There are some authors you grow into with age. If American Pastoral is any indication, I’m opposed to making Philip Roth one of them.
As a kid, AmericThere are some authors you grow into with age. If American Pastoral is any indication, I’m opposed to making Philip Roth one of them.
As a kid, American Pastoral’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, looked up to “The Swede” Seymour Levov—the popular Jewish athlete from his New Jersey neighborhood. The problem is that 40 some odd years later, Zuckerman still looks up to the Swede, assumes he’s lived a perfect life, and is shocked to find out this isn’t so. Well, he doesn’t actually find out. He’s a writer who researches, interviews others, and assumes things about the Swede, even though he’s often wrong (a realization he’s made after wasting the reader’s time with made up stories). To me, this makes him a giant dork, and since Nathan Zuckerman is Philip Roth’s alter ego, this makes Roth a giant dork, too.
Roth has good craft, but the story has little tension, and upon getting 100 pages in and realizing that certain undoable plot points had already taken place, I saw no reason to continue. It probably doesn’t help that I looked at the back cover and wondered what novel they were describing (same goes for you, Pulitzer Committee). As a result, I chose to leave American Pastoral at a book trade post so that my wife could read about Ted Bundy. What a waste of a vacation book. One star and one more round of Philip Roth is a dork. ...more
Some years, the Pulitzer Prize committee doesn’t give out an award for literature. With Paul Harding’s Tinkers as 2010’s winner, I think it should’veSome years, the Pulitzer Prize committee doesn’t give out an award for literature. With Paul Harding’s Tinkers as 2010’s winner, I think it should’ve gone down as another blank year. Put it this way: If you played a drinking game every time Tinkers had a plot point, you’d remain stone cold sober.
George Washington Crosby, an old clock repairman, is dying. He reflects back on growing up with a father, Howard, who suffered from epileptic seizures. Usually when you have a story jump back to a prior generation, there’s some clue to the present circumstances, some sort of locked plot point that opens up by the end of the novel, but not with Tinkers. Harding just flashes back to tell more story with little plot. Sure, you could draw some slight parallels between the two stories, but they’re just that—slight—and even then you’re reaching. There’s just not enough to justify the structure. Harding cheats with perspective, too, flipping between first- and third-person (and occasionally from George to Howard) when it suits his need. I’m all for violating the rules when it’s done right (see Cormac McCarthy’s perspective switching in No Country For Old Men), but again, Harding doesn’t have the skill; he simply does it. No dialogue tags either? Unless you’re rolling with an unreliable narrator, where the words could either be spoken or thought and it doesn’t matter either way (see Will Christopher Baer’s Kiss Me, Judas), leave those tags in there and give me a paragraph break for new speakers while you’re at it.
There were occasional scenes that I enjoyed—a section on a man performing odd jobs around town, the pain in some of Howard’s later epileptic episodes—but overall, there was barely enough plot for a short story, yet alone a novel. Critics defend Tinkers, saying it’s a quiet novel, and I would buy that as a difference in appreciated styles if some of my favorite writers didn’t write some of the most beautiful quiet pieces I’ve ever read, but when it comes to novels, there has to be more story than style, and Harding doesn’t have enough charm to pull off the latter in his abandonment of the former. I appreciate that Tinkers is one of the few small press books to win the prestigious award (I usually think Pulitzer winners are good, but not great), that it, at least, shook one of the award’s clichés (usually multi-cultural, multi-generational stories), but it still reads like the kind of book that gets all the critics cooing in the workshops, yet when you hand it to the untrained eye, they’ll get x amount of pages in and ask, “So, uh, when does the story start?”
Okay… have I justified my opinion? Are the good sport review peeps gone? Good. If Tinkers had a face I’d kick it. And Pulitzer? More like Poolitzer. That’s right; I passed fart jokes and went straight to fecal insults to slam your award. One star and a warm glass of Poolitzer for you, Paul Harding; but don’t worry, it’s all metaphorical (just don’t call anyone about that suspicious looking package on your doorstep). ...more
“Let me get this straight, Spiegelman: You want to pen a graphic novel about your father’s experience in a concentration camp during World War Two, bu“Let me get this straight, Spiegelman: You want to pen a graphic novel about your father’s experience in a concentration camp during World War Two, but instead of drawing people, you’re going to use a number of animals to represent different races and nationalities, and then on top of that, you want to have a parallel narrative with your modern-day father, who’s a stingy, prejudicial, pain-to-be-around, stereotypical Jewish penny pincher? You do? Oh, and you want to take thirteen years to complete this work…”
This is the response I imagine if Art Spiegelman ever tried to pitch The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale to a publisher (which he didn’t—he serialized most of it through a publication he co-edited with his wife). Admittedly, if a friend shared this plan with me, I imagine I would count on the quality being cringe worthy poor and the effort fizzling out twelve years and eleven months early, but the beauty of Maus is that it takes so many aspects that shouldn’t work and makes it the award winning, rousing it success it is.
Volume one, “My Father Bleeds History,” focuses on the lives of Spiegelman’s mother and father, Anja and Vladek, in Poland before and during World War Two. Volume two, “And Here My Troubles Began,” picks up the story as Vladek and Anja entered Auschwitz as prisoners. All information comes purely from Vladek’s lucid memory, and in each volume there’s the parallel story of the modern-day Vladek living in New York, annoying his son (the author, Art) and his second wife, Mala. Almost immediately, the reader learns that the Spiegelmans survived the Holocaust, but that Anja committed suicide soon after Art was released from a mental hospital in 1968. In many ways, there’s little surprise to the unfolding of the main story, but it’s fascinating to read one man’s personal account of a war generally viewed through an epic lens. Seeing what happens to all the minor people along the way—how loyalties, roles and morality shift—is also heartbreakingly intriguing.
Although I found the artwork charming and the visual symbolism of animal hierarchy well done (with the Jews portrayed is mice, Germans as cats and Americans as dogs), most animals were drawn similarly, making it occasionally difficult to distinguish between characters of the same nationality. (There was also controversy over Spiegelman’s decision to portray the Polish as pigs, despite conveying a variety of interactions.) Finally, the end is ridiculously clipped, coming to a screeching halt halfway down the final page. Considering the length of the work already (both in time and page commitment) I’m surprised and annoyed that Spiegelman didn’t take a few more pages to roll things to a close. While it’s not enough to kill my praise of this creative handling of such a serious topic with what was, at least thought previously, a big-gun-big-breasts funny book medium, I very nearly pulled off a star for the fault. Regardless, Art Spiegelman’s Maus remains a charming and important standard in visual storytelling that couldn’t be told any other way. The power of what he conveyed, often with a single panel, cannot be denied. Four stars. Barely.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a widely praised, well-crafted literary read that unfortunately never quite gets its hooks in.
The novel centers in on SetheToni Morrison’s Beloved is a widely praised, well-crafted literary read that unfortunately never quite gets its hooks in.
The novel centers in on Sethe and her daughter, Denver, as they live ostracized in a house haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter during post-slavery America. They are soon joined by a friend from Sethe’s past, Paul D, and the horrors of her history resurface with modern-day consequences. Much of the novel, even in the late chapters, is spent in flashbacks to the events that took place at the Orwellian Sweet Home. Morrison’s craft is top-notch, a sentence structure rivaling that of Michael Chabon, but she’s a better writer than storyteller. Although I enjoyed it whenever I read, I never felt the urge to read more than a few chapters at a time.
The magical realism aspect isn’t quite what it should be either. Partially this is because Morrison wrote it in such a way that the events could either be viewed as supernatural or the natural skewed by grief. Unfortunately, the evidence for the supernatural outweighs the other to such a degree that the natural route doesn’t even feel like an option. Morrison’s desire to straddle the line between the two simply makes supernatural aspect lacking, too.
Despite these flaws, Beloved has many strengths. Morrison’s commentary on various forms of identity—of mothers and daughters, of slaves and free men—are painfully astute and the reader’s opinion of the characters is constantly in flux. Most times, a reader’s opinion of a character is set—maybe it changes once—but the characters of Beloved continually change and grow without cheating the plot. Inevitably, Beloved is a book I wanted to like more, especially with the strong craft, commentary and climax, but I never fully got drawn in. Three stars. Barely. ...more
The Road is a disturbing yet hopeful post-apocalyptic tale that solidifies my stance that Cormac McCarthy has gotten better with age.
A father and sonThe Road is a disturbing yet hopeful post-apocalyptic tale that solidifies my stance that Cormac McCarthy has gotten better with age.
A father and son walk across a burned America where little life exists and what is left—murderers, cannibalists and rapists—are to be avoided at all costs. There is little food and little hope, but still the two venture on to the sea. One of McCarthy’s flaws—and the Blood Meridian fanatics might just kill me for using that word—is that the plot or motivations of his characters aren’t always clear, but the need for survival gives every character in The Road all the motivation they need, so in this sense, he’s turned a flaw into a strength.
It’s slow going at first though. All I had to hang onto for the first thirty pages was the beauty of McCarthy’s language. There are no chapters per se; it’s more like snippets that rarely go longer than a page, but McCarthy’s willingness to play with structure has always been one of his strengths. This time around though, he has put way more heart into the story, and I’m sure the depth of the relationship between the father and the son will be analyzed long after McCarthy has passed. Additionally, some of the passages in The Road rival horror texts for the fear they inspire (the scene where the father and son break into a locked room of a house is especially terrifying [page 110 in the paperback edition:]).
Unfortunately, The Road follows the parabola as the ending disappoints. Though it’s what has been building since the very beginning, it feels like the easy way out for a novel filled with struggle. However, even with the dips at the start and finish, The Road is a great entry into McCarthy’s catalogue and post-apocalyptic fiction as a whole. Three stars and reaching higher. ...more
Junot Díaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a little more than brief and slightly less than wondrous, but I doubt I’m the first or the last peJunot Díaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a little more than brief and slightly less than wondrous, but I doubt I’m the first or the last person to abuse the title for a review.
I’ll admit it: When I see the little gold ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize’ medal on a book cover, I immediately assume a multi-cultural, multi-generational novel. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao doesn’t veer from the path. Though the novel is told from multiple viewpoints, most of it comes from the perspective of Yunior de Las Casas, the on-again, off-again boyfriend of Oscar’s sister, Lola (when he can refrain from cheating on her for ten minutes). Rife with urban vernacular (including the controversial use of ‘nigger’), nerd references (comic books, role-playing games, sci-fi and fantasy, etc.), and Spanish dialect (sans translation, though it often revolves around cussing, insults and sexual references), Díaz’ prose sometimes feels like an attempt to snag credibility. Being of the nerdy variety, I caught all but a couple of those references (which are painfully accurate, by the way), so I wondered what it must be like to read this book not knowing those ties. I assume it’s like not knowing the Spanish—when the context really mattered, you could catch enough off the inference of everything else, but otherwise, you were out of luck and moved on. While that can seem rather alienating, the specifics of those different cultural aspects work really well, especially as the characters fight and conform against what each one brings.
Though he starts off a neighborhood darling, Oscar soon becomes an overweight kid trying to balance his geekdom with expectations of him being a Dominican-American ladies man. Alas Oscar is being chased by the fukú—not just an obvious play on words, but a specific Caribbean curse that has haunted his people for generations and is only balanced out by the zafa counter-curse. (Admittedly, much of the fukú seems more like poor decision making, especially in the area of romantic choices.) The consistent symbolism of these two forces—a faceless man and a golden mongoose respectively—is beautifully done. Additionally, there are numerous terrible, violent acts in the novel, but Diaz glorifies none of them, building a consistent wave that truly feels fukú. The middle sections of the novel deal with Lola’s runaway life and the lives of Oscar’s mother, Beli, and his grandfather, Abelard, living under Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorial rule in the Dominican Republic. The Trujillo sections are rife with footnotes, some going over several pages. I hate footnotes—the way they break from the main story—but even I’ll admit that Díaz pulls off a few well.
Inevitably, using different narrators (or different voices of the same narrator), makes for an uneven experience. With the narration I enjoyed, the prose soared. With the narration I disliked, the prose crawled and I was often reluctant to wade through to get back to a voice I liked again. It didn’t help that some of these voices—Yunior’s delightfully natural colloquial voice especially—didn’t remain consistent when they returned. The characters, however, remain fantastically consistent. Though they grow and change, Díaz never cheats, allowing them to act differently, even when you really hope they would. Though the novel comes close to being wondrous towards the end, Diaz reverts to the over-sexed bend that plagues the story. The second to last section ties in the ending to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, almost closing the The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao well, but then Díaz decides to stick in a half-dozen extra pages. While some of the information is pertinent, most of it is an ending pulled too tight where a bit of ambiguity really was necessary. Despite the unevenness, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has more overwhelmingly redeeming parts than negatives. Three stars. ...more
I’m a firm believer that books can either be entertaining or literary, but Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay does a good joI’m a firm believer that books can either be entertaining or literary, but Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay does a good job of straddling that line.
If you haven’t got the memo, Michael Chabon is one of the most celebrated authors of this generation. Literary awards and popularity—the man has them both, and he actually is a great writer. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay follows two Jewish cousins, Josef (Joe) Kavalier and Sammy Klayman (later Sam Clay), from 1939 to 1955 as they create the anti-fascist superhero, the Escapist, to help fill the comic book demand created by the popularity of Superman. Several historical figures and moments—including World War II, the Golden Age of comics and the Kefauver Senate hearings (regarding the negative effect of comic books on youth)—factor into the novel. As Joe desperately tries to get his family out of Nazi-occupied Prague, his real-life actions grow wilder and the Escapist’s feats grow grander. Sam, dealing with his own identity struggle, finds it difficult to keep Joe grounded and both slowly grow detached.
Escapism is a common theme; both in the lives of Joe and Sam and in the wonderment of comics as a whole. Many Jewish symbols—including the golem: kind of a non-monster Frankenstein made entirely of clay—permeate the novel and Chabon’s ongoing use of metaphor is one of his greatest strengths. However, there are times where I’d be more impressed by the skill of his prose rather than feeling the emotional impact of the story. This coupled with a sluggish middle section where the reader is waiting for what clearly must happen to happen and an ending that feels clipped short leads me to believe that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay could have been better than all the awards let on, but as is, it’s another great entry (alongside Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude and, to a lesser degree, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) to comic book fiction. Three stars, but reaching higher. ...more
Buried in awards (including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction) and mass acclaim (including the dreaded summer 2007 selection for Oprah’s book club),Buried in awards (including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction) and mass acclaim (including the dreaded summer 2007 selection for Oprah’s book club), Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex has made the rounds. Terms such as ‘neoclassic’ and ‘epic’ have surfaced, debates have raged, and criticism has met with counter-criticism and then counter-counter-criticism (and so forth), but underneath it all, is it a good book? The short answer is yes, though I won’t rocket off to the levels of praise still floating around the literary universe.
Best taken in large chunks, Middlesex is the history of Cal Stephanides, the intersexed narrator of Greek origin. In the initial sentence, Cal describes being born twice: First as a baby girl, Calliope, in 1960, and then as a teenage boy, Cal, in 1974. From there, Cal reflects on the incestuous intertwining of his family tree that led to him being born a hermaphrodite. The recounting of Cal’s grandparents, Eleutherios (Lefty) and Desdemona, getting together is obviously outside of believability, but the story of how these siblings came to be lovers—fleeing from a war torn Greece to a Great Depression era Detroit—is so enchanting that the omniscience is appreciated. Desdemona and Lefty’s son, Milton, ends up falling for his second cousin, Tessie. Together, they have “Chapter Eleven,” a normal boy, and Calliope, whose hermaphroditic state remains amazingly unnoticed for many years.
I’ll give Eugenides credit: The stories up until Cal’s are epic, spanning over decades, continents, wars and struggles, but the last part of Middlesex begins to shed the skin that made it so endearing. As the story progresses from Desdemona and Lefty to Milton and Tessie to Calliope and then Cal, the reader can feel the momentum slow. They aren’t huge steps down in quality, but they’re felt nonetheless. Cal’s story ends up feeling lacking, an unwelcome side note that is only in there because he is, inevitably, the result of all the stories before him. Additionally, the more the story progresses, the more the Greek stereotypes take over. Fortunately, the ending takes a step up, but there’s still a longing for the level of storytelling revealed through the struggles of Desdemona and Lefty. The fact that little is connected outside of the biology of these three main tales shoots off another flare of missed opportunity. Regardless, Middlesex is an enjoyable, albeit uneven, multi-generational coming of age novel. Three stars. ...more