Oh god a Chine Mieville (from me!) with fewer than five stars? What blasphemy! What horror!
Okay, okay. The City and the City is Mieville's flirtation...moreOh god a Chine Mieville (from me!) with fewer than five stars? What blasphemy! What horror!
Okay, okay. The City and the City is Mieville's flirtation with the noir genre, one of which I am not particularly a fan. My other brief foray into the world of beat detectives and gritty city street-stabbings was Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem (another of my Leiblingsautors [why the gratuitous German, Kate? I have no idea.]. Lethem's is a book more heavily laced with the speculative, with literally baby-faced antagonists and talking animals and a bureaucratic rather than theological system of karmic balance.
The City and the City takes place in two fictional, intertwined cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma. Residency is determined more by state of mind than location--before being admitted to the city, tourists must train to unsee the twin city, to decipher who is Ul Qoman and who is Besz, though they may walk shoulder to shoulder down the same street every day of their lives. Rather like how most people regard the homeless as if they are on another plane of existence, except rather more effortless and without the niggling guilt.
I had a hard time getting into the head of the gumshoe protagonist, Tyador Borlu, and never felt very impressed by the plot. I'm bad at mystery novels--I find it difficult to stop and reflect and think critically about things. I am a gormless, wide-eyed escapist, content to let the author lead me around by the nose. I was just never all that surprised by anything.
The other big let-down was the fact that Mieville scaled down his luminous prose for this first-person narrative. It was the correct decision--Borlu is not going to go on glorious stream of consciousness raves about the blood on the tundra or the slide of sinuous monsters through the ocean's darkness... but I kinda sorta wish he had, I always enjoyed those passages.
I went into this anthology of short fiction thinking it would be the perfect way to clear my palate. I had just given up on Paula Volsky's Illusion, a...moreI went into this anthology of short fiction thinking it would be the perfect way to clear my palate. I had just given up on Paula Volsky's Illusion, a fantasy re-casting of the French Revolution with an unwieldy front-half I didn't have the patience for.
It isn't that Porter's writing is terrible, far from it. I never had to stop and shake off a fit of grammatical outrage... but I never paused over a sentence and marveled at its construction, wanted to read it out loud and savor its music, its bobbing ebb and flow. It's functional prose, and not much more.
It's just everything else. Porter is great with his ending paragraphs--you could read them individually and get that same thunk, that impression of finality and importance and great meaning. I just don't think he can back it up with the beginning and middle. I was skimming from the title story on, and it all just felt the same to me: another first-person tale of suburban woe, character conflict with normal, flawed people going about their lives. Like a character-based indie movie, or romantic comedy. Formulaic. They read like the output of a very serious twenty-something who's taken too many creative writing classes with other very serious twenty-somethings, trying to make a statement about "the modern human condition" without ever saying anything original, or doing anything original, or really doing anything all that memorable at all. I'm sure that a month from now, I'd be hard-pressed to detail anything I've read.
Maybe, given the space to really dig into his characterization, Porter isn't so bad. Maybe his novel In Between Days is better. He's certainly got a list of awards long enough after his name, though the smug picture of him on his website is a little jarring. He's even from Lancaster county, just to the west of where I grew up, and now lives in San Antonio, which is just to my south. I have so many granfalloonian reasons to like him.
Though it ends with an act of arson and several near death experiences, the novel Skippy Dies by Paul Murray left me feeling serene. I felt filled wit...moreThough it ends with an act of arson and several near death experiences, the novel Skippy Dies by Paul Murray left me feeling serene. I felt filled with an overarching sense of meaning, of internal stillness, that comes at the end of a very good book. This is not altogether a good thing--it's difficult to be fully engaged in a text whilst you are still suspended in the amber of its magic. But it left me grasping at disparate details, at small things, to assemble them into a whole, to pick apart the compositional threads of the novel's wholecloth and then try to weave them back together.
I'd argue that that's what the whole book is about.
But I'm putting the cart ahead of the horse. This is a good book. The actual, physical book is nice. The American hardback is published by Farber and Farber Inc., and you can tell they invested in it. The paper (oh the paper, the glorious paper) is smooth and soft and lends it a reassuring solidity. The cover is abstract, but in a good way: it communicates something in the end, resembling waves drawn in watercolor, shaky and bleeding into each other at the intersections.The typography is nicely balanced and not at all intrusive, and there's some fun stuff with formatting that would be lost in a digital edition: an instance of E. E. Cummings-like fiddling with spacing and symbols; a popstar's name rendered in what looks like Curlz MT instead of the steady serif of the rest of the text; a sci-fi inspired font for SMS communication. They're small, these variations, and used sparingly, but they make the text feel whole. It feels polished and finished, like an entity unto itself. (Might I add how nice it is that the kids text in this book? I feel like in a lot of literary fiction, technology simply fades into the background. It's like Facebook or any facsimile thereof simply doesn't exist. No one skypes, no one has to go charge their car, no one almost walks out into traffic because they were playing games on their phone while walking around with earbuds in. Tcheh.)
The title is a spoiler. Daniel "Skippy" Juster is a boarder at a prestigious Irish school. He is in his second year, which is roughly equivalent to 8th or 9th grade, and within six pages he is dead. So, okay, while the jacket copy's comparison to Infinite Jest is mostly off the wall, the two are similar in that they revolve around a death, and that though Skippy is the protagonist, the novel just as often takes place from the perspective of other characters: Lorelei, girl he's infatuated with; Howard Fallon, his history teacher; Carl, the menacing and more than slightly crazy classmate who harasses him. Murray invokes the poltergeist of adolescent lust almost too well. Awkward, all-consuming infatuation, lust, jumbled sex ed, schoolyard politics... and a reminder through the adults that all that still lurks below the polish of maturity.
He also uses the second person, and though the first time I was taken aback by the sheer novelty, it feels natural. It lets him slip readers into a pocket dimension within the book's greater arc--into Carl's fracturing and dream-like reality, into Skippy's video games. It works. It makes me so happy that it works.
The one thing that irks me a little is the end. In places it feels rushed--that act of arson pulls back from the limited perspective of the rest of the piece. It moves quicker, yes, but it felt a little glossed over. And the novel's thesis of sorts is spelled out rather plainly in the last few pages... but I sort of liked that.
I'm dumb sometimes. Epiphanies cannot be summoned on command. But the experience of this book, and books in general, is one similar to my layman's knowledge of the relationship between the quantum and the relativistic as they stand now: two realms indivisible, their interactions incomprehensible, except for the beautiful idea that we are all comprised of buzzing strings that bind us into one whole, across infinity, across space-time and n dimensions. (I said layman's knowledge, okay?) But it felt like Murray (and his publisher and editors) has been spinning this web of stories, of characters and actions and plot and typography and cover design into one whole, into one moment dwindling down to a single point, into a supercompact dimension a breath away from ours and unimaginably dense: pages 654 and 655. It felt like an ending, and a good one at that.(less)
I have absolutely no clue about what I just read, or even if I liked it or not--reading on was sometimes more chore than pleasure. "Strange things hap...moreI have absolutely no clue about what I just read, or even if I liked it or not--reading on was sometimes more chore than pleasure. "Strange things happen" pretty much summarizes the plot, with lots of philosophizing and implications about the nature of self and reality and metaphor... but it's all very fuzzy and dreamlike, and now that I've finished it, it feels like a dream--the shapes of concepts and the feel of them, sand-blasted into anonymity.
I'm not sure I got much out of this one. Kafka is slow and plodding and takes much patience to get through, and like I said, sometimes I just wanted to put it down and move on to something more potentially entertaining. But I was concerned that I was missing something, that whatever makes people go crazy for Murakami's work was just a couple pages away, that whatever he's trying to do here would gel into some sort of cohesion.
Well, no such luck. Maybe it's because I have a headcold, but all I thought when I put the book down was that I should really go make some strawberry jello, because jello is wonderful and nobody in this house is going to make it for me. I feel a little of that bookish feeling, that pause and stillness and sense of suspension of self or normality or what have you that is perfect for writing pretentious and terrible poetry, but I don't know what do with it. Murakami's done something, but I have not a clue what. (less)
I was really dubious of this book to start. Somehow, I'd completely missed all the details of this heading in--all I knew was that it was about a girl...moreI was really dubious of this book to start. Somehow, I'd completely missed all the details of this heading in--all I knew was that it was about a girl who steals books. Skimmed right over the Young Adult section, the Nazis, the whole Death thing. I think I was expecting something like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova... but what I got was quite good.
Like one of my updates says, this is not a book to finish in a public setting. It's narrated Death, a figure bemused and haunted by the souls he scoops in his arms, and it's understandably heavy reading. Zusak has done an amazing job of casting characters you feel like you know--which makes it all the more heartbreaking when he kills them. I hadn't cried at a book since Where the Red Fern Grows, or maybe The Road.
If you're dubious at first, if you think Nazi Germany is overdone and Death is little more than a shtick, a Norm Macdonald joke, if you're like me and were thrown off by the choppy, melodramatic diction at first--keep going. This one swallowed me whole.(less)
Saunders is definitely a master of the short story and it shows in this collection--everything here is technically sound and often funny. Only three r...moreSaunders is definitely a master of the short story and it shows in this collection--everything here is technically sound and often funny. Only three really jumped out at me: "Escape from Spiderhead," "The Semplica Girl Diaries," and the title story, "Tenth of December."
I kept thinking about that Kafka quote--I don't feel wounded or stabbed or changed in any way, just mildly interested.(less)
It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.
Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is a beautifully written account of a lonely girl growing into adulthood, shedding her childhood skin as the world sloughs off its living things as the planet’s rotation slows to a crawl. Though the book’s premise is apocalyptic—days stretching to twenty four hours and beyond—Julia’s story is a slow burn, more a bildungsroman than action-packed thriller. It has the feel of an indie drama, measured in its pace and relying more upon stunning cinematography than strength of plot. (2011’s Melancholia comes to mind in particular.)
Julia is a sixth grader who reminds me way too much of my own middle school experience—alone, orbiting the cliques and listing off full names and scavenged traits of people you might not have spoken to in months. Maybe that’s why I’m more willing to forgive the novel’s lacks: the lack of explanation, of many real consequences, the lack of a sense of danger or anything beyond a niggling feeling of “something isn’t right,” an under-reaction for all the ecological consequences the novel’s premise produces.
Really, the novel’s strength is in Walker’s prose. The quote I began with is one from eight pages of highlights on my Kindle, though half are Amazon’s list of “Popular Highlights”. Age of Miracles is piebald with these places where you just have to stop and savor a particular sentence. I was so caught up with her writing that it was only after finishing the book that the plot-holes started jumping out at me—Walker’s prose just paves over them.
I look forward to reading more work by Walker. Hopefully she gets her genre conventions right next time.(less)
Most of these stories seem to be riffing off the same chords: living in reality, mediated and/or sanitized experiences. I feel like, in writing the first story "Standard Loneliness Package," Yu has said pretty much everything, and the rest of the book just puts it a different way. I might also be a little jaded because one of the stories has been done more effectively by John Scalzi in Redshirts: "Yeoman."
This was a fun anthology, but it just isn't sticking to me. (less)
I picked this up at the library because of all the fuss over in Chicago's public school system. At first people thought it was being banned entirely,...moreI picked this up at the library because of all the fuss over in Chicago's public school system. At first people thought it was being banned entirely, but it turns out it's just being removed from classrooms and is on a kind of caution list for being taught to students below eleventh grade.
That's a shame. Satrapi's graphic novel memoir Persepolis portrays a young girl's coming to age in a society fundamentally opposed to the values of her family--the life of a girl struggling to reconcile different aspects of her identity, struggling to accept a world where bad things happen and you can't always stop them. That last point especially seems to be what every single Newberry book I've ever read seems to be about, so why is Persepolis singled out?
If it isn't the book's internal politics, I would venture that it's the external Protect Our Children (From Reality) impetus. I'm well out of the public school system, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was a conversation started shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting. To be fair, the book does contain instances of drug use... but it's also strongly pro-education, and the English translation has been out for nearly a decade.
This book is just so damn good. Satrapi's stark black and white illustrations and the clarity of her voice, the way she writes her progression from child to young adult... It's technically good, it's interesting, it's eye-opening. Twelve to thirteen year olds should be mature enough to handle the subject matter.
The Septembers of Shiraz is another great book, this one a novel, set during the Iranian revolution. I quite enjoyed it, and wish I still had my copy.(less)
I've technically only half-finished this one, which is never a good sign. I suppose once you hit C. K. Williams's age, you earn the right to write ind...moreI've technically only half-finished this one, which is never a good sign. I suppose once you hit C. K. Williams's age, you earn the right to write indulgently… but that doesn’t mean I have to read it.
This anthology begins with “Whacked,” a poem about poems that strike you, that thud into your chest with Kafka’s axe to the frozen sea. It’s nice, and it’s about a nice idea, but honestly, never inspired that axe-strike for me. Williams covers subjects ranging from Texan textbooks to Matchbook cards, name-drops poets and poems like bird droppings, and muses on death and change and prose and poetry without ever reaching any kind of striking conclusion. I know the guy won a Pulitzer, but the only poem here that struck me was “Lonely Crow,” and he lost me at the trite ending.
I don’t regret buying this because I didn’t buy it, I took advance of my lovely public library system. And thank god for that. (less)