write female characters well, that's for sure.
But so, to conclude, I'd definitely recommend The Circle — as long as you can laugh with it, not at it. It's a fast-paced, fun read. ...more
You'll hear frequently that Night Film is a "genre-bender" — and that's not wrong. It's a fast-paced mystery and a psychological thriller. It's an examination of the intersection of myth and fact, and art and real life. And it's a glimpse into the bowels of hell. DUM Dum dum... For me, this cross-genre-ness is a delight (Pessl is a supremely fun writer — profound and hip and funny and smart all at once), but to others, this might be confusing; especially if you have a preconceived notion that this is a Stephen King horror novel or a Michael Connelly thriller mystery or a Gillian Flynn head-messer-upper, etc. It's none of those, but a little bit of all of them, too.
Also, Night Film is a story in which you as the reader get to take an active role — not in a "choose-your-own-adventure" sense, but more in the sense that you're practically a character in the novel. This will also, no doubt, appeal differently to different readers. You, the reader, have to decide how much you're going to trust Pessl, while fully understanding that she may be trying to misdirect or confuse you as well. You have to choose what to believe, right along with the characters. Is there a reasonable explanation for such-and-such plot twist, or is there something more sinister going on? To me, that was a delight — indeed, my favorite part of the novel. To other readers, that might be annoying.
But that'll all make more sense once you understand the plot. So, here: Scott McGrath, our first-person narrator, is a mid-40s investigative reporter in New York City. Five years ago, while investigating the reclusive, cult-hero horror film director Stanislas Cordova (think David Lynch crossed with Hitchcock), he'd been publicly disgraced and discredited when, based on details gleaned from an anonymous phone call, he went on a news show and called Cordova a pedophile and possibly a murderer.
Back to the present, Cordova's youngest daughter, the beautiful, troubled 24-year-old Ashley has committed suicide by jumping down an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in Queens. McGrath gets the itch for the story again, and along with two cohorts (a stoner named Hopper and 19-year-old girl named Nora), re-starts the investigation in earnest.
McGrath interviews various people (a man who helped Ashley escape a mental hospital, a freaked-out maid at the Waldorf Towers hotel, patrons of a secret sex club) who came into contact with Ashley during her mysterious last week of life. The story begins to get weird — did Ashley dabble in the occult? Does her father? — and are those connections to the dark arts the basis for Cordova's horror movies?
As McGrath investigates, he's forced to weigh his staunch skepticism as a grounded, rational journalist with the real possibility that there may be elements to Ashley's story that traverse the traditional. And you, the reader, are right there with him, performing a stress test on your own beliefs. Can black magic or curses or worse be really real? Or is Pessl just playing tricks on us? Is our (like the characters') ability to be solely rational slowly eroding? Again, this was my favorite aspect of this novel — trying to figure out how much I wanted to let myself believe.
Another of the novel's calling cards is its inclusion of "real" newspaper and magazine articles, websites, and other documents. This adds another layer of reality to the story — inasmuch as these elements are real to the fictional world of the novel. It's a great strategy because it leads to even greater contrast between the real world and the possibility of a shadowy, metaphysical, "beyond-the-five-senses" one.
There are, however, a few things that will drive you nuts about this novel — one, which you'll hear about frequently, I'm sure, is the ending. It's the WTFiest of all WTF endings. If you need your endings to tie a neat bow around your story, this'll drive you a bit bananas. Additionally, there is a subplot or two that seem superfluous to the environment of mystery Pessl painstakingly creates (which isn't a huge deal, but this IS a long book). And finally, it just seemed strange that the girl Nora — who only knew Ashley because Ashley checked her coat one night at the restaurant at which Nora was working — was so willing to help with the investigation, and that McGrath would let her.
Overall, though, I think most readers will allow themselves to get lost in this novel's 600+ pages, and really enjoy the reading experience. That was definitely the case for me. I didn't think the novel was nearly as frightening as some early readers have claimed, but it's still a bit unsettling in spots. You may, indeed, want to get your nightlight ready — this one will keep you up late. ...more
Some novels, you can just tell the writer had an absolute ball writing it — and in many cases, those are the most fun books to read. That's definitely the case with vastly underrated novelist Wilton Barnhardt's satiric novel of a southern family, Lookaway, Lookaway.
Here's what you need to know to understand this family, courtesy of the drunken uncle Gaston: "Our families are a ragtag bunch held together by a glue of secrets, and I hate secrets now. Our family's secrets...a mountain of them....We've been tyrannized by these secrets."
Yes, the secrets in this upscale but downward-trending Charlotte family — the Johnstons — will be their undoing. With chapters told from the perspective of each member of the family — the secrets are slowly revealed, to the reader and to each member of the family, as they flit in and out of each others' stories.
But the real mark of this novel is how funny it is, and how much fun it is to read. The opening chapter of the novel follows youngest daughter Jerilyn to her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, as she pledges a sorority populated with ditzy, coke-snorting sisters named Taylorr and Brittanie. Things go south quickly for Jerilyn, as they do for pretty much every member of the family, including patriarch Duke Johnston.
Duke had been the big many on campus at, naturally, Duke — a promising political career, though, was railroaded (and it's a secret why - but we found out soon enough), and now he's settled into his autumn years, dedicating his life to Civil War reenactment. Indeed, supposedly, the Johnston clan is descended directly from Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston.
Duke's wife Jerene is the real star of this show, though — she's the only character who appears in every other characters' story, and she's such a great parody of the proper southern society woman. During a wedding, she points out all the hundreds of miniscule departures in decorum, and we just laugh and laugh that people (and I have no doubt people do!) take such things so seriously. Jerene is constantly pulling strings behind the scenes to make sure the family maintains its place in society. But she's also constantly warring with her brother — the drunk uncle Gaston, a millionaire novelist who has written a series of historical novels about a woman named Coredelia Florabloom, a damsel in distress who just can't find her lost Civil War soldier husband.
So, if you've spent any time in the South, or just want to laugh at some of the quirks of Southerners, this is the novel for you. Oh, and one final note — the ending of this novel is one of my favorite endings to any novel I've read in a long time. It's absolutely hysterical.
Jennifer duBois's second novel, Cartwheel, just out this week, is a fictional retelling of the Amanda Knox story — the American study abroad student who was arrested and tried for allegedly killing her roommate in Italy in 2007. duBois's novel takes place in Buenos Aires, and her Amanda Knox character is a self-centered New Englander named Lily Hayes, who is arrested for killing her cute Californian roommate Katy. The question in duBois novel, though, seems not to be whether she actually did it, but whether she COULD have done it.
The novel's a quick, thrilling read —it examines Lily's character and the case from several different angles; we're in her head for a lot of the novel, but also we jump to the perspectives of Lily's mysterious, kind of douchey next-door-neighbor-lover Sebastien, the lead detective on the case named Eduardo, and Lily's parents and younger sister Anna.
The eponymous cartwheel here refers to the fact that while Lily was being interrogated for the murder, she does a cartwheel in the interrogation room. Why did she do that? For the detective, and for the easy-to-judge public (like the Amanda Knox story, Lily's story has touched off a media circus), this detail is a sure sign of her guilt. “It was the joy that was the key; nobody cartwheels when they’re paralyzed with grief.” And the cartwheel is also a representative detail of one of the themes of the novel — can oddities like these really be an indicator of guilt? (After Lily discovers the body and calls 911, she's spotted on security camera at a convenience story winking suggestively at Sebastien in the condom aisle, etc.)
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel, because we see several different perspectives, is how each character views these little oddities, as well as the uncontested facts of the case — including that Lily's DNA was on the knife and one of Katy's bras. How does each side — Lily's lawyers and her parents vs. Eduardo the detective — concoct a story that fits all the evidence?
Another of the best parts of the novel is duBois's penchant for characterization. She often lets different characters describe each other to show us the lens through which they're building their stories about what happened. For instance, Eduardo the detective describes Lily's somewhat mysterious boyfriend Sebastien thusly: "But he was also, by all accounts, impossible: sphinxlike, maddeningly detached, forever circling around life and speech, both, in half-ironic, riddle-filled whirlpools." duBois, though, is at her best describing Lily, who "thinks the whole world revolves around the gaping vacuum of her needs.” Lily is totally oblivious about the effects of her actions on others or how her actions might be perceived — whether answering her host family's phone, or taking selfies at a church in a revealing tank top. She is someone who learns things, and can't imagine others around her not knowing that thing she just learned. And so it's the most interesting thing of all time.
But do these qualities of her character make her a murderer? Do they make it possible that she COULD be a murderer? And so we cruise through this incredibly read-able, incredibly well-written novel at breakneck speed to find out.
I loved this book — and I'm actually someone who actively avoided information about Amanda Knox, because I couldn't have cared less about that story. But this story is much more interesting because it doesn't have the dirty feel of news filtered through the tabloid machine. Highly, highly recommended! ...more
Kimberly McCreight's debut Reconstructing Amelia is my second favorite novel of the last few years about a bunch of snooty high school kids where theKimberly McCreight's debut Reconstructing Amelia is my second favorite novel of the last few years about a bunch of snooty high school kids where the title character dies in the opening pages. The paragon of this genre, of course, is Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, and McCreight's novel has more than a few similarities to Murray's — including secret cliques and sordid sexual rendezvous. And both stories are essentially about unraveling the mystery surrounding how the title character died.
But whereas Murray's novel is more slow-burn literary fiction, McCreight's is fast and furious, with all the requisite surprises and twists of a thriller. And whereas Skippy dies by choking on a doughnut (or did he?), Amelia supposedly has committed a "spur-of-the-moment suicide" by jumping off the roof of the school building (or did she?), having been accused of cheating on an English paper.
The novel alternates between Amelia's story leading up to her death and her mother, Kate's, in the aftermath, dealing with her grief. Amelia, a cute, but bookish girl, is just starting her sophomore year at a high-priced Brooklyn school, when she's tapped to join the Magpies, the school's most prestigious secret society. Her mother is a hard-working lawyer and she's never met her father, and so Amelia is lonely, and despite a promise to her best friend Sylvia that they'd never join one of the stupid clubs, she feels herself drawn in, flattered (if a little skeptical) about why these beautiful, rich, popular girls would want her. Are their motives legitimate, or is there something more sinister going on behind the scenes?
Kate's story happens a few weeks after Amelia's death — one day, she gets a text that says simply: "Amelia didn't jump." Knowing full well her daughter wouldn't have killed herself (despite the police's ruling, after a hasty investigation), she starts re-investigating the case, with the help of a new detective. They talk to Amelia's friends and their parents, and Kate begins wondering if the whole episode isn't partly a result of some of her own past choices. Who really is Amelia's father? What bearing does a single indiscretion many years ago with the senior partner of her law firm have on this situation?
But of course the real question — and the best part of the novel — is how did Amelia die? Did she actually kill herself? Was she pushed? Is there another explanation? And that's what keeps you turning the pages to sleuth along with Kate, and to see how deep Amelia had gotten herself, to try to figure out what happened for yourself before the characters do.
It's a fun, fast novel — and a good summer read — but it has more than few missteps. Some of the twists and surprises seem really unwarranted, or even unnecessary. And some of the dilemmas on which the plot hinges seem like they could've been easily solved. But overall, if you liked Skippy Dies, and if like me, you like the New York snob story, you'll probably enjoy this, too. ...more
Several years ago, I read Oz's memoir/novel titled A Tale of Love and Darkness, about his childhood in newly founded Israel. I really loved it and hadSeveral years ago, I read Oz's memoir/novel titled A Tale of Love and Darkness, about his childhood in newly founded Israel. I really loved it and had been meaning to read some of his fiction. Well, here we are — this 2012 collection of inter-related short stories takes place on a kibbutz in the late 1950s. Each of the eight stories follows a different character, with cameos by the others peppered throughout — it's kind of like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, except on kibbutz.
These are really simple, quiet stories about every day life. But every day life on a kibbutz is still exotic to a modern reader, and one of the themes of these stories is whether the kibbutz system — a socialist ideal — will remain ideologically rigid, or will it adapt to changing times and the changing sentiments of its members. What's more, does the ideology of the kibbutz trump basic human emotion — like the need to care for an aging parent, the desire to leave a failed marriage, or the hope to see the world? As Oz writes about one of his characters, a sad bookish young man, "His reading was leading him to the simple conclusion that most people need more affection than they can find.” That's a morose sentiment, to be sure, but one that rises to the surface frequently in this collection. Another character, a caring, loving woman who has been jilted by her husband echoes: "(She) said to herself that most people seem to need more warmth and affection than others are capable of giving, and none of the kibbutz committees will ever be able to cover that deficit between supply and demand."
I really enjoyed this collection — it's one of those pieces of fiction that seems fairly basic, until you really stop to think about what the writer's up to. And then you're amazed that so much could be accomplished with so few words (this collection is eight stories, each only about 15 pages). Highly recommended! ...more
Here's an idea: What if words — everyday words, yes, but also special, exclusive-to-a-few words — were more powerful than even the most powerful weapon? What if they could be used, quite literally, AS a weapon to try to rule the world? Seems like a bit of a pander to book nerds, doesn't it? Of course, yes. But in Lexicon, Australian novelist Max Barry pulls off this premise with alacrity, wit, and no shortage of thrills.
Emily Ruff is a precocious 16-year-old San Franciscan living on the street, earning money from cheating on magic tricks, when she's recruited for an exclusive east coast boarding school where she slowly learns the art of persuasion. Graduates of this school are called poets, and are given names of other poets like Eliot, Yeats, and Woolf, commiserate with their ability. She learns about the 220 categories of personalities in which every person fits, how to quickly identify a person's category, and then, how to use particular words to persuade. But when tragedy strikes at the school, she's banished to a small town in Australia called Broken Hill where she spends several years in exile waiting for permission to return. But soon, she repeats a past mistake — committing the ultimate sin of the ultra-logical school in which she's supposed to be loyal: She falls in love.
Meanwhile, a dude named Wil is kidnapped at the airport in Portland, and survives a violent scene. He and mysterious fellow named Eliot begin a mysterious cross-country roadtrip, where Wil is constantly under threat of being shot in the head. Eliot explains that he's kidnapped Wil because, evidently, Wil is the lone survivor of a disaster in a small Australian town called Broken Hill, and Eliot wants to know how. But Wil doesn't remember any of that, and thinks he's been confused with someone else. Who is Wil, really? How is he related to Emily's story (we know early on Broken Hill is part of the connection)? And just as importantly, who is Eliot, and what is he after?
Several strands of story in different times blend quickly together — it's a deft juggling act Barry pulls off to purposely disorient us. And admittedly, it's frustrating at times — because things happen with the presumption that you understand them, and so you think you may just have missed something. But you have to trust that Barry will explain what's confusing. He does, trust him. Everything makes sense eventually. It's just that through parts of the middle of the novel, you're not sure where you are in time — before or after events that have already been explained.
This is a quick, fun, genre-defying read. When I wasn't mad at it for confusing me on purpose, I really enjoyed it. And I was really relieved when everything started to make sense again, because I'd been afraid I'd totally missed something — or just didn't understand it. That feeling is the worst! But when everything does come together, I definitely applauded Barry for the inventiveness both of the premise and of the storytelling. Many other readers have as well — it landed on Book Riot's Best of 2013 list. ...more
Mostly very interesting - a good overview of these issues, not technical. In fact, would've like more detail in a lot of places - solar and wind and oMostly very interesting - a good overview of these issues, not technical. In fact, would've like more detail in a lot of places - solar and wind and other renewables, for sure. What about nuclear fusion? Yergin seemed overly skeptical of green building and efficiency rating systems like LEED - the consensus in the industry is that those are positive and needed.
Started to feel a little dated, though, here in mid-2013. A second edition would be welcomed. ...more
You hear multi-generational epic set in Texas, and your first thought is, "I liked this better the first time, when it was titled Texas." But Philipp Meyer's novel The Son is a masterful re-imagining of (update to?) the storytelling technique James Michener made famous: the family saga that tells the story of a place as much as it does that family. But in addition to Michener, The Son also seems to be heavily influenced by a much more literary figure, one Cormac McCarthy. That's because The Son is a both story of a people and its place (complete with oil, cattle, Comanches, and Mexicans), and also a literary historical fiction with all the requisite McCarthy violence, war, and everything else that makes Texas Texas.
Clocking in at just under 600 pages, you're going to want to clear your schedule for this one. It's the story of three characters; members of different generations of the same Texas family. Eli McCullough is the family patriarch — and his story begins in the 1850s when his family is murdered by a Comanche raiding party, and he's adopted by the tribe as a slave. He spends his formative teenage years with the tribe, learning their ways — an experience that informs the rest of his life, even after he rejoins Texas society, fights in the Civil War, and starts the McCullough family ranch.
Eli's son Peter's story begins in 1915, when some ne'er-do-well family members of the McCullough's long-time Mexican neighbors some cattle. So, much to Peter's chagrin, a hunting party is formed, which takes the law into its hands, killing the entire Mexican family. Peter, who admits (his story is told as a diary) that "There are those born to hunt and those born to be hunted. I have always known I was the latter."
But none of these characters is exactly representative of a typical Texan. They're all uncomfortable in their own times, and all seem to be trying to break the mold of what is expected of them. Eli is supposed to settle down and be a family man, but the wild streak he learned during his time as a Comanche won't allow him to do that. Peter is supposed to be the ruthless ranch owner, but he has the gall, instead, to be respectful of his neighbors rather than to constantly war with them. Naturally, this causes no small amount of conflict with his father. Peter explains: "There is nothing wrong with my father: he is the natural. The problem is those like myself, who hoped we might rise from our instinctive state. Who hoped to go beyond our nature." Peter hopes to be the better man and rise above the violence and war that is the order of the day.
And Jeannie, whose story traverses the last half of the 20th century, is supposed to be a demure Southern woman, but she actually takes the family ranch from post-war near-failure to a wildly successful oil empire, despite her supposed "limitations" as a woman in a man's world.
One of Meyer's great successes in this novel is that there are no "good guys" and "bad guys." Everything is relative based on whose story is being told at the time. And that's true as much for each character as it is for the three main groups — Mexicans, Indians, and whites — that shape the novel. When Eli is captured, his Comanche owner tells him:
"I am not even slightly crazy. The white people are crazy. They all want to be rich, same as we do, but they do not admit to themselves that you only get rich by taking things from other people. They think that if you do not see the people you are stealing from, or if you do not know them, or if they do not look like you, it is not really stealing."
But the Comanches and Mexicans are far from blameless. A Mexican ranch hand reflects on his situation, near the end of the novel:
"He was no better. His people had stolen land from the Indians, and yet he did not think of that even for an instant — he thought only of the Texans who had stolen it from his people. And the Indians from whom his people had stolen the land had themselves stolen it from other Indians."
Clearly, this isn't a novel that will appeal to all readers, but I loved it. I first read Michener's Texas about 10 years ago, and I remember struggling to get through all 1,200 pages. This is a worthy successor (companion?) to that novel — and much better in many ways, in my opinion. So, if you're in to the historical epic, this is definitely a novel worth checking out....more
Not the best Mitch Rapp novel - the guy has seriously gone off the deep end. This novel was about 450 pages of preachy (and if we disagree, we're wussNot the best Mitch Rapp novel - the guy has seriously gone off the deep end. This novel was about 450 pages of preachy (and if we disagree, we're wusses and endangering America), and 50 pages of signature Vince Flynn cool action....more
I first read, and fell under the thrall of, Robert Stone in college. His novel Damascus Gate blew me away, and since then I've read most of what thisI first read, and fell under the thrall of, Robert Stone in college. His novel Damascus Gate blew me away, and since then I've read most of what this guy's published. This, his latest novel, is about a college student named Maud at a high-falutin New England liberal arts college. Maud is having an affair with her literature professor, and when Maud dies tragically (not a spoiler; see the title), the consequences are far-reaching. Her ex-NYPD-policeman, ex-drunk father struggles to come to terms. Her ex-nun counselor Jo struggles to makes sense (and of her strange past, as well). And her lover Brookman struggles to put his family and career pieces back together. Many reviewers have said the subject of this novel felt "beneath" a supposed master of American letters, like Stone. I didn't care about that. But, as opposed to Holt's novel above, there was too much in this novel that felt superfluous, which is strange for a fewer-than-300-page story. Still, if you can abide the digressions, it's a quick read, with mostly fascinating characters. ...more
Jhumpa Lahiri's second novel, The Lowland, out today, might be the best novel of the year. It's the story of two brothers, lifelong secrets, the immigrant experience, and how parents' mistakes can still resonate decades later, influencing the lives of their children, even as adults.
It's a masterwork; an absolutely awe-inspiring piece of storytelling. Lahiri's prose is so clear and crisp, you cruise through her story effortlessly. There are no extra words, no tortured metaphors, no page-long stream-of-consciousness sidebars. Every word has it's place and there's a place for every word.
But if you've read Lahiri before, none of this comes as a surprise. She already has a Pulitzer under her belt for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. And even before its publication, The Lowland already appears on the short list for the Man Booker Prize, as well as the long list for the National Book Award. That's some serious literary cred.
Beyond the craft, what makes the story itself so compelling is Lahiri's ability to slow-burn the secrets. The big reveals aren't BIG REVEALS — they're often tinier details that change our whole way of thinking about characters' relationships or what we understand to be their motivations.
The two principals here are brothers Subhash and Udayan, who we first meet as young boys in Calcutta in the 1950s. The story follows them over the course of their young lives, as their paths diverge, and there's an unspoken, almost subconscious, competition between the two, even as they remain extremely close. Soon, Udayan is inspired by the Naxalite movement in 1960s India — a fascinating piece of Indian history of which I'd been totally ignorant until this story — and becomes increasingly radical, running with other revolutionaries. Subhash takes a less confrontational path, emigrating to the U.S. for post-graduate studies at a small, seaside college in Rhode Island.
Life continues. Bad things happen. Good things happen. There is marriage, children, career, heartbreak. But you don't want to know the details. You want to let Lahiri reveal them to you in the way she intended. It's a story that first draws you in, and then moves you through at different speeds — it's contemplative when it needs to be, but it slings you along at an appropriately brisk pace (both in terms of years and action) when it has to. We traverse more than 60 years in this novel, but it never feels like you missed anything important. That's truly a neat trick.
Some readers may nit-pick with certain details or choices characters make, or with the generally "soft" feel of the novel. But to me, these are both strengths — the characters do actually keep you guessing, and Lahiri's prose...well, I just can't find any fault. As I mentioned, it's just so sharp and readable. It's a novel I didn't want to end, a novel we'll all be talking about on year-end lists, and a novel I can't recommend more highly. ...more
There's good news and bad news about Lethem's new novel. First the good: If you're a diehard, and I do mean DIEHARD, Lethem fan, you'll probably loveThere's good news and bad news about Lethem's new novel. First the good: If you're a diehard, and I do mean DIEHARD, Lethem fan, you'll probably love Dissident Gardens. The bad news: If you're not, you probably won't.
Dissident Gardens is, in a word, dense. It's the story of Rose Zimmer, a Communist living in Sunnyside, Queens, in the mid-1950s. And it's the story of various other characters — Rose's daugher, Miriam, Rose's lover's son, Cicero, Rose's gross cousin, Lenny, and Rose's grandson, Sergius. The novel's told in 20- to 30-page episodic increments, each slowly (and slog-tastically) building the story of each character — showing how interactions with each other in their formative years affects the way these characters interact with each other in the future.
It's also a novel is about ideology — specifically how rigid ideology (Rose's communism, etc.), ideology that doesn't consider actual human people and the ideologist's relationship to them, can easily alienate the people closest. What happens, the novel asks, when firmly held beliefs fail to bear out in the real world?
A few of these mini-stories are really entertaining — one of the first chapters is teenage Miriam coming home with a boy, determined to lose her virginity, but Rose interrupts, and they fight. And this singular fight affects their life-long relationship. Another shows Sergius in modern times, meeting a girl at an Occupy at a small college town.
But for the most part, these episodes (Lenny trying to talk William Shea, the new owner of the Mets, into using a folk song as the new team's theme) were either just weird, or felt like the writing a novelist must do to learn more about his characters before actually writing the novel and setting them into the story. So, unless you're a Lethem Diehard, I'd think about skipping this one. ...more
Ursula Todd drowns. She falls off an icy roof. She catches influenza. And that's all within the first 50 pages. The premise of Kate Atkinson's Life afUrsula Todd drowns. She falls off an icy roof. She catches influenza. And that's all within the first 50 pages. The premise of Kate Atkinson's Life after Life, a really smart, inventive novel, is that Ursula Todd, born to an upper class English family on a snowy night in February 1910 keeps dying, but then gets to live her life over and over again.
The central question of the novel is this: If we get infinite chances to get it right, will we ever actually get it right? We follow Ursula through childhood, and then several different scenarios of her teen years — including one that is very traumatic. Then we follow her through several different scenarios of adulthood — once she gets married, mostly she doesn't. Once, she lives in pre-war Germany, but mostly she's in England dodging bombs during the German Blitz of London during World War II.
This constant re-starting of the story may sound like it could read to a confusing or repetitive reading experience, but Atkinson is very good at orienting you in time and giving you clues to figure out what has changed and what has stayed the same, so she doesn't have to start from scratch each time. It's what makes the novel work, when it could've easily been a disaster.
One of the main themes of the novel is the characters' vastly different views on marriage. Ursula's mom Sylvie, who is kind of a cranky, cynical woman throughout the novel, sees marriage as a necessary evil. And that influences Ursula in different ways in different versions of her life throughout the novel. Ursula's Aunt Izzie, the polar opposite of Ursula's mother, and a huge influence on Ursula as well (she always bailing Ursula out of tight spots) has a vastly different view on marriage. Izzie tells Sylvia: "For me, marriage is about freedom. For you it has always been about the vexations of confinement."
Another noteworthy theme is Atkinson's take on how life imitates art for these characters. Characters, Ursula especially, are constantly thinking about quotes by Shakespeare and Shelley and Donne and Keats and other poets and writers. I loved that idea in this novel — as your life is constantly unmoored, art can be a settling influence. As one example that most everyone will recognize, "The Reich, Ursula had concluded a long time ago, was all pantomime and spectacle, "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, she wrote to (her sister)."
Though I really enjoyed it, the novel's not perfect — despite the fact that the last third is all about war, and therefore should be "exciting," I thought the novel kind of limped to the end. Ursula seems to need a justification for killing Hitler — that's not a spoiler, she actually does that within the first two pages of the novel. So we have to see her deal with the hardships of war. And while Atkinson certainly does an admirable job of portraying the horrors of war, it's these sections that seem more repetitive than at any other point of the novel.
But the middle third is riveting — as page-turny as any literary novel you'll find. So I'd highly recommend this. It's certainly not a "soft-around-the-edges" literary novel as the cover art may indicate.
One final note. This is a quote from the novel that has stuck with me, both for its profundity and the fact that it really hit home: "Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum she couldn't even begin to solve." ...more
The opening pages of Louise Erdrich's 2012 National Book Award-winning novel The Round House show our 13-year-old narrator Joe digging up tree roots that are attacking the foundation of the family's home on an Indian Reservation in North Dakota. It's a scene that screams "METAPHOR," and it's not long before we find out just how uprooted Joe's family's has become. Joe's mother has been savagely beaten and raped, and as a result, she dissolves within herself and withdraws from the family, as the family and the reservation community struggle to make sense of the crime.
Joe's father — a judge on the reservation —looks for legal recourse. But the crime has deeper roots and is more complicated than the family could've imagined. It's not just a case of reservation politics and misguided revenge, as Joe's father originally assumed. Of course, that doesn't make the crime any less horrific. What it does make it is more difficult to bring the perpetrator to justice.
Joe — always accompanied by his good friend Cappy — struggles to understand the crime, as well. He wants revenge, but more, he just wants things to be back to normal. Of course, that's impossible — not just because of the terrible crime against his mother, but also because Joe's at that age where he has to choose what kind of person he will be. Will he become a "reservation deadbeat" like many of his relatives, or will he make something of himself, and work toward justice, like his father?
Told in thrilling bursts of story (with Joe as the first-person narrator) mixed with Native American myth, and even a dash of humor (one of Joe's grandmothers is a consummate pervert — constantly telling Joe and his friends about her sexual escapades as a younger woman), this is a novel that won't leave you anytime soon after finishing. It's about in/justice and revenge and violence and hypocrisy and history and growing up and friendship and family and just all the things that make for a novel you're can't extricate from you thoughts. Yes, it's haunting. And it's highly recommended. ...more
I love campus stories — Richard Russo's Straight Man is one of my favorite comic of all times — and so when I read about Rebecca's Lee's short story collection Bobcat and Other Stories (published summer 2012) being mostly about academics or students doing academic-y and/or student-y things, I was all over it (2013 is unquestionably the year of the short story for me. And it is good.)
Of course, then, my favorite story in the collection — the title story "Bobcat" — is the only one in the collection not specifically about academics. It's about a dinner party where the hosts are trying to decide whether a their friend knows that her husband is cheating on her. The guests are an eclectic group — there's a book editor waiting patiently for a call about a Salman Rushie memoir, a woman who wrote a memoir about being attacked by a bobcat and who annoys the other guests by talking about nothing else (the other guests wonder if her story is even true), and a woman who is a descendent of the members of the infamous Donner party. It's a riot!
Another highlight is the longest story in the collection (but they're all pretty short, no more than 20 pages) titled "Fialta" about a small group of students studying at an artist colony under a famous architect named Franklin Stadbakken. Here, at Fialta, romance between the student is strictly forbidden, but there may be a romance between the hallowed architect and the woman (oddly named Sand) for whom our narrator develops a massive crush. I loved this story. I didn't realize it until just now as I sat down to write this and learn a little bit more about Lee (she's a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington) but this story actually won Lee a National Magazine Award in 2001. Impressive, but not surprising!
The other five stories in the collection were mostly interesting in their own ways — one titled "Min," which I thought just bizarre and am still not sure if I liked or not, was about a woman who goes to Hong Kong with her good friend after they graduate college, where her friend has promised her that his rich father, a Hong Kong big wig, will give her a job. The job isn't what she expected — she has to help her friend's father find him a wife by culling through hundreds of applications to marry him. And then there's a tangent (or is it?) about Vietnamese refugees possibly being deported. One of the cool things about these stories is that you're never quite sure where we're going — you'll think it's pretty straightforward, but the a minor detail becomes a major issue, and you have to stay on you toes to figure out what the story is actually "about." It's pretty cool. Another titled "The Banks of the Vistula" is about a freshman who cheats on a linguistics paper, but finds herself forming a bond with her professor anyway. "World Party" is about a college campus that is the victim of lots of student group protests, and amused me because it reminded me a little of the movie PCU.
So it's a solid collection — not my favorite of the year, but I enjoyed these stories as short snacks between longer reading sittings. It's not a huge investment in time, and it was chance to read a new-to-me writer. ...more
As a German Catholic Midwesterner, stories about wealthy New England WASPs are infinitely fascinating to me. And if they are to you too, you'll definitely get a kick out of Maggie Shipstead's debut novel Seating Arrangements. It's a fun story for many reasons, not the least because it allows us as readers to look down our noses and laugh at these haughty, Harvard-educated, soulless jerks — to turn the tables on these characters who are so used to looking down their noses at us.
The story takes place over the course of a weekend, as the Van Meter and Duff families gather on an island at the Van Meter's summer home off the coast of Connecticut for the wedding of daughter Daphne to son Greyson. Even the names of these characters invite derision from us "normals" — Greyson Duff's father is Dicky Duff, his older brother is Sterling Duff, and his two grandmothers go by Mopsy and Oatsie. I mean...right?! (It's Mopsy who delivers the line of the novel when she's dissatisfied with the choice of restaurant for the rehearsal dinner: "This family is falling into the middle class." OH NO!?!? A fate worse than death, right?)
Lest you think this is chick lit (it's not!), most of the story is told from the perspective of Winn Van Meter, Daphne's father. This guy's a real piece of WASPy work. He's incapable of empathy, has no understanding of (or concern for ) how he comes off to people outside his upper-crust crew, and he's constantly "manifesting someone else's idea of perfection." His entire life is constructed only to conform to what's expected of him as a member of the American elite.
Here's all you need to know to understand Winn: When his younger daughter Livia calls in tears about an embarrassing episode at a Harvard club (incidentally, the same club Winn was a member of, and still hold irrationally dear), instead of being a good father and consoling her, he scolds her for shaming the family — "...and you chose that place, of all places, to drag this family through the mud." Wow! And then, when his wife Biddy explains that he may not exactly win father of the year, he can't believe he did anything wrong: "(Livia's) too worked up. She's hormonal. I can't get through to her when she's like that." (Now, I may not be the most sensitive fella in the world, but even I know that going with the "she's hormonal" explanation is going to go over like a lead balloon with most women.)
So of course, Winn makes a fabulous mess of his daughter's wedding weekend — he fights with Livia (thinking she's the reason he's not been invited to join an exclusive golf club), he flirts with one of Daphne's bridesmaids, and he generally makes an ass of himself with drink and bad behavior. It's so much fun to watch him crash and burn. Schadenfruede, to the nth degree!
If you're like me, and you enjoy a good New England snob story, this is for you. Shipstead is a wonderful, observant, often funny writer, and her debut novel is a breezy, beachy read. Hey, it was even blurbed by Richard Russo, if that sweetens the deal. Check it out! ...more
1. Is This The Same Guy? Right off the bat, I have to ask: Why doesn't Robert Langdon ever reference his previous adventures?! Wouldn't you think it'd be a huge credibility booster (and probably score some points with the cute lady he's running with here) to drop into conversation something like "Well, I did save the world once before from an anti-matter toting lunatic, so this time it should be no sweat" or "Remember that time I discovered that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene? That was pretty cool." But, no. Nothing. All we get is that he's still a symbologist, and he's still claustrophobic.
(I totally understand there's something beyond Langdon's control going on here. Dan Brown and Dan Brown's publisher wants each of the four Langdon novels to be self-contained so readers won't feel like they have to read the others to know what's going on. I assume that's the case. Right? Still...)
2. Bad Writing Is Badly Written: On the plus side, a reference to Langdon's claustrophobia (and according to this fantastic Book Riot post — Inferno By The Numbers— there are 13 such references) provided fodder for, by far, my favorite unintentionally comic passage in the novel. You ready?
Landon shrugged, “Your plane needs windows.” She gave him a compassionate smile. “On the topic of light, I hope the provost was able to shed some for you on recent events?”
Now, I know you don't read Dan Brown to be achieve literary enlightenment. Still... Oh, and here's another one — because you can't not gently chide Dan Brown's writing without pointing out one of his oh-so-dramatic italicized thoughts. So, here is my favorite:
Only one form of contagion travels faster than a virus, Sinskey thought. And that’s fear.
(You can practically hear the dramatic music behind the text, can't you?!
3. A Mini-Review: So, how is the actual novel? If you like Dan Brown, you'll probably like this — it's a novel generated directly from the Dan Brown Plot Formula. Only the names and places have been changed. This time, we're in Florence and the puzzle and clues are Dante Alighieri- and Divine Comedy-themed.
Our good buddy Robert Langdon wakes up in a Florence hospital, having no memory of how he got there. And so he has to re-solve all the mysteries he solved the previous evening before he was shot in the head, which apparently caused his memory lapse. It's The Hangover, Part 4, Starring Robert Langdon! (And as much fun as that might, it's not — it's a little silly and seems a tad contrived.) And so we lucky readers get to follow him around, as he's chased by an assassin and evil government forces, trying to remember what the hell happened last night.
But soon, a larger issue emerges. As The Lost Symbol was "about" Noetic Science, Inferno's about world overpopulation. And the question is: Will Langdon solve the puzzle in time to stop a madman hell-bent on creating a 21st century plague that will effectively thin the herd, as the Black Plague did in the 14th century (which, incidentally, lead to the Renaissance)?
Langdon's sidekick is the beautiful, brilliant but troubled Sienna Brooks. Since Dan Brown needs to have Langdon tell us things in conversations with other people, Dr. Brooks is the unwilling victim of this edition of Langdon's Mansplaining. Anyway — away we go from Florence, to Venice, to Istanbul, and this time, Brown's even got a few tricks up his sleeve. Not everything is as Langdon assumes. (Dramatic music, again.)
4. Dan Brown's Italy: Along the way, Brown takes an inordinate amount of time (usually at the beginning of each chapter) describing each and every landmark he thinks we should know about. So a lot of this novel reads like a travelogue — which prompted this tweet, which is so accurate I'm mad at Jeff for thinking of it first:
(If you're not familiar, here's who Rick Steves is.)
This tour-guiding put a rather fierce dent in my enjoyment of this novel. I even skimmed a bit. And I never skim.
5. The Divinely (Unintentional?) Comedy: When this novel is funny, both unintentionally and intentionally, it's VERY funny. In one scene, Langdon is trying to talk his publisher into letting him use the company's private jet. And the publisher tells him his books don't sell well enough to give him jet privileges: "If you want to write Fifty Shades of Iconography, we can talk." That is legitimately funny.
One recurring theme I also found hilarious is how condescending Mr. Langdon seems to be in this one. For example, there a few times in the early parts of the novel when the supposedly genius Sienna doesn't know something Langdon does. And so Langdon thinks (in a signature italicized aside): "Nice to know a 208 IQ can be wrong sometimes." Whoa, there, fella?! What's with the 'tude?!
So, to sum up: This is my least-favorite Dan Brown novel since Digital Fortress — which wasn't a Langdon novel, but which is my no-hesitation answer to the "worst book I've ever read" question. If you're curious, here would be my order of Dan Brown Langdon novels: The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, The Lost Symbol, and then Inferno. I really struggled to get through Inferno — I was just bored a lot of the time....more
I had a strange reaction to this novel. It's a fascinating premise — two American girls in the early 1980s write letters to Yuri Andropov, one gets toI had a strange reaction to this novel. It's a fascinating premise — two American girls in the early 1980s write letters to Yuri Andropov, one gets to go to Moscow to meet him and becomes famous, then she dies in a plane crash a few years later, and the other girls tries to find out what really happened. I loved this book while I was reading it — especially the middle-section of the novel taking place in the mid-1990s when the second girl travels to Moscow to try to find out what happened to her friend. Perhaps she's actually still alive? But this short novel felt way too short and, frankly, a bit slight. I wanted much more of it! And the "big reveal" is revealed in a conversation, which seemed like a missed narrative opportunity. Many readers have loved this novel — it even found it's way on to a few Best of 2013 lists. I liked it well-enough, I just wish there were more to it. ...more
Chances are, if you haven't already read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, the "it" book of 2013, you have a pretty good idea whether or not you still will. I won't try to talk you into it if you haven't — chances are you have a good reason (unappealing subject, too damn long, you're worried it's been overhyped) — but I will tell you this: It's a helluva yarn. You could do much worse than spending a week or so immersed in Ms. Tartt's 771 pages.
It's a perfect winter read, one you can wrap yourself into and forget about the snow-covered arctic tundra outside. It's a huge novel with complex themes and its own philosophy ("Life is catastrophe," i.e.), but first and foremost, it's just an absolutely riveting story. Even if you don't think too deeply, even if you just want to be entertained, you certainly will be.
Theo Decker is our protagonist, who we meet in the opening pages in a hotel room in Amsterdam, having befallen some as yet unknown calamity. Quickly, we back up to Theo as a 13-year-old New Yorker headed to a disciplinary meeting at his school with his mother. With an hour to kill, they stop into a museum to see a new exhibit. You know what happens next: An explosion at the museum kills his mother (and several others), though he's hurt, he survives. But before he escapes the museum, at the behest of a dying man, Theo takes a famous painting, The Goldfinch (which, of course, is a real thing).
The novel, then, continues on into four distinct periods of Theo's life — New York, Las Vegas, New York II, and Amsterdam. People flit in and out of his life, as he flits in and out of theirs. But the one constant is the painting — and how it reminds him of his mother, and who he is. That, however, belies the intrigue in this story, and twists and turns the story takes — a drug-fueled cross-country busride, a hundreds-thousands-dollar antique furniture scam, a drug-addled best friend named Boris who is loyal but dangerous, a beautiful red-haired girl named Pippa, and a family of New York bluebloods who have their own massive troubles. I'm telling you —it's a crazy ride.
Some readers have complained that the novel meanders a bit — which, necessarily in a nearly 800-page novel, may be true — but when you're along for this ride, you can't think about what might be "superfluous" and what's not. Just go with it! Some readers have also complained that the second New York section — starting at about the halfway point of the novel — is "slower" than the rest. And that's true (the Vegas section, you'll discover, is a frenetic Irvine Welsh-esque booze-and-drug coming-of-age bonanza, and the Amsterdam section that concludes the novel is like something out of a Scorsese film), but it was also my favorite part. It so atmospheric, and so much fun to watch Theo make the decisions (both good and bad) that will lead everything that happens next.
So, like many readers before me, I loved this book. If you're on the fence, give it a go — start it on a cold winter Friday night, and you might be finished before work on Monday. You may even forget to shower/eat/socialize/feed your pet. It's pretty engrossing. And well worth the hype. ...more
The opening scene of David Gilbert's fantastic new novel & Sons shows aging, reclusive novelist A.N. Dyer forced to brave the outside world to deliver the eulogy at his life-long friend's funeral. But A.N. Dyer has barely slept the night before because he — a writer of some repute whose first novel, Ampersand, is now part of the canon — has stayed up all night searching for canned eulogies on the Internet. It's the first sign of many to follow of the sad state of Dyer's life — a revered writer plagiarizing his best friend's eulogy!
And from there, we follow Dyer's predictable and comic botch job of the eulogy, his sudden realization that his own days are numbered, and his attempt to reconcile with his two middle-aged sons, Richard and Jamie.
Oh, and there's the matter of A.N. Dyer's teenage son, Andy — whose birth, the result of an extramarital affair, ruined A.N. Dyer's marriage and estranged his other sons. Andy, attending Exeter Academy, as did his father and his older half-brothers, is, A.N. Dyer believes, his last chance to be a good father, as his other two sons, partially because he's always been a really crappy father, are kind of screwed up. And there's the small matter that they both hate him — partially because of Andy's existence. Richard has battled drug addiction his whole life, but has now settled down in California with a wife named Candy and two kids, and has spent 20 years not talking to his father. Jamie is a filmmaker, but he doesn't actually make films — he just shoots video — and kind of drifts around the world, surfacing in Brooklyn once in awhile.
There's a lot to this novel, both in terms of style and substance. There are long, delicious stream-of-consciousness passages. There are meditations on writing and fatherhood and life in New York and family dysfunction and tons of other things I love in novels. There is teenage angst, and a quest to get laid. There are Hollywood actors and drugs and sex. And there is the mother of all unexpected plot twists about halfway through the novel — which your willingness (or not) to accept this will dramatically influence how much you like this novel. I thought it was great, and I loved just about everything else about this book.
It's a novel that's in my absolute sweet spot of "novels I like" — it's a literary novel about writers and dysfunctional New York families. I think you'll like it, too, though. Highly recommended! ...more
Welcome to North Korea, where "beauty means nothing" and "nothing is spontaneous"; and where the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong-il never lets the truth get in the way of a good story — indeed, "stories are factual...the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change."
That last quote illustrates the major theme of Adam Johnson's wonderful, terrifying, engrossing, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel. Only that which the state wants to be true is actually true — in other words, "they lived in a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them."
But the shifting idea of truth is only part of what makes this novel as fascinating as it is terrifying. Indeed, as you read about prison camps and kidnapping, cruelty and starvation, and the basic destruction of individuality, you have to continuously remind yourself that this is not a story about a near-future dystopia, it's an actual, real-life near-present-day setting.
None of that, I realize, sounds exactly cheery — but even so, this is a novel that's hard to stop reading. It's about as captivating and absorbing as any literary novel I've read. At its root, it's the story of Jun Do, an orphan who eventually rises through the ranks of the army, taking on various roles — he kidnaps Japanese citizen, he learns how to fight in the dark, and he is part of a fishing crew, though his role is to man the radio and spy on transmissions from the U.S. and anything else he comes across. An ill-fated trip to Texas to bargain with a Senator sets in motion the chain of events that occur in the second half of the novel.
And you really don't want to know more than that. The second half of the novel winds around and through itself in a awe-inspiringly artful display of storytelling. It's not hard to understand what's happening from the reader's perspective, but if you're a character in the story, you're constantly wondering about the answer to what should be simple questions: What is the truth? Is there any intersection at all between the state propaganda machine and the truth of what really happened/is happening?
All along, in the second part of the novel, an unnamed first-person narrator (one of three simultaneous story strains, all telling the same story in a different way), who happens to be an interrogator, gives us a glimpse into "normal" North Korean life. For obvious reasons, North Korea is under-represented in fiction, but these snippets of story lent some "day-to-day" credibility to the novel. Johnson says at the end of the story, in a conversation with his editor, that most of what's written here is based on the stories of defectors and what he saw on a visit to Pyongyang — but because North Koreans are forbidden from talking to foreigners, Johnson was only permitted to speak with his handlers for the trip. Still, he tells us, he can justify every piece or detail included in the story, from labor camps to kidnappings, and from movies to the blatantly anti-America propaganda (which are often the comic relief parts of this novel). In other words, this is fiction, but it's also as accurate a portrayal of North Korean life as we'll get. Again, this is not 1984 or a Margaret Atwood novel. It's life under Kim Jong-il, and it's utterly fascinating.
Whether or not this is a rightful Pulitzer winner is impossible to say. But I can tell you this: This is a fantastic novel. If you like literary fiction, if you like learning about a culture you probably knew little about, and if you like a story that will often leave you gasping for air, check this out. ...more
"You can't write an honest novel about race in this country," says a character in Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel, Americanah. Adichie is winking at her readers, in some ways telling us it's her devout hope that she has done just that.
Honestly, I don't know if this book is "honest" regarding race — that's probably not for me, as a "privileged white" to judge. It's funny at times, glib at others. It seems too earnest and too generalizing at times, but deeply profound and thought-provoking most often. But what I do know is that, overall, this novel is fantastic — I absolutely loved it! It's a substantial novel (just picking up the hardcover gives it that feel), but an easily readable one you'll fly through (if you're like me). It's easily one of my favorite novels of the year. And it's one of the rare novels I wish we could just make everyone read, so that they, too, could learn as much as I did from this book.
The story is about a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu who comes to America in her early twenties to attend college in Philadelphia. She struggles to understand American-ness in general (why do Americans say "excited" and "wonderful" so much, and why is everything infused with irony?!) but race in American specifically. She doesn't understand the hypersensitivity to race by some (why does a student in her class consider it offensive when another student asks Ifemelu if she likes watermelon?). It seems to her as an over-correction. But what's worse, of course, are the people who treat her differently because she's black. She's Nigerian, so she's never before thought of herself as black. Why do people speak more slowly to her when they hear her accent? Do they assume she's stupid? Why does she have such difficulty getting a job? In general, why do people treat her differently?
After graduating, Ifemelu begins a blog about race, which quickly earns her a wide following because of her unblinking, honest examination. The blog (full posts are included in the novel at the end of many chapters— and they're awesome) becomes the thematic cornerstone of the novel, and the jumping-off point for many of the conversations throughout the novel between Ifemelu, her boyfriends (one, a white rich man, another a liberal black Yale professor) and their friends. These conversations are fascinating as well, adding dimension to the questions (some much stupider than others) of race — Are we ready for a black president? Why are whites automatically on top of the American race hierarchy, and blacks on the bottom? And why are non-American blacks "different" than American blacks?
But there so much more to this novel than just discussion of race — there's a strong (and seemingly justified) condemnation of how we treat immigrants in this country, as well as how England treats immigrants. One whole section of the novel is about Ifemelu's former lover's (Obinze) experience trying to make his way as an immigrant in London. (Obinze, by the way, is an important character in the novel, as one of the underlying questions is, after Ifemelu breaks off contact with him, will he re-emerge? Is he really her soulmate?) And Adichie doesn't forget to tell us how different life is in Nigeria as well — and to me the sections that take place in Lagos are some of the most fascinating in the novel.
Adichie is a luminous, profound writer. (On the night Obama is elected, as Ifemelu celebrates with her friends, she's overcome with emotion, and Adichie writes "And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America." It's simple, but that passage gave me all the goosebumps.) You may have first heard of her from her 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which was also fantastic, and may have been one of the reasons she won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2008.
I can't recommend Americanah more highly. (Don't just take my word — it has a 4.20 average over more than 4,200 ratings on GoodReads.) It's an important novel, but one that's still fun to read. It's the rare novel that combines profundity in subject with profound entertainment as well. ...more
You may have heard of Simon Rich — he's a writer for Saturday Night Live (second youngest one ever), and he also frequently writes the Shouts & Murmurs column for The New Yorker. Hell, his Wikipedia page even calls him an "American humorist." Basically, his comedy credentials are well-established, even though dude's not even 30 yet.
In this collection of very short stories, Rich's goofiness is on full display. These 30 stories, each between one and five pages, are about the quirky, often absurd, nature of relationships. Generally, Rich starts with a stereotype or a simple kernel of assumed truth, and riffs it into an entire story. For instance, my favorite story in the collection "Magical Mr. Goat" is about what would happen if a child's "invisible" friend became real and started making uncomfortable advances. When the child fends him off, telling him they should just be friends, and that he'll find someone, the goat exclaims, "That's not true ... You're the only one who can even see me!" THAT's comedy!
Or, another story titled "Sirens of Gowanus" makes fun of dudes who overlook any red flags in a woman when she slows the slightest interest in him. In this case, the woman is a siren who will lure him to her island in the Gowanus Canal, and probably eat him. It had happened before. "You can't judge someone by their past relationships," the guy argues to his buddy. "Like okay, she killed Stanley. But how do you know what was going on between them? You weren't there."
"Center of the Universe" is about God dating a needy woman, who doesn't understand why he can't take time from his job of creating the world to spend more time with her. Yeah, some of these stories may annoy you.
The title story is about one of the last women on Earth, who is in a committed relationship, and who refuses to acknowledge that the President and Brad Pitt requesting "meetings" with her is not because they want to bed her, but only because she's smart and engaging. And she still becomes jealous of one of the other last women on Earth when she thinks the other woman hits on her boyfriend. Really funny!
There are a few duds — stories in which the cornerstone idea may have just been better as an idea, not a whole story. Rich riffs off the idea that your exgirlfriend's next boyfriend is always evil — and builds a story about a guy's exgirlfriend dating Hitler. Another story in a similar vein has a guy using a secret government invisibility serum — and he's supposed to be finding a terrorist, but instead the guy uses his invisibility to stalk his exgirlfriend while she's on a date.
Overall, though, I'd definitely recommend these — I read them over the course of three weeks or so, just a few here and there. They definitely don't require much mental bandwidth, and for the most part, they're clever, funny, and insightful. You'll definitely do a few "knowing nods," a few chuckles, and a few outright laughs out loud. ...more
Andrew Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, about the last two decades in war-torn Chechnya, isn't an easy read — but not in the sAndrew Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, about the last two decades in war-torn Chechnya, isn't an easy read — but not in the sense that it's difficult to understand. It's not an easy read because it's, in a word, unflinching. There are depictions of torture that can make even the most iron-stomached reader squirm. And there are also stories of human trafficking, drug abuse, and plenty of violence.
Additionally, it's not in easy read because of the simple fact that it's a little embarrassing not to have ever heard of or have been cognizant of this pain and these atrocities and the sheer lack of humanity that was happening. Here is this tiny central Asian/eastern European country I'd known nothing about, and to learn about all that has occurred there in the last 20 years? It's just sad on a number of levels. How do more people not know about this?
But amidst the pain and sadness is a finely wrought, character-driven novel that shows that in war and its aftermath, there are few good guys and many bad guys, and there are certainly no winners, but many, many losers.
The "real time" action in this novel occurs over about five days in December 2004 — four years after the official conclusion of the Second Chechen War, but still in the midst of a prolonged insurgency by Chechen rebels. The novel begins with a Chechen man named Dokka being "disappeared" — that is, captured by Russian troops and brought to a torture chamber called the Landfill. But his neighbor Akhmed helps Dokka's 8-year-old daughter escape to a nearby hospital, where a woman named Sonja is the lead doctor. Sonja, though, is trying to hold together her own life. Her younger sister Natasha is missing, and Sonja fears the worst.
Moving back and forth in time, Marra slowly and carefully reveals how all these characters' lives are connected. It's a brilliantly layered, carefully constructed story — as these characters often find out how they're connected with each other, and more importantly, why, at the same instant the reader does. It's powerful, and often very sad.
Part of the point is that in a war-torn country, logic breaks down. When Russians are bombing a Chechen village, a character exclaims to another "We are being liberated." Of course, they're not being liberated, they're being conquered. The villagers then use toilets to cover unexploded ordnance, leaving a patchwork of craters and upside-down toilets in the bombed out village.
"So many dozens of upside-down toilet bowls crowded the streets that cars wouldn't pass for weeks, and in that time, she would occasionally hear the overdue explosions, the shrapnel ringing within the ceramic, but those bowls, the one decent legacy of the Soviet Union, never broke."
What an image! Marra is a writer of immense talent — and it's mind-boggling that this is his debut novel.
There are even moments of levity here, that help move the reader along. At the beginning of the novel, when Akhmed brings the young girl to the hospital, he tries to brag that he's also a doctor. Sonja quizzes him about what would he would do with an "unresponsive patient." He replies that he'd give the patient a questionnaire. Sonja just rolls her eyes — how could an unresponsive patient complete a questionnaire? Later, we learn that Akhmed interpretted "unresponsive," to mean a patient who couldn't or wouldn't talk — and so the patient would have to write out answers to question to determine the problem.
This novel is highly recommended, but again, not for the squeamish. And it does take a fair amount of concentration to keep track of how all the pieces are coming together and what the relationships mean. But it's well worth the effort. It's a brilliant novel — one of my favorites of the year....more
The cynical, jerky, glib book blogger in me would start this review with something like: "The Interestings? Ha! Helluva misnomer, that! More like 'The Jejunes'!" But then you'd be annoyed that I used the word "jejune" and probably stop reading. So lucky for you, this book blogger is enlightened, well-adjusted, and willing to admit he's probably in the minority on this one.
Most readers I know have enjoyed Meg Wolitzer's long novel about a group of teenagers attending an art camp in the mid-70s, and then becoming life-long friends, through love, loss, secrets, depression, fulfilled and unfulfilled talent, and children. It's an interesting premise — and for the most part, the characters who populate this novel do somewhat interesting things, like create a "The Simpsons"-like cartoon that makes one character rich and famous, hide secrets from their spouses, and unwittingly do LSD to help a middle-aged (pervert?) folk singer write songs.
But this novel never quite clicked for me. It's interesting at the beginning as the kids meet at the camp, and then hang around in New York City, until one fateful New Year's Eve when one in the group accuses another of rape. And the ending is interesting, too. But the several-hundred-page middle often sags. Wolitzer tells large swaths of story in summary — more like you're reading a magazine article about these characters and their exploits, than a novel about them.
The themes here are interesting, and well-developed — what is talent, and what external factors can cause it to be nurtured or snuffed? Why do we cling to childhood friendships when the adult versions of people and those relationships become vastly different? And why is harboring secrets so destructive to relationships built on trust? (Well, the answer to that last one should be obvious.)
And so these questions are interesting to think about, but the plot struggles to support them enough to keep you quickly turning the pages. It took me more than three weeks to traverse these 470 pages, more time than it took to read the super-difficult, much-longer The Luminaries. But I'm fully willing to admit that not being totally in the thrall of this novel is rather a dissenting opinion. Several readers even posted this to their best of 2013 list — including Book Riot. Hey, agreeing on everything is uninteresting, right? ...more
Without knowing much about them, it's easy to dismiss Scientologists as a cult of crazy weirdos. But to do so ignores the immense influence they have.Without knowing much about them, it's easy to dismiss Scientologists as a cult of crazy weirdos. But to do so ignores the immense influence they have. And not just in Hollywood. Yes, the No. 1 takeaway from Lawrence Wright's fantastic, fascinating, and more than a little frightening "biography" of Scientology is simply the lengths the "church" has gone to over the years to a) Promote its own mythology, and b) Destroy or discredit anyone who says or publishes anything negative.
What I learned is that the principles and practices of Scientology (auditing, studying, E-Meters, etc.), strange and unorthodox though they may seem to non-Scientologists, have legitimately helped many people who were suffering. But just as many (probably many more) have been snared into an organization that only seems to have its own best interests and survival in mind. While the practice of Scientology may seem relatively harmless, the Church of Scientology itself, if Wright's account is to believed (and why not? He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) is corrupt and immensely self-serving, its founder L. Ron Hubbard was a wife-beating, narcissistic, money-grubber liar, and its current leader (David Miscavige), is one of those people so used to lying, he now believes his own stories. (Also, according to many of Wright's sources — ex-Scientologists who have "blown," meaning they've left the church, Miscavige regularly beats up his subordinates. He's not a good man.)
The first third of the book is a biography of L. Ron Hubbard — we follow him through his youth, his Navy service, the publication of Dianetics, and the founding of the "religion" on the principles spelled out therein ("I'd like to start a religion, that's where the money is," he once said). We watch as he sails around the world with his followers, at one point taking them on a literal treasure hunt for gold he supposedly buried in his past lives. We're disturbed as we learn about the doctrine LRH creates for the higher levels of Scientologists — by now, the story is familiar, having first been released in the press in the early 1980s. Seventy-five million years ago, an evil being named Xenu banished his subjects, called "thetans," to the planet that is now Earth. And Scientologists audit themselves both to expel bad feelings from past lives ("engrams") as well as these "bodily thetans" who now inhabit their bodies.
Wright gives us some really interesting discussion on Scientology vs. psychology, and why the mental health community was the first vocal critic of Scientology. We learn about cult vs. religion, brainwashing, and how those can be applied to Scientology and its history. And we're shocked to find out about the lengths Scientologists have gone in order to suppress anything bad written about them (for the cliff notes, read about Paulette Cooper, and also Operation Snow White).
And then, the juicy Hollywood gossip — John Travolta's apparent homosexuality, and Tom Cruise's "auditioned" girlfriends. What's interesting here, though, is Wright's explanation for why and how Scientology is (and always has been) so adept at courting celebrities. And then Wright wraps up with the story of Paul Haggis — and his leaving the church because of the church's apparent support for Proposition 8 in California. Wright originally told this story in a long New Yorker article in 2011 — and the last chapter of this book chronicles the meeting he and the New Yorker staff had with a Scientology spokesperson named Tommy Davis, and the church's lawyers. This is when it becomes apparent how self-serving and loose with facts the church is.
I can't recommend this book more highly — it's utterly engrossing. It's long, but it reads more quickly than just about any non-fiction book I've ever read. It's one of my favorites of the year so far. ...more