Brilliant in spurts, and setting the table for what would become DeLillo's literary preoccupations (sexual and social and above all American conspirac...moreBrilliant in spurts, and setting the table for what would become DeLillo's literary preoccupations (sexual and social and above all American conspiracies, and the mesmerizing role that language plays in adumbrating the connections between them [language as a consipracy itself], Americana isn't necessarily a must-read, if only because of the greats that came later, like White Noise, Libra, and Underworld (haven't read Mao II, yet), but it's pretty great and totally worthy. (less)
A surprisingly pedestrian effort from a writer whose book, Mating, is one of the great enrichments of my life. But, a pedestrian effort defined by its...moreA surprisingly pedestrian effort from a writer whose book, Mating, is one of the great enrichments of my life. But, a pedestrian effort defined by its effortful-ness. It's possible the brilliance was too subtle. Felt flat, with only occasional flashes of the superior, playful mind of the Norman Rush of Mating.
I have never failed to learn so much from a book. Each page contained two to five worthwhile, self-knowledge-spurring insights about the human mind. W...moreI have never failed to learn so much from a book. Each page contained two to five worthwhile, self-knowledge-spurring insights about the human mind. Written swimmingly. (less)
LoLL would have had a hallowed place on my shelf a few years ago, and, even now, in my jaded state, I give it props as an act of (re-)imagination and...moreLoLL would have had a hallowed place on my shelf a few years ago, and, even now, in my jaded state, I give it props as an act of (re-)imagination and good camaraderie, but there were just too many things that simply weren't doing it for me.
First, conceptually, the premise of a "fantasy caper" is tough. Caper implies the kind of escapade where you pull off the impossible by manipulating reality while remaining within its boundaries. That didn't really happen in this book, anyway, but, even if it did, the presence of magic kind of takes the air out of the caper.
None of this matters, of course, because it was just some editor's jacket copy and it could still work if other aspects of the book were strong. They weren't.
The descriptive prose is heavy. Take, for example, this paragraph on the second or third page. "The Thiefmaker’s wards all carried candles; their cold blue light shone through the silver curtains of river mist as street lamps might glimmer through a smoke-grimed window. A chain of ghostlight wound its way down from the hilltop, through the stone markers and ceremonial paths, down to the wide glass bridge over the Coalsmoke canal, half-visible in the bloodwarm fog that seeped up from Camorr’s wet bones on summer nights." A bunch of cool things here. "Chain of ghostlight", etc. It's just so much, though. Too many ingredients. The book's littered with these chokers.
The other 3/5 of the book, the dialogue, is pretty wooden, a bit like mediocre TV or every bad blockbuster. The characters lacked dimension, too.
I did like the punching-the-old-lady-in-the-face scene, not for the violence, but for the timing. You'd need to get into the 600s in pages to appreciate that. There are some other pretty great images and cool things about the city, but, ironically enough, the excess of detail somehow did more to underscore the cheapness of the set than it did to enrich the world in which these characters live.
LoLL is a lot easier and safer than the Game of Thrones books, which I also have some problems with (Neddy No-Fun over here), but GoT is a lot more rewarding, especially for the fantasy reader who likes literature and some psychological complexity. This one was more not just like "fantasy", but like someone's fantasy, and I just couldn't really get into it. (less)
For prose alone, this book would be excellent. The writing is elegant, descriptive without being over-baked. VS Naipaul has a gift for including the d...moreFor prose alone, this book would be excellent. The writing is elegant, descriptive without being over-baked. VS Naipaul has a gift for including the detail that animates an object, a person, a scene. His comic timing is always on the money, as if he were Kingsley Amis, just at a much lower frequency.
VS Naipaul's gifts as a writer keep coming. The characters are not so much psychologized as observed, but, despite not getting inside their heads, they come across as realer people than characters whose feelings you explicitly know about. They're like family, which is of course the point, given that the book comes from the inside of a kind of family sno-globe. Naipaul's ear for speech and for the rhythms of gesture (in Biswas, at least) is as good as anyone's.
Still, if there were one thing that for me distinguishes this book from other books, it's the unforgiving tenderness with which VS Naipaul treats his main character, Mohun Biswas, who is based on Naipaul's own father. As someone who's wanted to write about his own father for the sake of trying to understand him and simply get it right and set the record straight, and, yes, for the sake of love and gratitude, too (perhaps mostly those, at the end of the day), I have the deepest admiration for Naipaul's effo (less)
Excellent. Nearly every essay in the book made its subject a viable and redemptive object of interest, a thing that felt important. The best of these...moreExcellent. Nearly every essay in the book made its subject a viable and redemptive object of interest, a thing that felt important. The best of these essays are better than more than a few of David Foster Wallace's essays (no small feat). Lahwineski, especially, was superb. (less)
Travels was pretty great all the way through, with some passages that stand out as magical. It's accessible, and it's evenhanded about the balance bet...moreTravels was pretty great all the way through, with some passages that stand out as magical. It's accessible, and it's evenhanded about the balance between extreme ugliness and strange beauty. The characters have a painted feel, complex, multi-colored (even if those colors were mostly in the potato family), very human. The Kamchatka passage is particularly good. The crows, too. These scenes, expertly built, will stand out in my mind for a long time. And Travels has the very best application of the word "per capita" when he talks about this one Siberian city's singular concentration of drop-dead smoking babeskies.
I'm probably a little let down that the travels in Travels didn't consist of a single odyssean pioneering of this vast, mythic land. Even with all the preparation and some of the hardship, it seems that Siberia was a little too easy to get into, out of, and through. That, of course, isn't Frazier's fault: it's the 21st century. It's simply easier to do these things than it was 150 years ago. Frazier's not trying to be Bear Grylls, and, if he were, the book would probably be a lot more toilsome, probably worthless. And, besides, there's something reassuring about a family man who lives in Montclair, NJ, finding the time to do all this stuff, as he still had to be away for pretty long periods of time, and it's unlikely that the proceeds from the book justified the amount of time and money Frazier had to invest in all the traveling he did.
I'm also glad Ian Frazier finally got to Siberia in the winter. I would've been pretty bummed if all his travels took place in a single season. It just wouldn't have seemed right. (less)
It's worth it to get through the languorous, can't-get-started, uninspired first half of the book to get to the very good second half, where both the...moreIt's worth it to get through the languorous, can't-get-started, uninspired first half of the book to get to the very good second half, where both the story and the writing pick up. Actually, given how big the separation is between the two halves, I think you could skip to part II and not miss anything worthwhile.
The title and jacket copy are something of a stretch. The journey itself, while certainly a singular series of experiences for the author and probably the experience of a lifetime, doesn't contain the drama to feel "amazing" to a reader. It just isn't that kind of book. Lots of bureaucracy, lots of frustrations, lots of conversations, contradictions, and double-talk, lots of stops and starts and buzzing flies, and regrettably, not a lot of natural beauty observed. Way less Green Hills of Africa than it is A Bend In the River (loved both of those books, incidentally). Also, the jacket copy promises gonzo journalism. Technically, that's correct (it's first person, it isn't objective, it's embedded), but, spiritually, it's kind of a stretch.
Still, these observations notwithstanding, the second half of the book is money. (less)
"Talent is sort of a dark gift, that talent is its own expectation: it is there from the start and either lived up to or lost." Infinite Jest
This book...more"Talent is sort of a dark gift, that talent is its own expectation: it is there from the start and either lived up to or lost." Infinite Jest
This book was corrosively good entertainment, one that takes very seriously the confusion of the pursuit of happiness (the most revolutionary premise of our nation's founding) with the pursuit of pleasure, the latter of which is manifest in the book as entertainment. That they so often get confused is primary among the tragedies of a book that is filled with pain. And also humor. The sophomoric kind (which is occasionally really good). The quirky kind (hit or miss). The engineered kind (which is as tiresome as it is in Pynchon's and Tom Robbins's books). And, finally, verbally. Here, DFW is peerless. And, when this is going well, you almost forget about reading the whole thing through the prism of his suicide (a challenge not to do).
Line for line, there are few books whose expression has resonated so well with a contemporary reader's frame of mind, to the extent that the melodic logic of the story and line-level meanings felt very intuitive. For instance, I didn't need the footnote to tell me that "N.R." in "John N.R. Wayne" meant "not related". I don't doubt that I got it because his influence has been so huge that I've had sufficient previous exposure through DFW's writing itself as well as so many who came after. But, I think that DFW has an unmatched ability to make singular phenomena at once understandable through the clarity of his expression. Check out this description of a Dean of Students: "[He was] physically small in a way that seems less endocrinal than perspectival. Resembles the smallness of something that's farther away from you than it wants to be, plus is receding." Not at all an easy concept to capture, but so beautifully done. The eye here is so good.
The adoption of alternate voices is touchingly academic in spots, and the characterization is deferential to the inscrutability of its characters (at least the more complex ones) and then correspondingly vindictive once it's settled for an arm's length psychological (less)
Unlike most picaresques, Tristan Smith begins in a strange place and ends in an even weirder one. This quality is characteristic of Peter Carey's work...moreUnlike most picaresques, Tristan Smith begins in a strange place and ends in an even weirder one. This quality is characteristic of Peter Carey's work (Bliss and The Tax Inspector come to mind), and it has the spine-prick effect of displacing the fulsome, rich, slightly-though-appreciably alternate future world of Tristan, in which Efica is a New Zealand-sized version of Canada to Voorstand's USA (of course, they both seem to be located in the South Pacific).
In other words, the tingling dislocation you feel at the beginning of the book in ascertaining Tristan's world won't resolve itself the further you read, despite how clearly charted it is by Tristan. It's a lot like our world and yet has an otherness to it that keeps you off-center. I still haven't figured out, incidentally, whether this is particular to Peter Carey or it's the by-product of an American reading an Australian novelist.
Tristan's story is equal parts Tom Waits and Thomas Jefferson. Tristan himself is a freak, a Caliban whose monstrosity is commingled with a poetic suppleness of mind and an ethico-political sense of indignation. Carey doesn't let you off the hook. As a child, Tristan is not simply a misshapen wreck with a beautiful mind and fine, lovable sensibilities. He's a child in a difficult situation. He whines, he's irrational, he's emotional, hormonal, desperate for love and stability and yet at the same time he often spurns his closest, most loving relations. His I-guess-you-could-call-him foster father Wally gets it the worst: Tristan often rejects the blue collar care he gets from Wally, who devotes his life to Tristan out of love-devotion to his mother. It's as if Wally were the understudy father and lover who himself is cast as a lead in a play that didn't turn out how he wanted. The whole story is as touching as it is strange.
A week later, I find my admiration for Peter Carey's achievement continues to grow. This story may be slow in parts, some of the offstage events may seem arbitrary and not critical to the plot, but I nevertheless was continually in awe of how rich the world of Tristan is. You simply can't write a story if you can't hear the people speaking. But, what Peter Carey does in this book is pretty masterful: he tweaks our own world's geopolitical history, inventing nations with ties to Old Europe, Asia, and Africa, that are both like and unlike our own; he cobbles together the diverse lexicons of the different subsets of people in the book, which itself involves distilling the cultural differences that would produce each version of pidgin you hear (the Bruder Mouse and Bruder Duck stories are particularly awesome, in this respect); then, he dutifully records the speech, as it would be heard from the mouths of his characters, who are by no means typical citizens of their respective nations. You almost feel like you'd need to be a linguist from Tristan's world to appreciate fully the magnificence of Carey's language and usage. The effect of it is kind of magical.
This book contains serviceable writing about nature and good writing about reflections on personal relationships. It's moving in parts, especially in...moreThis book contains serviceable writing about nature and good writing about reflections on personal relationships. It's moving in parts, especially in the first chapter, where Cheryl Strayed remembers her mother's failed battle with cancer, which frames the book and her trip, and in the memory of her putting down her mother's horse, which, though it felt like it was plotted in to the book a bit haphazardly, was nonetheless harrowing. By the end of the book, I didn't really get the sense that she was "found". And, while you could definitely say Cheryl Strayed's life was out of control at the beginning of the book, you couldn't exactly call it "wild". Her manner, and the writing itself, were simply too reflective ever to give the feeling of wildness, even when she described herself in turnaround from heroin use. Not that these are the primary reasons I thought the book was ok. I think it's awesome that she did this. I envy her for it. And, I think her writing is good, and she seems like a person you'd want to be friends with. And, I am grateful to her for letting readers know that if you're going to go hiking and ravage your feet, your best bet is to find a hippie Swiss woman who will massage your feet, hairy ankles and all. But, the trials with her toenails notwithstanding, I felt like this book almost didn't need the trail itself to give dimension to the eventual unpacking of her inner turmoil. The hike itself felt almost incidental, at times a backdrop, no more clearly sensed than the ring of a phone in your back pocket. This gave me the impression that the natural world itself wasn't really the force of change, it was just the place for Cheryl Strayed to do her thing. And, I guess I just wanted the hike to play a bigger part in the story. (less)
There were a few contextual issues that colored my experience and perception of Tom Sawyer.
Having read this on the heels of The Psychopath Test, I co...moreThere were a few contextual issues that colored my experience and perception of Tom Sawyer.
Having read this on the heels of The Psychopath Test, I couldn't help but think how Jon Ronson's experts would've diagnosed Tom. After all, he fights at the slightest pheromonal provocation, he prevaricates, he manipulates, he has a grandiose sense of self-worth, he's aggressive, he's intelligent. Tom answers positive on practically every criterion shared in The Psychopath Test (but don't waste your time on that book, it's disappointing). This doesn't make Tom Sawyer less likable, it makes The Psychopath Test more of a waste of time.
Perhaps it would have been different if I had a boy instead of a one-year-old girl who's alternately a rascal and a sweetheart, or if my child were older, but, 'oui-knee' that I am, I found myself with an almost unhealthy sympathy for Aunt Polly. Like my own with my daughter (and I hope this becomes more bearable with age), the wires of Polly's nervous system are stripped where they connect with Tom, which makes his adventurousness a source of profound worry. Natural-born hellion that he is, Tom instinctively understands this and thrums Polly's exposed nerves, which seems to have the effect of wasting her mind. He's not a dick, of course, but all the same, my heart really goes out to Polly.
In his bluster among his peers, Tom reminds me of an old elementary school acquaintance, Jim G. Or, rather, Tom reminds me of what Jim G aspired to be but didn't have the fierce personal magnetism nor the approval of his schoolyard companions ever to pull off. Where Tom was a great success, Jim G was a frustrated boy. He was the butt of many jokes, he was not the first picked in kickball, he didn't win either of his two fights (Fazekas and Urcioli), he was not a Lothario in miniature. Still, any comparison to Jim G bodes ill for Tom in my head. The lovable, admirable qualities are parse-able, but it's tricky work.
With all that said, I will have to acknowledge that if there's a failure to hold Tom up as some paragon of halcyon boyhood, that failure is mine. Tom is a great character, if not one of a kind, then certainly an original. And, the book deals with his indomitability in such a gentle way that it inevitably comes off as winsome. And then there are those things that dimension the world of St. Petersburg that are awesome in how alive they are, such as the fluid bartering system of the boys (1 flea = 7 bird bones, etc), and the vividness of the town and surrounding countryside. A lot to talk about that was great, though for now I'll leave that to others. If you have just read The Psychopath Test or have a one-year-old daughter, you may do well to wait another few years (there's nothing you could do about knowing Jim G). This book won't be going anywhere, and it won't get stale.(less)