It was a rocky start. The writing seems kind of shoddy in the first 50 pages. Like it tries too hard. Description and metaphors that don't really work. But, once Evie meets the girls and visits the ranch, the novel is captivating. Dark and filled with terror, hang in there past the initial chapters.
First off, don't read this book when you're expecting a new baby. I did and it was unsettling. Katherine Dunn's Geek Love is dark, funny, bizarre andFirst off, don't read this book when you're expecting a new baby. I did and it was unsettling. Katherine Dunn's Geek Love is dark, funny, bizarre and gnarled. The Binewskis are a family who run a traveling carnival. In order to better keep the business under control, especially when it comes to sideshows and freaks, Al and Lilian, decide to start experimenting with their own pregnancies. The fruit of their experimentation, which requires subjecting Lil to an array of drugs and chemicals, is a mausoleum of still-born, deformed babies, and their living children: Arty, Elly and Iphy, Olly, and Chick.
Arty has stumpy flippers instead of arms and legs, is cunning and manipulative, and performs as Aqua Boy. Elly and Iphy are conjoined twins, with striking looks, who play music. Olly is a bald, albino, hunchback dwarf who worships Arty and uses her voice to announce shows. The last child, Chick, seems like a "norm," but really has telekinetic and empathetic powers. Shhhh, it's a secret outside the family.
The book switches between Olly as an adult, looking after her own daughter and aged mother, and Olly as a child, growing up in the carnival. At times, the carnival sections seemed to go on too long or wander in their narrative, but that's mostly due to the addition of a character who is a journalist.
In terms of bizarre, I'm reminded of Gould's Book of Fish. Geek Love creates a world of possibility. It tears at the edges of the "norm" world and examines people's needs and cravings. As Arty ages from young boy to teen, he begins to take over the carnival. He manipulates his parents and siblings. He goes from carnival master to cult leader, transforming a need for entertainment into a need for belonging. Arty's message is that one can find more spiritually and in life by losing parts of their body. His followers begin to have parts of their body amputated in order to be like Arty and experience more.
I told you it was bizarre, right? Luckily, Olly is the heart of the book. We see her love for Arty and it humanizes him at times. We also see her disdain for norms and it causes the reader to pause, as it is also a disdain for most of those who read the book.
For writers, Katherine Dunn, teaches that there are no taboos. It's liberating to read. She creates a world filled with despicable characters making egregious decisions and draws the reader in. Some people may be turned off within a few pages of reading Geek Love, but for others there is an intriguing story there.
We witness a mother love her daughter from afar. We see that mother cross moral lines to protect her daughter. We also see how a family can rip itself apart, turn on children and exploit them. Innocence is lost. And in losing innocence, there is a desire to protect the innocence in others. Unique, gritty, and uncomfortable, Geek Love will take you somewhere you've never been....more
There was a moment in the middle when this book sagged. I wasn't sure I'd finish it. But, the narrative picked up and I enjoyed it. Full review here:There was a moment in the middle when this book sagged. I wasn't sure I'd finish it. But, the narrative picked up and I enjoyed it. Full review here: http://www.scrivler.com/reviews/book-reviews/the-boatmaker/....more
The Women by T.C. Boyle is novel about Frank Lloyd Wright in the context of the women he loved. If you're unfamiliar with Wright, he was married three times, had a mistress in between wives one and two, and seemed to have a strong attachment to his mother. While the story is interesting, the structure of the novel is much more compelling.
The novel is told from the fantastical perspective of a Japanese architect, Tadashi Sato, who arrives at Taliesin in 1932 as an apprentice. The novel is then translated by Sato's granddaughter's husband, Seamus O'Flaherty, an American writer. Boyle has created a perspective from a low-ranking outsider's point-of-view and is able to work in research and style through O'Flaherty's background as a writer. It allows a lot of distance from a figure so well-known and polarizing. Also, it gives Boyle flexibility, mainly through footnotes, to write asides based on Sato's or O'Flaherty's perspective.
Going back to structure though, how would you tell the life story of a man? For most people, I imagine it to be rather linear. Either start at the beginning or a certain point in time and move forward. Instead, Boyle begins at the end with Frank Lloyd Wright's third marriage. We see from Sato's perspective, the third Mrs. Wright after years of marriage. In the first section though, the novel focuses on Wright falling in love with Olgivanna and starting the divorce process with his second wife, Miriam. I don't want to give anything away, but it's hard to like Miriam and equally hard to see what Wright liked about her.
As the first section closes though, the second section is about Miriam and how her relationship with Wright began. This section dragged mainly because I was so worn out by Miriam in the previous section. While she's not as terrible in this part, she's still not very likable.
Finally, the novel concludes with Mamah, Wright's mistress and the dissolution of his first marriage to Kitty. This section is tragic. The novel closes with Miriam reading about the tragedy in a newspaper and thinking, "that poor man. That poor, poor man," having not yet met him.
As I've thought about the novel, I've also thought about Wright's architecture. He's said to have always modifying things, making slight changes to plans or buildings as they work is going on. His design is described as organic and I wonder about the cyclical form of nature and how it applies to storytelling. Boyle takes us back to the beginning. It's almost like watching the universe rewind to the big bang. Here. Here is the moment that will mark Frank Lloyd Wright for the rest of his life.
Moving past the structure, I enjoyed the novel for the window into Wright's life. The scandals and media attention which engulfed him though was claustrophobic. Wright was a complicated man, made more complicated by the media frenzy which followed him. Imagine a flamboyant Steve Jobs with multiple public affairs.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami warps time. Words fill the pages and the reader's mind as characters wait for things to happen. To fill in this void, the characters cut vegetables, use the bathroom, sentimentalize about rubber plants, consider breasts, and eat various meals. Otherwise, nothing moves the plot forward for hundreds of pages.
In the first book, we are introduced to Tengo Kawana, a former child prodigy and aspiring novelist. His editor friend, Komatsu, convinces him to ghostwrite a novel by a seventeen year old girl, Fuki-Eri, and submit it for a literary prize. This section is the strongest. Murakami pokes fun at the literary establishment and lowers the fourth wall. In alternating chapters we are introduced to the other main character, Aomame, who is an unassuming female assassin specializing in stabbing a sharp needle in men's necks with no trace. Tengo and Aomame shared one special moment when they were ten years old (they held hands) and it created a loving bond that lasted across twenty years and multiple worlds. The novel is a play toward getting the two together and in the course of 952 pages it finally happens.
Both Tengo and Aomame are caught up in the drama of a cult called Sakigake. The cult started out as radicalized students and faculty members on a commune. When Fuki-Eri was ten the commune's special goat, which Fuki-Eri was tasked with caring for, died. As a punishment Fuki-Eri was locked in a shed with the dead goat. Out of the dead goat's mouth sprang the Little People. They sit with Fuki-Eri and teach her how to weave an air chrysalis. The most we are told about the Little People is that they're powerful and something like gods, but not quite. After this happens is when the commune transforms into the cult, and Fuki-Eri's father becomes Leader and is imbued with powers.
Tengo is caught up in the drama by ghostwriting Fuki-Eri's novel, which is about the goat and the Little People. It receives great reviews and is a bestseller, but seen as a strange little fantasy. Aomame's role is that she must kill Leader because he has been raping young girls. There's more to the novel, or at least, a wider cast of characters, but it's not worth going exploring at this point.
1Q84 is full of opaqueness. What's worse is that it is mistaken as a sign that there is something hidden or wonderful in the books, which only smart people can discern. Instead, it's sloppy writing with no clear end in sight. After the end of the second book, Murakami steps back in the third book as if he can undo the final actions. This may not seem huge, but when one of the main characters commits suicide and is suddenly alive in the next book, it's completely jarring. Did Murakami change his mind? Was he interested in more sales or exploring how things would have turned out if the character stayed alive? The reasons are not clear and ultimately do not matter. 1Q84 is a bloated tome that is best avoided.
In The Warsaw Anagrams, by Richard Zimler, the narrator, Erik Cohen, searches for the people who killed his nephew and two other children. He's a psyIn The Warsaw Anagrams, by Richard Zimler, the narrator, Erik Cohen, searches for the people who killed his nephew and two other children. He's a psychiatrist, who was once respected, but now must deal with the hardships of the ghetto and the change in his station. While still respected, he's no longer one of the elite as the ghetto has destroyed the social order from the "Before Times." The voice of Cohen is rich and unique. Zimler stays with him throughout the novel and creates a solid character. Cohen fluctuates between compassion and anger, humor and grave melancholy. It's refreshing to read a character who is complex and whose actions cause him remorse.
While, technically a mystery, the novel is more about life in the ghetto than a compelling puzzle to solve. Part of the confusion stems from the title. It seems as though there will be coded puzzles throughout the novel and the anagrams do refer to the garbled names of people in order to hide their true identities; however, the anagrams fade below the surface as the novel progresses. The final anagram/puzzle is so hidden that "only a Jew would know both Polish and German well enough to understand that linka was string and Flor was gauze." For the reader it is next to impossible and the narrator doesn't care to share this information until he's been told by an accomplice to the crime.
Zimler's description of the early days of the Warsaw ghetto show a place full of heartache and desperation. The black market thrives as Jews cross over to the Christian side through hidden tunnels. People try to sustain the normalcy of life through music and cafes. But how soon before that goes away? The novel concludes before things become more terrible in the ghetto. We know what will happen eventually, but the novel sticks to the time frame of Cohen's perspective.
One issue with the narrator is that as he tells the story to a man, his current state is that of an ibbur, kind of like a ghost. This didn't trouble me; I assumed it was part of Jewish culture, but it is kind of cheesy. It does add another layer to the story, but for readers who do not enjoy the fantastic, it may be a problem.
The Warsaw Anagrams provides a glimpse of life in the ghetto and the suffering involved. Full of interesting characters who must make decisions, in which they question their morals, the novel leads the reader through the twisting streets, cramped apartments, and secret lives constrained by the ghetto walls. The novel is published by Overlook Press and available on Amazon....more
With Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam, created a novel full of small wonders and quiet terror in the American West. There is a mythic tone that calls to the reader and I found myself falling for David Lamb's charm much like Tommie does as she conspires to drive west with him.
Who is Lamb? He's in his fifties, wealthy, divorced, full of himself, isolated, and has no children. The novel begins with the death of Lamb's father, which seems to precipitate his string of bad decisions. There's a terrible edge to Lamb when he meets Tommie and "fake" kidnaps her, in order to teach her friends a lesson. At first, Lamb comes across as a father figure, telling Tommie how to act and seemingly concerned about her home life. This role morphs though as Lamb dotes on Tommie, and he begins to tell her how beautiful she is and buys her expensive gifts. Throughout the novel it's obvious something bad is going to happen. What's not clear is what that event will be.
What sets this novel apart from others is the clarity and beauty with which Nadzam writes. It's a pleasure to read sentences like:
He drove into the night, along a cursive pass etched in granite, above the stands of green-fingered oaks and red-beaded hawthorns and all the aspen, above the trees that listed to the southeast, needled black along one side, twisted and deformed by forbidding glacial wind, and between great planed walls of rock dressed in little aprons of snow and shattered stone sliding down onto the road.
Another wonderful passage follows:
Let's say there were none of those truss towers of galvanized steel lining the highway this next day. No telephone poles. No wires. Say that Lamb's truck and the highway were the only relics of the actual world. The road was overcome with native grasses and aromatic flowers, with wild onion and pussytoes. Soft gaping mouths of beardtongue, and mountain lover, and buckbush and drowsy purple heads of virgin's bower. Say it was like this that they crossed the Midwestern line beyond which the sky spreads itself open—suddenly boundless, suddenly an awful blue.
Nadzam further draws the reader in by making us complicit. She picks moments to speak to the reader, saying, "Our guy picked up her hand. 'We're just going to sit here a minute.' He waited until she stopped crying, then pulled away from the gas pump and parked beside a derelict pay phone." What makes Lamb "our guy"? Nadzam doesn't give us a choice, she says Lamb is our guy and so he becomes, bellying in next to us, leaning against the counter. It's an effective technique to bring the reader along and fill them with uneasiness toward the end.
So much of the novel is driven by Lamb's voice. His running narrative to Tommie comes straight through to the reader. Is he full of wisdom or just trying to impress? Again, it goes back to that question, who is David Lamb? It's a question that will probably haunt Tommie for the rest of her life.
Set amidst the desolation of the Midwest and West, the novel amplifies the landscape. Through it we are shown the beauty of the natural world as it closes in on the edges of failed strip malls and gas stations where tallboys go for a buck. Where are the people in this landscape? They're somewhere in between, patiently following the arcs of their lives. They either can't move on or will not. Except for Lamb, who seems bent on creating a story all his own....more
Anarchists, secessionists, and floundering academics! Oh my!
Keith Scribner's novel, The Oregon Experiment, follows Scanlon Pratt and his wife, NaomiAnarchists, secessionists, and floundering academics! Oh my!
Keith Scribner's novel, The Oregon Experiment, follows Scanlon Pratt and his wife, Naomi Greenburg, as they move from New York City to Douglas, Oregon, where Pratt is ready to begin his first tenure-track position in the Political Science Department.
Immediately, tension fills the pages as Naomi tries to cope with the move. She's eight months pregnant, misses New York, and suffers from anosmia. For Naomi, anosmia is crippling, because she used to design scents and perfumes for her career. She has no explanation for losing her sense of smell and it's been gone since before she met Pratt. The loss becomes something the two explore in their relationship. Naomi teaches Pratt how to more fully experience scents and in return he describes the world to her. It smells like lavender pressed into the collar of a well-loved wool coat, he might say.
Due to this aspect of the characters, Scribner delights in describing the world through various scents and smells. It makes for an interesting perspective and adds rich details throughout the narrative.
Instead of soothing Naomi's anxieties, Pratt continually adds to them. Off to a rocky start in his department, he glosses over his career prospects, and seeks out the local secessionist group to study. But can he stay objective? Lured into the ranks by a seductive, earthy, young woman, Pratt soon finds trouble. Add young, naive anarchists into the mix and more than a marriage is likely to explode.
To be unfair to Keith Scribner, I kept thinking, what would this novel be like if T.C. Boyle wrote it? It has the trappings of a T.C. Boyle novel, but lacks the crisp writing and sharp characters. It's completely unfair and shouldn't shadow Scribner's work. Perhaps, part of the appeal is that it does remind me of a T.C. Boyle novel.
While the pacing dips toward the middle, the last 100 pages read quickly as events pick up. Relationships splinter, the FBI investigates, and a local anarchist, Clay, turns to domestic terrorism. It's in Clay that Scribner's compassion for his characters is fully expressed. At the end of the novel there are two versions of events. Events how they really occurred and events how Clay perceived them. Scribner didn't have to do this, but his decision captures Clay in a moment of glory and fulfillment. Scribner takes a character who may alienate some readers and finds a sweet spot in resolving the plot.
The Oregon Experiment examines love, passion, alienation, and community. Scribner creates a satisfying work that sheds light on an area of society, which is usually stereotyped in the media. Overall, the novel is engaging and extremely relevant as Occupy Wall Street protests swarm into business districts across the country....more
The novel opens with Alice as a child, her dislike of skiing, and her father's oppressive persistence that she ski. Alice crashes and is forever disabled with a leg that drags. Also, as Alice ages, she is crippled through anorexia. The eating disorder does not cripple her physically for years to come, but it does cripple her emotionally as she hides the secret from those who love her.
Mattia is a twin, a gifted math prodigy, and a caretaker for his sister, Michela, who has a cognitive impairment, which is never explicitly named. Mattia resents Michela and feels burdened by her. When they are both invited to a birthday party (their first invitation ever), Mattia abandons Michela at a nearby park and tells her to wait. She is gone when he returns and never found. Did she drown? Was she kidnapped? Mattia and his family never know. Mattia grows up with his guilt, which his mother adds to through blame, and begins to self-harm himself through cutting.
In high school, Alice and Mattia meet. They don't fall in love. Or, perhaps, they don't fall in love at once or together. Also, it is never stated, but it seems that Mattia might suffer from a mild form of Asberger's syndrome. Due to Mattia's social awkwardness, he is often confounded by Alice, or doesn't know how to respond to her actions.
Instead of falling in love, it might be better to say they fall into understanding. Both have scars plain to see on the outside of their bodies, but the deeper scars, the anorexia and guilt, are visible mainly to Alice and Mattia. They know one another and accept the other person. There are no demands or questions. Instead, their relationship builds on acceptance and respect. Will that acceptance and respect be beneficial or will that lead to their continued isolation? The question is left to the reader and depends on the reader's interpretation.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a portrait of two young people finding their place in the world. It's poignant, beautiful, and shares an interesting perspective of two people, twin primes, forever near one another, but divisible only by I....more
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides reminds me of a gilded mirror with intricate details swirled along the frame. The novel is a mixture of family history,Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides reminds me of a gilded mirror with intricate details swirled along the frame. The novel is a mixture of family history, coming of age, and gender identity. The mirror metaphor works, because the narrator, Callie/Cal Stephanides, spends so much time exploring who s/he is. That's a difficult enough question for most teenagers and adults, but how does that question change when a person's body seems to mislead them? While the narrator is focused on their identity, the novel suffers at times by diverging into the past and getting lost in details. It's obvious Eugenides loves language, but it comes at a cost in terms of rhythm and pace.
Some details I loved about the novel were the descriptions and metamorphosis of Detroit. I'm from Michigan and Detroit is a place that inspires both pride and sadness. Pride because of its greatness, because of the auto industry, because of all that Detroit used to mean. Sadness, because of the past tense, because words like used to linger on. To see Detroit described in its height is wonderful. To see how the city languished in the last 40 years is important.
Middlesex spans three generations and is full of rich characters. It navigates around sadness, but perhaps that is part of the immigrant experience. Lefty and Desdemona upon arriving to the United States are completely out of place. They can't speak the language, their clothes stand out, and they're unsure how to earn money. What must they give up to assimilate? More importantly, what must Cal/Callie give up later on?
Black and white is easy. A light is either on or it's off. A thought either occurs or it doesn't. Black and white seems easy, because it's so limiting. A child is either a boy or a girl. Except when they are not. Same goes with the light, it's not always just on or off. It could have no power, it could be broken, it could be anything less or more than on and off. Immigration takes this idea a step further. Is a person Greek, Greek-American, or American? Why is a choice even necessary? Depending on the context any label may fit.
So what is Middlesex? It it a novel about gender identity? Is it a mix of fiction and memoir? Is the novel about what it means to be American or an immigrant? Middlesex broadens the lens through which life is viewed. Depending on the reader, the novel may illustrate how life is more nuanced than they previously thought.
I liked Man Walks Into a Room, but couldn't get into this book. The first part is about an unlikable writer who trends toward selfishness. I liked theI liked Man Walks Into a Room, but couldn't get into this book. The first part is about an unlikable writer who trends toward selfishness. I liked the voice and the writing, but not the character. The second part took place in Israel, and was about an old man whose wife died. His son returns from London and the two have a contentious relationship. The third part took place in London and a man visits another writer. That's as far as I got before calling it quits. Each section has a different narrator, but is written in this strange style that feels like the characters are addressing the reader. Overall, after 80 some pages I'm not into it and the novel isn't gelling. I'm sure the stories come together somehow, but I don't have the patience for it....more
I picked City of Glass off the bookcase because I heard Paul Auster interviewed on Radiolab. In the interview he described getting a phone call, afteI picked City of Glass off the bookcase because I heard Paul Auster interviewed on Radiolab. In the interview he described getting a phone call, after the novel was published, by a man asking for Quinn (the character in City of Glass who takes on the identity of Paul Auster). It sounded like an intriguing novel, and I decided to give it a chance.
It's no secret that I'm not a Paul Auster fan. At times, it seems like he is more interested in exploring identity, whether it is that of his characters or overtly himself, instead of telling a complete story. Plot is sacrificed for style, and postmodernism and metafiction shape the writing.
The novel starts with Daniel Quinn receiving a phone call asking for Paul Auster, the detective. Daniel Quinn is a writer whose wife and son died, which has caused him to distance himself from his friends and career. Quinn writes under a pseudonym, William Wilson, about a detective named Max Work. Quinn identifies with Max Work, but only through the separate identity of Wilson, his pseudonym. Without Wilson, he would be unable to Work. After getting the call again, Quinn takes on the case and becomes Paul Auster.
What layer does it add that Paul Auster has written himself into the novel? I like it when Charlie Kaufman wrote himself into Adaptation, so why am I less thrilled when Auster does it? Part of the reason is that it seems like Auster's motives seem less about fiction and story, and more about ego. He does bring up interesting questions like what is the relationship between the writer and his characters? In the end, that's what City of Glass is interested in exploring. How we create language, how we tell stories, and who forms whom. Do the characters in Auster's head define Auster, or does he define the characters?
The other point where I diverge with Auster is how I view the universe. I don't believe in fate. I don't believe in magical coincidences being anything other than the play of statistics. I do believe in chance, but I don't put any extra importance on chance. Someone could win the lottery and their life would change. Is there special meaning in that, or is just that random events happen? A world where events and possibilities are linked by something unseen is a much safer world, but it's one that ultimately is a false world, another fiction which has been created.
As City of Glass continues, the writer who is many people slowly disintegrates and loses himself in his own fiction. He believes he is the detective and the case is real. He trusts in the circumstances and doesn't check his facts. Another key question is who is telling the story? Actually, that's not a question, because we all know that Paul Auster is telling the story, but there's another narrator toward the end of the novel, a friend of Quinn's who speaks in the first person. Here we add another layer in the identities of the author.
Lastly, Auster tries to mirror Don Quixote, which is fine, but he explains it all to the reader. Why not let that be present, and if the reader notices the similarities then it adds texture to the story. If the reader doesn't notice it, there's no harm done. Instead, it's spooned into the reader's mouth through a few pages of clunky exposition.
Overall, I appreciate Auster's exploration of writing and the relationships between characters and the writer, but feel that some elements that drive a story our sacrificed for style and ego....more
If you're a reader who likes plot points neatly tied and convention followed, this book is not for you. Point Omega by Don DeLillo revolves around aIf you're a reader who likes plot points neatly tied and convention followed, this book is not for you. Point Omega by Don DeLillo revolves around a character named Elster, who is an intellectual that was brought into the war effort around 2004. I can't think exactly who he is modeled on, but he's an apologist, a hawk, a salesman coming up with terms like "a haiku war," as if by changing the words we use to wage war we can change the context or identity of war.
Elster has quit the scene and escaped to a home in the desert when the reader meets him in the novel. He's out there with a man in his earl thirties, Jim Finley, a not so successful film maker, who wants to do an interview / monologue with Elster. Put the camera on the man and let him ramble for 90 minutes. Moreover, he worships Elster's intellect, even though Elster seems to be in a state of decline.
This narrative is sandwiched between two chapters called: Anonymity and Anonymity 2, which take place at the Museum of Modern Art where an installation of 24 Hour Pyscho is being played in a sparse, dark room. These two chapters are narrated by an anonymous man who comes to the installation for hours at a time every day. He is obsessed with the film, but also observes the other attendees. Is this nameless narrator just a passing stranger, or does he have something to do with the disappearance of Elster's daughter, Jessie?
I don't care how well this novel works or doesn't work. What I appreciate is that DeLillo is trying something new, and that he has enough caché for the book to be published. Point Omega ends with the reader wondering what may have happened; however, Elster and Finley are in the same quandary as the reader. Jessie, Elster's daughter who has been staying with them, has disappeared and no one knows what happened. Did she wander into the desert? Did she hitch a ride and run off somewhere? Was foul play involved? There are moments in life that will always be a mystery. We can conjecture, toss possibilities into the air, and ruminate, but ultimately we will never know. The book leaves the reader with these questions, and the mystery of Jessie's disappearance haunts for days to follow....more
Jennifer Egan's novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is like going to a concert that starts strong, but then loses the beat, stops being music and becoJennifer Egan's novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is like going to a concert that starts strong, but then loses the beat, stops being music and becomes a decision: stay or walk out? It can be a dilemma. There's the price of admission, combined with the foolish hope things will improve versus wasting time, and disappointment. In my experience, there's no real payoff in sticking around. I have a harder time quitting novels, especially when I'm past the halfway point. A Visit from the Goon Squad introduces two interesting characters that seem to be the focus of the novel, but then gets lost along the way as perspectives and time shift in ways that become less meaningful.
The novel begins with Sasha, a beautiful woman who's a kleptomaniac, and then transitions to Bennie, her former boss and music industry executive. From there the novel jumps back to Bennie's teenage years, then progresses in time, but remains in the past from Bennie's chapter, let's call it the near-past, and focuses on a teenage friend of Bennie's who has tracked him down.
Next, we stay in the past and explore the dissolution of Bennie's marriage from his, at-some-point-in-the-future ex-wife. Ex-wife in the making? This chapter also showcases changes in the lead singer of "The Conduits," the band Bennie first produced which made him famous. The lead man is now a bloated, drugged out loser planning a "suicide tour" as his comeback and probable death. Bennie's brother-in-law is also introduced in this chapter as a washed-up reporter who went to prison for assaulting a celebrity he interviewed.
The next chapter is pretty funny, but really, serves little purpose. Another new character enters the mix, a failed publicist, who gets hired by a third-world dictator to remake his image. She, La Doll, the failed publicist, wants the dictator to be seen with a faded celebrity. Of course, because things are so connected, that celebrity is the one whom Bennie's brother-in-law assaulted. After this, there's a chapter from the brother-in-law's perspective that is written sort of as an article.
It's at this point I start to skim. The article is annoying. The character's voice is annoying. I'm looking at my watch, at the doors, wondering if I should leave. But, I don't. Instead, I read on and we're back in Sasha's past. Remember her? She was from the beginning of the novel 100 pages ago. It's a pretty boring chapter. We learn she had a dodgy past involving drug use, prostitution, theft, and traipsing around the world. Annoyingly, this chapter is written in second person point-of-view, from the perspective of a character named, Mike, who is a jerk. Thankfully, Mike is not long for the world.
Another shift occurs and we're farther in Sasha's past, reliving those dodgy moments while an uncle rescues her from abroad. Of course, the chapter is from the uncle's perspective, and at the end of this chapter Egan tells us everything that will happen to Sasha in the span of a paragraph. Then, the novel goes downhill.
What's a great novel without a chapter from a nine-year-old's perspective constructed from bad Power Point slides? I loved in Blood Meridian when the Judge gets rid of his notebook and draws people in Microsoft Paint. Now, we're in Sasha's future, and it's her kid who has the love for bad graphic design. Luckily, this kills 80 pages of the book. At which point there are 21 pages left, so what the hell, why not read them?
The novel closes with Bennie. He's now in his 60's and Egan seems to borrow inspiration from Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. The future is now and we're all connected with smart phone-like devices, texting one another, following feeds, and in bed with corporations, but looking for authentic experiences. It's 20 pages and the end, so I read on. The loser musician friend from Bennie's childhood is the next Bob Dylan. The chapter is from the perspective of a minor character in the beginning of the novel who goes on a date with Sasha 20-30 years ago. Of course, every premonition Sasha has about the guy comes true, and she's some backdrop, half-remembered story from his early days in New York City.
Egan writes with beauty and clarity, but her story lacks direction. While the shifting viewpoints work in novels like The Savage Detectives, they don't work here because the characters are never part of the larger story. Thinking in terms of a graph, the characters are more like points instead of lines that connect ideas, emotions, and events. The novel ends with a concert that is created through hype. People are paid to blog about the event, like it on Facebook, text one another. It feels like the same may have happened with this novel. While it's been a bestseller and won awards, it doesn't seem to matter, the book meanders and loses itself. Egan is a talented writer and it seems like some of the chapters were written to explore the characters of Bennie and Sasha, but at some point they need to come together into something larger and more meaningful. A Visit from the Good Squad is an overhyped book that's best left on the shelf....more
Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford is a slim novel that revels in dialogue. At times, it's hard to read because everything is spoken in a trashy SoutheWild at Heart by Barry Gifford is a slim novel that revels in dialogue. At times, it's hard to read because everything is spoken in a trashy Southern colloquial way. The scenes are broken out with their own titles, and some of them could almost stand on their own. It took me a little while to get into, to become familiar with the language, and the style, but once I did, I really enjoyed the book.
The story follows two young lovers who go on the run across the South. Sailor Ripley has just gotten out of prison for manslaughter, and Lula Pace Fortune has hooked up with him again against her mother's wishes. What follows is a meandering road trip as the two try to evade the law and their own instincts. Sailor and Lula will jump off the page and leave you gasping to catch up....more
First, I don't care about Jonathan Franzen. Is he an egoist? An asshole? Does he have regrets, or view the world through the eyes of a depressed cyFirst, I don't care about Jonathan Franzen. Is he an egoist? An asshole? Does he have regrets, or view the world through the eyes of a depressed cynic? What I do know is that Jonathan Franzen is a talented writer who crafts sentences with care. He draws out complex characters and is able to make readers feel for them. The characters may not be likable always; but, at least they are interesting.
I've read through some reviews where people feel Franzen has projected himself into the novel through his characters. Unless you personally know the writer, I don't think you can easily make that judgement. I may not like a star athlete, but I can appreciate the level at which they compete. The same is true with writers. There may be aspects about a writer that a reader doesn't like; but, the reader needs to evaluate the writing and not the person who wrote it.
The Corrections is a heartfelt novel about family. What makes up a family? How well do we know the members of our family? What secrets does a family keep? We see a limited view of Alfred, Enid, Gary, Chip and Denise through the eyes of the others. It's easy to take at face value how the characters perceive Gary, until the book shifts to Gary's perspective and the field of vision expands. Then, we understand Gary, know what drives him, and how, let's say, Alfred and Enid's view of Gary may be skewed.
Are there moments that could have been edited or may seem like a stretch? Sure. At points, moments of flitting dialogue press down on the reader. Does Franzen need to demonstrate his ability at describing annoying conversations for five pages? Could one page have sufficed? Does Chip need such an extreme experience in order to grow up? Probably not. But, was it funny? Did it interfere in the aims of the novel? Does Franzen need to take such an obvious jab at christianity as a drug? Could he have written that more subtly? Were emails between characters just a fast way to convey information to the reader? At the time, because the sentences and descriptions were so good, these areas didn't bother me. The book was so enjoyable, that I read and read. Looking back, there are moments that could have been better, but that's a pretty human fault, a fault we have with most things in life.
Overall, The Corrections is the best book I've read in 2011. It's full of humanity. It captures the way in which we fail one another and ourselves. It demonstrates how love transcends those failings. No matter how much we've been let down or let others down, there are still moments of beauty, moments of love. However you may feel about the man, Jonathan Franzen, don't let it stop you from reading a terrific novel....more
The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney begs you to put it down. It's a convoluted plot that relies on the reader not really questioning how interconnecThe Same River Twice by Ted Mooney begs you to put it down. It's a convoluted plot that relies on the reader not really questioning how interconnected all of these people and events are, but to merely accept them and trust as the main characters Odile and Max trust in each other. What spurs the reader to continue are the characters, even though they are clunky fixtures banging around Paris who never truly become believable. It's hard to take a character named Groot very seriously, especially when it brings to mind a certain slow-witted barbarian.
The characters: Max: Husband to Odile, and small, but successful film maker, American expat. Odile: Wife to Max, small scale fashion designer. Groot: Transient Dutchman who lives on a houseboat with his trust fund Californian girlfriend. Rachel: Groot's trust fund girlfriend, and sort of star of Max's film. Turner: Shady art dealer. Thierry Collins: Odile's partner in a smuggling operation from Russia. English professor in debt. Gabriella: Turner's assistant. Kukushkin: Shady Russian banker / crime boss.
A few minor characters are left out, but the basic premise is that Odile and Collins smuggle some artwork out of Russia for Turner, and that the border crossing was expedited by Kukushkin. Something goes wrong, and suddenly Russian criminals start harassing Turner and Odile in search of Collins whom disappeared. Meanwhile, Max is going through an artistic transformation and begins to shoot a movie focused on Rachel, Groot, and their houseboat the Nachtvlinder. While all these various elements eventually overlap, it feels forced and disingenuous.
Also, the language dragged at the pacing of the novel. Exposition fills the pages, telling the reader how characters feel, without showing us anything. If that were changed, this would be a more captivating read.
The last part that keeps the reader interested is the quasi-mystery. This isn't a true mystery, because it all seems so obvious, but still it pulls at the reader to see how Max will piece it together. Perhaps, the real mystery is how his film will unfold. For me, that was the real driving force of the novel. The sections about Max shooting film and thinking and talking about film were intriguing. The rest came across a little too wooden. At times, this novel felt more like a translation because there is something just off about the language.
Another disappointment is how some elements are dropped and seem to have no importance, such as all of the scenes with Odile having her portrait painted. The painter can "see" the true Odile, while no one else can. But this finishes up and nothing comes of it. Finally, the characters actions seem to have little or no consequences. Mooney writes off major developments and actions with phrases like, they didn't need to talk about it because they would never mention it again. Or, her hand moved the gun with no thought, and he didn't question her motives. It's uninspired, sloppy writing.
I kept reading this story, because it was like watching a malfunctioning car racing down a speedway. The finish line is in sight, but you have no idea if it will make it there in one piece....more
I may be late coming to George Saunders writing, but I'm glad to have come across it. I've heard/read a lot of people mentioning him, and felt like II may be late coming to George Saunders writing, but I'm glad to have come across it. I've heard/read a lot of people mentioning him, and felt like I needed to read something by him. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is unlike anything I've read before. In some ways it seems like part China Miéville mashed with Aesop's Fables, as we enter a world made of strange little figures that are part machine, part plant, but full of humanity.
The novella begins, "It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only on Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner."
What follows is a story of Phil, an Outer Hornerite who hates Inner Hornerites and manages through fear, intimidation, and propaganda begins his assault on those from the tiny nation. It's wonderfully imaginative, and great satire. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil will stay with you long after having read it....more
Day Out of Days by Sam Shephard is unlike most short story collections I've read. It's a place of voice. Set mainly along the rural highways of theDay Out of Days by Sam Shephard is unlike most short story collections I've read. It's a place of voice. Set mainly along the rural highways of the Midwest, Great Plains, and Western states, the stories speak from and of people who have watched their towns decay, given up on their dreams and settled in for the slow passing of time. Voices fill the pages. Voices enter the readers head. At times, these voices run together, loose their form and are lost in a cacophony of sound. Still, there are instances where they stand out, and weave together a narrative that holds the reader's attention. As in "Haskell, Arkansas (Highway 70)":
Sunday, midday. Not many cars. Man's out for a stroll. He comes across a head in a ditch by the side of the road; walks right past it, thinking he hasn't seen what he's just seen; thinking it's not possible. He stops. His heart starts picking up a little. His breath gets choppy. He's shaking now and he's never understood why his body always takes over in moments of panic like this; why his body refuses to listen to his head. He turns and goes back. He stops again and stares down into the ditch. There it is. Big as life. He's staring straight at it. A severed head in a wicker basket. He picks up a stick and pokes it likes he's done before with dead dogs or deer.
Suddenly, the head starts to speak to the man in a soft, lilting voice. The eyes of the head don't open; the lips don't move. The voice just seems to be floating out the top of the skull. It's a humble, quiet kind of voice with no accent that the man can make out. Maybe the islands. The head asks the man if he'll kindly pick up the basket and carry it to a place it would prefer to be. A tranquil place not too far from here, away from the pounding sun and the roar of traffic.
Even the dead and speechless have a voice in the Shephard's stories. What I like about this story is that it's as if Shephard is speaking to the reader. We are the man by the side of the road. The head contains all the voices, all the stories. We pick them up, travel a bit with them. See what happens.
In Day Out of Days, you see a writer having fun with language and story. Not everything works. There are snippets that seem like they belong more in a writing journal than in a published book, but who cares. Overall, it adds to the effect. One result though is that this collection is slow to read. It's best to give the voices space and let them reside within you a bit before moving on. Restless, but not aimless, Day Out of Days will leave you with a glimpse of America through the windshield of a dusty truck passing through.
In The Russian Debutante's Handbook the story follows Vladimir Girshkin, the only son of Russian immigrants, as he navigates life in New York City. Having moved from Leningrad/St. Petersburg at the age of twelve, Vladimir has romanticized life in eastern Europe and is trying to balance his heritage with the culture of the United States. When the novel begins, Vladimir is twenty-five, living in New York after graduating from an expensive, Midwestern, liberal arts college, and is working in the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society (picture Ugly Americans minus the creatures). In his quest for money and status (themes Shteyngart seems especially drawn to) Vladimir gets involved with a psychotic client, delves into organized crime, and finds himself in Prava (the Paris of the 90's), deceiving and defrauding Western expats all in the name of capitalism.
There are funny characters, and humorous moments, but the novel is repetitive, and weighed down by a lack of vision. Part way through, it seemed as though Shteyngart had no clear idea where the novel was headed. Transitions are jerky, and sections don't always fit together well. Moreover, the repetition of Vladimir's low self-esteem and deceptions becomes increasingly annoying.
Another problem I have with this book, and perhaps with Shteyngart's writing, is that Vladimir Gershkin is so similar to Lenny Abramov from Super Sad True Love Story. Both characters are Russian immigrants who are overly nostalgic, obsessed with money and status, suffer from low self-esteem, have poor luck with women, are intelligent but unmotivated, balding, hairy, and describe things in similar ways. Essentially, Shteyngart lifted Vladimir Gershkin, made a few modifications and placed him in a distopian future under the name of Lenny Abramov in Super Sad True Love Story. Lenny hit the point of being annoying in that novel, and reading another incarnation of Lenny is too much.
While there were parts of The Russian Debutante's Handbook I enjoyed, I started skimming after 200 pages. My urge to see what happened outweighed the problems I had with the writing. Shteyngart is a talented writer, but needs to look beyond himself for a subject. If you're interested in his writing, I recommend Super Sad True Love Story as it is more focused and sharper....more
Philipp Meyer's short story "What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone" was a fantastic piece of fiction, and it motivated me to read his novel AmericaPhilipp Meyer's short story "What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone" was a fantastic piece of fiction, and it motivated me to read his novel American Rust. While the novel started out strong, it began to slow down and stumble around fairly early. It has the makings of a captivating narrative, but Meyer never lets it go. He controls the pace to such an extent that the chapters become meaningless as nothing happens.
The novel is set in a failing mining/industrial town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Meyer does a great job capturing and describing the town of Buell. Hulking shells of factories dominate the landscape, interspersed with boarded up shops, and cash for checks strip malls. The characters are a mix of down on their luck types who never break out of the the area, and either through love or inertia remain in Buell.
The main action in the novel is that Issac English has murdered a homeless man while running away from home with his friend Poe. Poe is a fading high school football star who is aggressive and can be out of control. On more than one occasion he's fought and severely hurt people. Issac on the other hand is described as a genius, but so smart that sometimes the simple things throw him off. He's stayed behind to take care of his father with whom he has a terrible relationship filled with emotional abuse and distance. The flight from home and the murder happen within in the first thirty pages. What follows is 330 pages of not much.
The other main characters are Harris (the sheriff), Lee (Issac's smart sister who escaped to Yale and married), Grace (Poe's semi-failure of a mother), and Henry English (Issac and Lee's father). The chapters are titled with one of the characters name and are written in third person limited from that character's point of view. As the murder comes to light, Poe is arrested, and Issac runs away again. Due to an on again off again relationship with Grace, Harris tries to help Poe and protect him.
The chapters can be generalized in the following.
Issac's chapters: I'm going to show them. I'm running away. I'm "the Kid," who's tough and resourceful. Issac meanders through the landscape getting routinely beat up and taken advantage of before returning home.
Poe's chapters: What's going on? How did I get here? Why am I taking the fall for Issac's crime? My life is full of bad decisions, and I don't care.
Lee's chapters: Coming home is horrible. I don't know if I should believe Poe about Issac killing that man? I'm confused. It would all be easier if I went back to New York or Connecticut.
Harris's chapters: I shouldn't protect Poe, but I do. Sometimes you have to bend the law. Do I love Grace?
Grace's chapters: I should have done more for my son. I'm a bad mother. Do I love Harris?
Henry's chapters: What I've done to that boy is wrong. I'm not a great father.
It may seem flippant, but not much happens in this novel. The crime does not weigh on Issac like the Raskolnikov's killing of the old woman in Crime and Punishment, instead Issac seems full of angst and impotence. The sections where Poe is in prison are the most interesting, but once you've read or seen any narrative with characters in prison, they do not feel very original.
American Rust accurately describes the depressed nature of the rust belt, but beyond that it is a novel that could work best compressed into a short story or a novella....more
In The Train is the fourth Christian Oster novel to be translated from French into English. It may be more accurate to call In The Train a novella ratIn The Train is the fourth Christian Oster novel to be translated from French into English. It may be more accurate to call In The Train a novella rather than a novel, because it's a slim volume that focuses specifically on two to three characters over the course of a weekend. Written in first person, the reader follows the narrator, Frank, as he waits on a train platform. What is he waiting for? What are we all waiting for? Love, of course. Or is it that Frank is waiting for the illusion of love? He yearns to be with a woman, to have weekend adventures in out of the way towns, comfortable silences together. He yearns for a connection that will stay solid over the years. It makes sense of course, to wait on a train platform, hoping that moment will occur when he meets such a woman.
Thankfully, Frank, is aware of his own shortcomings, and the ridiculousness of his idea. He does meet a woman. He falls in love with her over the span of minutes. Forceful in his approach, he won't let her ignore him. But does, Anne, the woman he meets, have her own intentions?
Oster grounds the reader deep into Frank's head. We see his fears and anxieties, his inabilities to express himself properly to Anne. Frank is awkward, slightly neurotic, and dogged in his pursuit of Anne. By being in the first person, the reader is able to see the whole thought process of Frank. It makes him safe. If it were written in the third person, much care would need to be taken to write Frank in a way that didn't come off as obsessive and similar to a stalker. His intentions would have been less clear. The reader can see that Frank is harmless, while Anne still needs to puzzle through his actions and sentences.
This being the first work of Oster that I've read, it took some getting used to his style. Sentences are choppy. Fragments abound. Ideas start. Only to stop or change direction. It has two effects. First, it seems more personal, more Frank than straight prose. Second, it almost works to slow down the pace. That is counter intuitive, but because Oster uses so many commas throughout the sentences it changes the flow. Think of poetry and the use of commas or lack of at the end of a line break. Grammatically, a comma should be there. However, removing it, the reader still pauses as their eyes move to the next line. Put the comma in there, and it's like an extra pause occurs. Maybe a change from a quarter beat to a half beat.
In some ways, In The Train, reminded me of Haruki Murakami's writing. Frank is adrift, and almost a blank canvas for the reader to project themselves on. Frank's name is hardly used. There is not much description of him. There is hardly any past. All we know, is that Frank feels to be uncultured compared to Anne, and makes allusions to his lack of university education. He's middle aged, has a decent job, but isn't challenged by it. His life seems full of predictability, routine, an existence that leads him into standing on train platforms, hoping to break up the monotony, leaving himself open for whatever may happen. Frank is open for whatever Anne has in store for him. Will she be the love of his life, or will she use Frank to meet her own ends? Selfish and complicated, Frank, is worth following as he seeks to move from being a curiosity in Anne's life to something greater.
The translation of In The Train, is published by Object Press, and available in paperback on Amazon. ...more
Writing is about making choices. We choose what to write about, from whose perspective to tell a story, and what we want our audience to take away froWriting is about making choices. We choose what to write about, from whose perspective to tell a story, and what we want our audience to take away from the narrative. In looking at, True North, let's examine the choices Harrison made. He chose this novel to be in the first person. The events are narrated by, David Burkett, the wealthy son from a family that logged and mined the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for three generations. Why use first person for this novel? What does it achieve?
First person narration shields the reader from the other characters in the novel. While the narrative may be about, Burkett, trying to understand his ancestors and make amends for the evils he believes they've brought upon the land, stripping away natural resources and bleeding their labor force in equal measure, it is really about, Burkett, the man, or Burkett, the shadow of man, trying to find his own stride against that of his father's. If this novel were in third person, the reader might end up sympathizing for some of the other characters. They couldn't be as evil unless they are seen through Burkett's skewed perspective. Of course, Burkett's father is a terrible man known for having sex with underage girls, sometimes consensually while other times forced. His terrible nature could still be represented in the third person, but it would be difficult to make him as evil as Burkett believes him to be.
The topic of the novel seems like it could be interesting. I'm from Northern Michigan, so there was a connection between me and the Upper Peninsula. However, while the narrator is writing a history of the logging industry, we never really see it and the story focuses exclusively on Burkett's relationship with the history. This process of writing for the narrator dominates his life for twenty years, in which he spends his time guiltily living off his family's wealth, wandering the woods, fishing, trolling the surface of Christianity, having sex with women, and feeling disconnected. Perhaps, this could be interesting, but Burkett is a bland narrator, and his story and obsessions come across as mediocre and whiny. As a reader, I found myself unable to sympathize or identify with Burkett. He's petulant. He's weak. If he's an idealist, then it is negated by his utter passivity. What does he risk in the novel? When does he grow? The novel moves from the 60's through the 70's and then the 80's. But the reader never gets a sense of time really moving. The decades seem of little consequence, except that Harrison can no longer use the casual sex of the late 60's as an excuse for Burkett's sexual romps. Burkett, while in his late 30's seems to be the same as when he was in his 20's.
This brings up my last question. What is the audience supposed to take away from this novel? Does the narrator overcome his father? Do we see enough of a change that it pays off? Is the investment of roughly 400 pages of prose worth the ending? Personally, I found very little to take away. In an earlier post, I'd written how I continued to read this book because I couldn't fall asleep and didn't want to get out of bed and dig up a new book at 2 A.M. Not exactly a gun to the head, but not a ringing endorsement either. Worst of all, the ending seems tacked on. As if Harrison realized there was something dramatic lacking from the novel. It's dramatic, but we've seen that on the first page, and it comes hundreds of pages too late.
One thing I found interesting is Harrison's stab at meta-fiction. On page 340, Burkett's sometime lover who is a poet gives him some advice regarding the history he is writing. She says, "Figure it out for yourself. If you can't you'll always write shit. You're dog-paddling in too much material. Start over. Give me a hundred clean pages called 'What My People Did,' or something like that. You're trying to be a nineteenth-century curmudgeon. You're starting twelve thousand years ago with the glaciers then moving slowly onward like a fucking crippled toad. Get over the glaciers in one page, please. You quoted that beautiful prose of Agassiz. Try to understand why it's beautiful and your prose isn't. You wrote nicely in those thirteen pages because you forgot yourself and your thousand post-rationalizations and let your material emerge directly and intimately." Perhaps, this is Burkett the narrator commenting or Harrison himself in the following passage. Whoever it is speaking, it seems to be a proper response to the novel.
"I had pressed my thumb on the dorsal fin of a trout and now watched a raindrop of blood ooze out. I had asked for this speech and been roundly whipped by a schoolmarm. All these years after the inception and I had thirteen golden pages." ...more
Moon Palace is about a young man who orphaned at a young age. Throughout the novel, Marco Stanley Fogg, tries to find himself in the world. The eventsMoon Palace is about a young man who orphaned at a young age. Throughout the novel, Marco Stanley Fogg, tries to find himself in the world. The events largely take place in the late 60's early 70's, but as the narrative bounces around the story expands to the early and mid 1900's. Much of the early novel is spent building Fogg up to be an unreliable narrator, so it's hard to say what happens and doesn't happen in this novel. If you believe, Fogg, then you buy into the entire convoluted story involving Thomas Effing and Solomon Barber. If you don't, you begin to doubt everything that Fogg has said.
The stories of Effing, Barber, and Fogg all bear some similar resemblances. All of the men go through periods of transition physically where their bodies define them. Fogg becomes disastrously skinny, his body morphing into something skeletal and gaunt. Effing is trapped in his body by the loss of his legs and sight. Barber, has the opposite problem of Fogg and has ballooned to 350 pounds. These changes in appearance end up defining the men and their relationships with those around them. This further plays into the moon motif; however, it might be seen as a little heavy handed.
Another thing the men share in common is that they are all on their own near their early twenties. Effing's father dies while he's young. Barber's father disappears before he's born. And for Fogg, he has no idea who his father is.
In the end, no matter what you believe, this is all Fogg's story. For me, I believe he's invented the entire thing or embelished events to provide a greater context for his own life. All of the men's stories are too similar to be original, and while Auster asks us to push coincidence to the side and believe that things happen for a reason, he also contradicts this request with lines such as, "never take anything for granted. Especially when you're dealing with a person like me," spoken by Thomas Effing.
The entire relationship between Effing and Fogg is so full of lies and half truths that it permeates everything. That said, Auster's writing is compelling. It reads fast. The characters are memorable. The only downside of that is the sparseness of setting and descriptions of what characters are feeling. Auster glides over descriptions choosing to narrate page after page in a way that tells the reader what's happened but doesn't show it. Perhaps, if he choose to show more the book would have stretched well beyond 300 pages.
Overall, this is an interesting novel. I almost want to page through it again, because it's hard to tell if there is a lot of depth to it, or whether the number of thin narratives overlapping each gives the illusion of complexity....more
It's difficult to know where to start in talking about Kangaroo Notebook by Kōbō Abe. If I were to condense my impression into some blurbesque phraseIt's difficult to know where to start in talking about Kangaroo Notebook by Kōbō Abe. If I were to condense my impression into some blurbesque phrases, I'd say, a surreal journey, a dark interpretation on the border between life and death, imaginative, unlike anything I've read. If I were to stray away from cute phrases, then I might describe the novel in this way.
Kangaroo Notebook starts in a bland setting that many readers can identify.
"It should have turned out like any other morning.
I was munching on a crisp slice of toast, thickly coated with liver-and-celery pâté. I had one elbow pressed to the corner of an open newspaper; my upper body tilted slightly to the right. My eyes skipped here and there among the headlines as I sipped some strong coffee. I popped three tiny tomatoes into my mouth and squelched them together, for good health.
A tickling sensation ran up my shins. I rolled up on pajama leg and scratched. What felt like a thin layer of skin peeled off. Is it grime? I held it up to the light. It isn't grime or skin. It's scratchy, like dry beard bristle. Is it leg hair? Leg hair grazed by a flame would probably look like this, but scorched hair would give off a foul odor. I rolled up both pants legs and placed my feet on another chair, with my knees drawn up. There was no longer a single hair on my legs; if it weren't for the dotlike pores, the skin would have been smooth as a boy's. I had never had much hair, so I wasn't too concerned. Besides, with my pants on, the area didn't show."
The scratchy area turns out to be "cleft-leaf radish sprouts" growing out of the narrator's legs. From here the narrative departs from reality and enters a surreal landscape. Along the way, the narrator meets a recurring character he calls Damselfly. She seems to appear when he's in need of help, and knows more than he does about what is happening.
After being treated at a dermatology clinic, the narrator leaves by a hospital bed he controls with his thoughts. Or, does the bed have a mind of its own? As the novel continues, the bed, much like Damselfly, returns when the narrator needs help. Oddities that follow include being towed to mine, following an underground tunnel, which leads to a boat, fending off the collision of two squids (one of which is attached to the narrators beck like medical tubing) from exploding, drifting to the Riverbank of Sai (limbo) where the Help Me! squad of demon-children sing and collect money, meeting his dead mother, staying briefly with Damselfly and her American friend Mr. Killer, who performs an intense massage move that sends the narrator back to the hospital, conspiring with patients to kill a man who is sick and annoying them, escaping the hospital and meeting up with a younger version of Damselfly or her lost sister at an abandoned train platform.
The novel ends with this on the last page.
"Excerpt from a newspaper article: A corpse was found on the premises of a train station no longer in service. On the man's shins were several slash marks that appeared to have been made by a razor. The wounds, evidently made with some hesitation, seemed to have been self-inflicted. It is unlikely that these were the cause of death. The incident is being investigated both as an accident and as a criminal case. Despite intensive efforts, the victim's identity has not yet been established."
Some questions I have is whether or not this is the narrator, Kōbō Abe's inspiration for the story, or something in the paper that caught the narrator's eye? Is the novel all in the narrator's head while he's having coffee and reading the paper? If you've read the novel, what do you think? How do you interpret the ending of Kangaroo Notebook? Personally, I like the idea that this article inspired the novel....more
Eventide follows the lives of the people from Holt, Colorado three years after the happenings of Plainsong. Haruf again demonstrates his ability to de
Eventide follows the lives of the people from Holt, Colorado three years after the happenings of Plainsong. Haruf again demonstrates his ability to describe the relationships and worlds which old and young people share each different and nuanced in ways that do not always make sense to someone outside that age. It’s the overlap that is beautiful, those moments of friendship shared by children and adults. This novel picks up with the McPheron brothers, and follows their lives as tragedy strikes.
Added to the mix of characters are a disabled married couple dependent on social services, and trying to raise their children as best they can. This family is taken advantage of by a dead-beat relative who abuses the family and manipulates them into taken care of him. While this was well written, the antagonist is heavily painted as an ugly, despicable man. There were complaints of that in Plainsong, but to me this characterization was on display to a wider degree in Eventide. There is nothing redeemable about this character, and while it may speak more to my own view of the world,I found it short sighted and false. There was not a single scene where the character is portrayed in anyway other than evil. Perhaps, Haruf has difficulty with the ambiguity of people. Most of the other characters are full of goodness and their negative actions often don’t seem to bad, or at least do nothing to make the reader call into question their moral integrity. Among the McPherons, Victoria, Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones, moral standing is a shared quality and though they might occasionally let go of their tempers, they become a little bland as the reader rarely sees any inner thoughts and when those thoughts are shown they don’t dwell on the doubts, or hypothetical situations that plague richer characters. Survival is the key, and it seems that the people on Holt have a bunker mentality.
One new character that best bridges this gap, is a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. In the start of the novel, things are fine and the woman does her best to help out a young boy who lives with and takes care of his grandfather. Throughout the novel, her life descends into alcohol abuse and a dead end relationship with a local man. She goes from being a great mom to one that has trouble taking care of herself, let alone her children. As the novel ends, she takes control over her life again, and the reader is left with the image that she will pull through.
If you read Plainsong and enjoyed it, then you should read this book. It goes fast, is enjoyable and fills that craving to know more with which Plainsong leaves a reader. However, keep in mind this is a sequel that seems driven to tell a little more while not being all that original. It is a lesser work and Haruf follows some of the same patterns in writing the narrative. The instance that stands out is the character of Rose Tyler, who seems to be this novel’s version of Maggie Jones, a female character who is never fully focused on yet seems to navigate between the worlds of people whose stories would tend not to overlap. Haruf is able to pull together a sense of landscape and the affect that landscape has on people. His writing is full of beauty and heartbreak and that tends to outshine the narrative failings.