If the following things tickle your funnybone, The Sellout may be for you:
1. A buck-naked crackhead chanting a modified version of “Charge of the LighIf the following things tickle your funnybone, The Sellout may be for you:
1. A buck-naked crackhead chanting a modified version of “Charge of the Light Brigade” (called “The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade”) while firing a .38 into the air in the heart of the ghetto.
2. Racial sensitivity training like the following: “When I was seven months, Pops placed objects like toy police cars, cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and a copy of The Economist in my bassinet, but instead of conditioning me with a deafening clang, I learned to be afraid of the presented stimuli because they were accompanied by him taking out the family .38 Special and firing several window-ratting rounds into the ceiling..."
3. A social activist who “reinvents” classic works of literature to be more accessible to students in the inner city, crafting masterpieces such as The Dopeman Cometh and The Great Blacksby, which begins as follows: “Real talk. When I was young, dumb, and full of cum, my omnipresent, good to my mother, non-stereotypical African-American daddy dropped some knowledge on me that I been trippin’ off of ever since."
It is safe to say this is a fairly provocative novel in many ways, as a brief synopsis of the plot helps demonstrate. Our hero, who is the beneficiary of a very unusual upbringing, is spurred into action when his city is wiped from the map by the state of California, which views the ghetto of Dickens as an embarrassment. The protagonist makes it his personal mission to bring Dickens back from non-existence, ultimately turning to segregation and (inadvertently) slavery as tools in his quest. These deviations from established orthodoxy eventually lead him to the United States Supreme Court, where his fate is to be determined.
Now, humor and satire are subjective, and different people respond to different things. But personally, I found this book to be truly funny. There is a lot of anger behind these pages, as the author lampoons many of the injustices and inequalities that plague American life in the 21st century. But I found the author’s presentation to be outrageous in the best sense of the term. Almost every chapter there were one or two passages that literally caused me to laugh out loud, and there were countless others that put a smile on my face (sometimes following a cringe of shock that the author dared to “go there,” but still). Nothing about this book is politically correct, but then again I think part of the author’s point is that political correctness only gets us so far, and can actually work to society’s detriment if it is used to paper over real issues that need addressing. As a work of satire, I thought this book was a huge success.
But what made The Sellout a great book for me was that within that humor, Beatty encourages the reader to challenge their preconceptions and look at race relations and discrimination in America in a new and different way. In addition to being very funny, this is a book with something so say. That something is not that black Americans were in a better place in the eras of segregation and slavery; instead, the author argues in a highly original way that the idea that racial issues in the United States are a thing of the past is a misguided and potentially very harmful concept, and that dealing with inequality and prejudice honestly and directly is healthier and more productive than pretending these issues don't exist.
This book was chosen as one of the top 10 books of 2015 by the New York Times, along with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ outstanding Between the World and Me. I thought Coates book, with its burning anger and a unique style of its own, was excellent (to the point that I actually gave it a slightly higher rating than this one). But reflecting on the two, I think the degree of difficulty for what Beatty is trying to do here is significantly higher, and in many ways I think The Sellout is an even more impressive book. There are a few moments where the narrative tends to drag, which is the only real nitpick I have; I wonder if this book could have been even more effective if it went even heavier on the satirical and surreal elements. But this is a very minor complaint, and I would revisit this author again without hesitation. 4.5 stars, highly recommended!...more
Between the World and Me is a short (150 page) but powerful address to the author’s 14-year old son. Part memoir and partly a broader examination of rBetween the World and Me is a short (150 page) but powerful address to the author’s 14-year old son. Part memoir and partly a broader examination of race relations in the United States, despite its length I did not find this an easy book to get through. Coates’ outlook is bleak, largely rejecting the optimistic theories of thinkers like Martin Luther King, Jr. An atheist, Coates finds no hope or solace in the religious sphere, as King did, although at times Coates seems to wish that he could. Instead, Coates views a culture of loosely veiled white supremacy as something that is firmly set in place, and something that is effectively impossible for an African American minority to change.
Coates is a man who is deeply frustrated, disappointed, and angry at his country in many ways, and I did not agree with every point he took. He can paint with a very broad brush, and some of his more pessimistic observations about white Americans or America in general felt off to me. However, Coates is a strong writer with a distinct narrative voice, helping to keep the book engrossing even when I didn’t 100% agree with Coates’ position. More importantly, this book did an outstanding job of putting the reader into the shoes of Coates and his peers. Even when I did not agree with Coates’ generalizations or specific points, I could understand (and appreciate) why Coates and other African Americans may feel that way. Between the World and Me does about as good a job of this as any book I have ever read: it allows readers from different backgrounds to examine America from a new and unfamiliar perspective, complete with all of the insights and distortions this new angle can provide. In this respect, the book was enlightening.
It is this last trait that makes Between the World and Me a great book, and perhaps an important one. I’d add that I listened to the audiobook version, which is read by Coates himself, and I would definitely recommend this format to audiobook lovers as Coates’ reading really enhanced the impact of this book for me. 5 stars, highly recommended....more
“What the war did to dreamers.” - Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
St. Malo, 1944.
Anthony Doerr’s second novel, All the Light We Cannot See “What the war did to dreamers.” - Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
St. Malo, 1944.
Anthony Doerr’s second novel, All the Light We Cannot See is the story of two youths that are swept up in the chaos of World War II. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl living in Paris, where her father works at the Museum of Natural History. To help her cope with her condition, her father constructs a fabulous model of the surrounding city that Marie-Laure can study in order to memorize her surroundings. Far away, Werner Pfennig grows up an orphan in Zollverein, a mining town in Germany. Werner is fascinated by radios, and soon learns that he has a natural talent for working with them. However, both Werner and his sister, Jutta, gradually find themselves caught in the tentacles of the Third Reich. The novel follows its two principles as the tide of war pushes both parties to Saint-Malo, a port-city in Northwestern France.
The description of this novel sounded (to me at least) like the elevator pitch for a particularly Oscar-baity WWII film. There have been so many books and movies focused on the Second World War that another book on the subject can feel unnecessary or derivative. If it weren’t for the many laurels this book earned in 2014-15, I might have skipped over this one. But I’m glad I didn’t, because those honors were well-deserved. I thought this was a powerhouse of a novel: extremely well written, creatively (and effectively) structured, and perfectly paced. Both of the main characters are very strong, and Doerr supplements them with a memorable supporting cast (particularly Etienne, Jutta, and Volkheimer). A third narrative (view spoiler)[involving a rare gemstone (hide spoiler)] is woven into the main story to good effect, adding just enough spice without ever threatening to take over the book.
Doerr does many things well here, but two specifically bear mentioning. First, I was impressed by some of the decisions Doerr made on what to show the reader and what he leaves to the imagination. Some of the most powerful incidents in the book - (view spoiler)[the death of Marie’s father, the attack on Frederick, the killings that Werner helps facilitate, and (most importantly) the moment where Werner goes back to the kennel to retrieve the model house but leaves the diamond behind (hide spoiler)] - are brought to the reader’s attention in indirect but very effective ways. I thought this was very well done and it definitely added to my enjoyment of the book. Second, Doerr does an extraordinary job of describing how Marie-Laure perceives her world without the use of her eyes, which really pulls the reader into the narrative and was a unique reading experience for me.*
This was a book that really took root in me once I got invested in it. Lord knows there are a million WWII stories out there, but this one is worth your time. All the Light We Cannot See is a creative, engaging, and moving story, expertly told, and one of the best novels of the decade so far. 6 stars, highest possible recommendation.
Winner: Pulitzer Prize (2015) Nominee: National Book Award (2014) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 2014
*Shout-out to AChristensen1205 for this second observation.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This is a short, ethereal little novel that can be read in a single day; although it is listed at 182 pages, the book is divided into a loosely connecThis is a short, ethereal little novel that can be read in a single day; although it is listed at 182 pages, the book is divided into a loosely connected series of short paragraphs and sentences that make for very quick reading. The story is told from the perspective of “the wife” and contains her musings on marriage and motherhood over a period of years. The wife is a woman with an artistic bent, and the book contains a variety of quotes and allusions that liven up the narrative.
I ended up really enjoying the almost stream-of-consciousness-like format here, which felt creative without coming across as gimmicky. The prose was strong and fit the format well; Offill uses her nontraditional design to sometimes insert a sentence or paragraph that might not quite be at home in another book, but works here and can allow her to shine a new light on an emotional situation. Psychologically, the book felt true to its characters, and did a good job at portraying the wife’s evolving emotional state over time.
While the book felt technically strong, it didn’t move me very strongly one way or the other, which would be my biggest criticism of Dept. of Speculation. For all its strengths, the format can feel distancing, and I never felt like I really connected with any of the characters. As a result, I ended up observing the plot unfold without caring very deeply about what was happening to the individuals involved, which kept this book from getting a higher grade from me.
Still, this was an enjoyable novel. Especially given how quick of a read it is, I would certainly recommend it to fans of literary fiction. 3.5 stars.
Winner: New York Times Top 10 Books of 2014...more
Redeployment is an excellent set of short stories about the Iraq War by Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq from 2007-08. This is qu
Redeployment is an excellent set of short stories about the Iraq War by Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq from 2007-08. This is quite possibly the best book (fiction or otherwise) I have read on the Iraq War for two reasons. First, Klay does a great job of immersing the reader in his stories, using both his first-hand, inside knowledge of what the war was like and a liberal use of that armed-forces lingo (abbreviations and all). I loved this aspect of the book, which reminded me of Tom Clancy armed with an MFA. Second, while all of the stories deal with the Iraq War in some capacity, they cover the war from a wide variety of angles and perspectives, which kept the book fresh and even (I felt) expanded my understanding of the war and its repercussions.
While there wasn’t a bad story in the bunch, three stood out to me. After Action Report was a powerful look at the psychological strain soldiers in the field face on a daily basis. Klay nicely highlights the youth of his subjects, giving the story even more emotional punch. Prayer in the Furnace also does an outstanding job of showing how even the bravest soldiers can crack under the stress of combat, while adding an interesting (without being heavy-handed) religious angle. Finally, Psychological Operations really snuck up on me. It seemed like just another story at first, but it really sunk its claws into me and I couldn’t put it down towards the end. Well-crafted and compelling stuff.
Overall this was an outstanding collection – particularly considering that this was the author’s literary debut. Very good prose, interesting plots, and some unexpected twists make Redeployment entertaining reading, and some quietly moving passages will ensure this is a book you won’t soon forget. A strong 4.5 stars, highly recommended!
Winner: National Book Award (2014); New York Times Top 10 Books of 2014...more
This was a difficult book to read. In a single day in 2004, Deraniyagala lost her parents, husband, and children when a tsunami hit the coast of Sri LThis was a difficult book to read. In a single day in 2004, Deraniyagala lost her parents, husband, and children when a tsunami hit the coast of Sri Lanka. This book describes the horror and terror of that day, but mostly it is a book about grief. Deraniyagala expresses her anguish in raw, unforgiving terms that force the reader to see the world through her haunted eyes for 240 pages.
The author is an economist by trade, and not a writer, and Wave often reads that way. But that’s not a criticism; it is a frank, unsparing book, but one with real power. Deraniyagala lays herself bare here in ways that may not put her in the most sympathetic light at times, but that always ring true. Deraniyagala’s grief is not a simple, seven-stage process to be overcome, but her new reality. It is a sometimes overwhelming force that can be sometimes mitigated, but may never truly leave her.
Again, not an easy book to get through at times, and not one I would want to re-read any time in the near future. But that’s largely because Deraniyagala is so effective in putting readers in her shoes. A challenging book to get through, but an even harder one to forget. 4 stars. ...more
First off: is it just me, or is “Bring Up the Bodies” one of the best book titles in recent memory? The phrase comes from the court order summoning AnFirst off: is it just me, or is “Bring Up the Bodies” one of the best book titles in recent memory? The phrase comes from the court order summoning Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers to trial. Mantel has gone 2-for-2 with the prestigious Booker Award so far, taking home top honors for each of the first two entries in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. And as good as Wolf Hall was, the sequel may be even better.
Heads. Will. Roll.
Bring Up the Bodies has a much tighter focus than its predecessor. Where Wolf Hall stretches out over 35 years, Bodies covers less than one, from September 1535 to the summer of 1536. This narrower view gives the book a more focused feel than Wolf Hall: from start to finish, this is the story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall. The plot still tends to meander from time to time (particularly in the first half), as Mantel revels in exploring the nooks and crannies of Cromwell’s world, but it’s a more linear story than the first novel. At 432 pages, it’s only about 70% of the length of Wolf Hall, which also contributes to the feeling that Bodies is a leaner, tighter, more focused book.
The story itself is well known and requires no summarizing from me. The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn has been a favorite of storytellers for years, and is plenty compelling stuff for a historical novel. As in Wolf Hall, telling this well known story through Cromwell’s eyes makes it feel fresh, and Mantel’s research seems more than up to snuff (although I’m not an expert on the period). There are plenty of little historical details that pull the reader into the story, and the prose is very strong. Mantel had a weird habit of creating confusing dialogue mazes in the first book, because she only refers to Cromwell as “he” (so if he is speaking to another “he,” it quickly becomes very difficult to know who is saying what), but that has been corrected in Bodies.
The book does a nice job of foreshadowing the third and final entry in the series, in which Cromwell will face the same fate as his predecessors (Thomas More and Boleyn). The description of More's fall in Wolf Hall, particularly his final scene in court, was inspired, and if Anne’s last days didn’t quite reach that level, they’re awfully close. Mantel stumbled onto something special with this series, and if she can stick the landing with the finale, she could have an all-timer on her hands. 4.5 stars, highly recommended!...more
Beloved elicits a wide range of opinions. On one hand, the book was a winner or finalist for almost every literary award under the sun when it came ouBeloved elicits a wide range of opinions. On one hand, the book was a winner or finalist for almost every literary award under the sun when it came out in 1987, and in 2006 the New York Times ranked it the #1 work of American fiction of the past 25 years. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who simply can’t stand this book. In between are a lot of people who like things about the book, but don’t think that it’s Morrison’s best work, let alone the best of its generation.
Beloved is set in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1873. The main character, Sethe, lives with her daughter in a house that’s haunted by some kind of spirit. Paul D., who was a slave on the same plantation as Sethe before the end of The Civil War, arrives and attempts to restore normalcy. However, the arrival of another houseguest (the enigmatic Beloved) threatens to turn the situation around and throw the house back into new levels of despair. While the setting is 1873, there are many flashbacks to Sethe’s slave days in the 1860s. Some of the book’s depictions of the horrors of slavery are very intense; Morrison has said that she wanted to display the ugliness of slavery without holding back and she does not pull any punches.
Reading through some of the more negative reviews, it seems that many people who really hate Beloved have a problem with this aspect of the book. Again, this book has some disturbing and graphic scenes relating to slavery, but attacking Morrison for writing about them seems like the ultimate case of shooting the messenger. The most famous act of violence in the book, (view spoiler)[when Sethe kills her daughter (hide spoiler)], is based on an actual incident. While some of the inhumanity on display in this book is hard to read about, I don’t think it’s gratuitous or hyperbolic given the subject Morrison chose to tackle. That said, potential readers should be aware Beloved contains some intense depictions of human suffering.
But if the above paragraph hasn’t turned you off, I would recommend this book. The writing is very good, the structure is effective, and Morrison creates some memorable characters. The most interesting aspect of the book for me was its use of magical realism. This book is not diving 100% into that genre, like One Hundred Years of Solitude or 2666, but it contains magical elements. I thought the use of those elements was a little inconsistent, but when they work they are striking and they help the book stand out.
I didn’t think this book was perfect, and it’s not my favorite book from the 1980s. However, I thought it was very good and would highly recommend it, with the caveat that readers should be ready for an unflinching and sometimes graphic look at the ugliness of slavery. 4 stars.
Winner: Pulitzer Prize (1988) Finalist: National Book Award (1987) Finalist: National Book Critics Circle Award (1987) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 1987["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
If you like medieval literature, this is pretty much a must-read. The classic epic poem is the oldest work of English literature that's actually readIf you like medieval literature, this is pretty much a must-read. The classic epic poem is the oldest work of English literature that's actually read today, and still holds up as an exciting tale of man vs. the monster lurking in the shadows. The Seamus Heaney translation (which was selected as one of the 10 best books of the year by the NYT despite the fact that the poem is over 1,000 year old) deserves the hype. 4 stars, recommended....more
Wow. I stumbled upon this book almost by accident, having heard good things about Ishiguro but coming in unfamiliar with his work. Now I’m going to haWow. I stumbled upon this book almost by accident, having heard good things about Ishiguro but coming in unfamiliar with his work. Now I’m going to have to go and read through his back catalog. This was an extraordinary book. The story is told from the perspective of Stevens, a butler in an English manor. Most of the book takes place in the years before World War II, and both the butler profession & the rigid class system that supports it are on the decline.
Another reviewer (Siria) noted how extraordinary the first person narration is in this book, and I completely agree. It’s not just that the author creates a unique & authentic voice for the main character (which he does); Ishiguro takes full advantage of the first person format in other ways. Stevens is an unreliable narrator, and much of the book’s power comes from what remains unsaid. It’s a very subtle story, devastatingly so at times. This really is as good as first person narration gets.
I could sit here and gush about this book for hours. The characters are well drawn and true to life. The story’s structure is well conceived and works brilliantly in my opinion. The writing is top-notch. 6 stars. Not to be missed.
Winner: Man Booker Prize (1989) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 1989 ...more
I was born in 1983. Is A Visit from the Goon Squad the most critically acclaimed book to come out in my lifetime? The book won the Pulitzer and the NaI was born in 1983. Is A Visit from the Goon Squad the most critically acclaimed book to come out in my lifetime? The book won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2010 and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. TIME immediately dubbed it “a new classic of American fiction,” at least according to the back of my copy of Goon Squad. Pretty much every publication under the sun listed it as one of the best books of the year.
Jennifer Egan’s trophy case (approximation)
I think Beloved (1987) and The Corrections (2001) are probably the only other books to generate that kind of critical consensus since ‘83. So you can say that this book had some hype. Overall I really enjoyed Goon Squad, although the book left me a bit cold and I didn’t experience that “eureka!” moment that so many have had.
The structure of the book is unusual, and not just because of the famous PowerPoint chapter. Goon Squad is in a sort of limbo between a novel and a collection of short stories (apparently Egan herself is somewhat unclear on how precisely to define it). Another reviewer compared the structure to The Hours and I think that’s a good example, although Goon Squad leans further in the direction of short stories than Cunningham’s book. While the chapters interconnect and characters cross over, the book is really a collection of short stories with a common theme (the passage of time).
The best part of the book, at least for me, was the prose. Egan isn’t setting off verbal fireworks like Cormac McCarthy or anything, but her writing is really impressive. It’s crisp, clean and razor sharp. Egan’s able to write from a number of different first person perspectives and creates a variety of unique voices. The best word I can use to describe the writing in Goon Squad is polished, and it was a pleasure to read.
As for the stories themselves, I enjoyed them all thoroughly without falling head over heels in love with any of them. Ultimately, I found myself more impressed with the book’s technical brilliance (the prose) than I was riveted by any of the individual stories or characters, which dampened my love for the book a bit. But, even though I didn’t find Goon Squad to be an instant classic, I was impressed by this book and would recommend it to others. 4 stars.
Winner: Pulitzer Prize (2011) Winner: National Book Critics Circle Award (2010) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 2010...more
I had never heard of Marquez before I was assigned this book in college. It changed my conceptions of what literature could be. Repetitious, yes, butI had never heard of Marquez before I was assigned this book in college. It changed my conceptions of what literature could be. Repetitious, yes, but elemental and almost biblical in many ways. Along with Blood Meridian and Infinite Jest, this is one of the three best novels I've ever read. A masterpiece. 6 stars, highest possible recommendation!...more