I found much to dislike in this novel, from the naivete of its conceit to the insufferableness of its various narrators. But I think what irked me the...moreI found much to dislike in this novel, from the naivete of its conceit to the insufferableness of its various narrators. But I think what irked me the most is that, at times, I was dazzled. There were sentences or scenes that I thought were wonderful (the description of Oskar's class's "Hamlet" performance balanced humor and pathos like little else in this book). I would never go so far as to invoke the term "raw talent" for Foer, because his writing isn't ragged at all. It's mannered and precise and, sometimes, too-enamored with itself (in a bad way--I don't get the impression that this is someone like, say, Michael Chabon who, like, is engrossed with language but rather someone who, like Nabokov at his most frustrating, is engrossed with how clever their linguistic gymnastics can be). Anyway, I don't think of Foer as a "raw talent" so much as someone who needs a better handler. Someone to rein in his tiresome and diverting tics (mostly visual in nature) that add little to his points. Not that removing them would help, because the central ideas of this novel, if I'm being generous, are problematic at best. Maybe it would help if I didn't think of this as a 9/11 novel, but, really, it's begging me to. And if I take it as that, I have to acknowledge the fact that the novel never really engages with the event in a meaningful way. There are ways that one can take a personal, singular response to a/this momentous event and draw from that particular something that places the event in the larger context that it requires. I'm thinking, in particular, of "Slaughterhouse 5" and Messud's "Emperor's Children." Foer's novel refuses to look the events of 9/11 in the face, really, in the same way those books did (even if I find some dissatisfaction in their representations of the disastrous events they depict). This, along with the novel's single-minded devotion to Oskar's grieving process, troubles me. If I'm honest with myself, the problem that I have with the novel, or, rather, the problems, revolve around the optimism. It's just hard to imagine such a position in light of the events that transpired between 9/11 and this novel's publication, especially when the novel is passively aware of those events. Anyway, I didn't like it much. At least it was better than "Everything is Illuminated." Too bad Foer isn't as talented as his wife. (less)
I often find myself wondering why I love Saul Bellow's fiction when I pick up another of his books. It's not as if I find myself disliking each new no...moreI often find myself wondering why I love Saul Bellow's fiction when I pick up another of his books. It's not as if I find myself disliking each new novel. On the contrary, I enjoy them thoroughly. It's simply that his books lack immediate brilliance. It takes time for the spectacular nature of each book to reveal itself. With some the full scope of the brilliance appears earlier ("Seize the Day"'s sequence involving Maurice Venice) and others later (the incredibly moving scene towards the end of "Henderson the Rain King" in which Henderson shares a roller-coaster ride with an incontinent bear). The brilliance emerges, though, each time and reinforces my opinion of Bellow. "Augie March" is his first major work and is justifiably remembered for it's opening salvo ("I'm an American--Chicago born..."). Like all the Bellow I've read, though, it took time for "Augie" to worm its way into my canon. Again, it wasn't as if I found Bellow's writing wholly without merit. Rather, it was that it consistently called to mind contemporaneous "great American novels" with which it shares some general thematic concerns. I am thinking, in particular, of Ellison's "Invisible Man," another book taking up the issue of American identity and the generally desultory life of young men in the mid-20th century. The early stages of "Augie" lack the ideological and aesthetic heft of Ellison's work. I enjoyed the novel, but found myself asking, "So what?"--a question that I'm certain I never asked myself in reading "Invisible Man." A couple hundred pages in, though, you hit a sequence in which Augie destroys his possibility for easy class advancement by helping a female friend acquire an abortion. It's an amazing series of scenes, completely casting into relief that which had come before and coloring all that is to come. It's probably my favorite bit of Bellow (the roller-coaster bear is the only thing that could challenge it), and it's something that I'd urge readers (particularly those new to Bellow) to hold out for if they're finding the early going a little rudderless in terms of both plot and sentiment. (less)
Wouk's novel is surprisingly resistant to the Greatest Generation narrative/myth that's pretty much overtaken any and all discussions of World War II...moreWouk's novel is surprisingly resistant to the Greatest Generation narrative/myth that's pretty much overtaken any and all discussions of World War II and the men that fought in it (mind you, it's cynicism is ultimately tempered and it is in no way as acerbic as "Slaughterhouse Five" or "Catch 22"). And Captain Queeg is a wonderfully constructed character. I wish I liked this novel more, but Wouk is not, exactly, a talented writer. The prose is pedestrian--someone called it clear and, well, yeah, it's clear, but just remember that a glass of water can be refreshing at times, but it's not something you want to look at. The prose isn't convoluted or challenging but it's hardly vivid in the manner of, say, Gore Vidal's historical fiction. More importantly, for me, the novel ultimately reaffirms the hierarchical and potentially tyrannical structure of the navy when it seems, at the beginning, that it's intent is the opposite. There are much more interesting and better-written sea narratives ("Far Tortuga" for instance) and there are better WWII novels. A lot of them. I'd not advise reading it unless you need to. It's not bad, just banal, which is pretty much what one can expect from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written before the late 1960s. (less)
Can I give this an extra half-star? I'd like to. I found this book three-quarters excellent and one-quarter poor. Díaz is a wonderful author, and this...moreCan I give this an extra half-star? I'd like to. I found this book three-quarters excellent and one-quarter poor. Díaz is a wonderful author, and this is, on many levels, a monumental achievement. As a dissection of masculinity (primarily Dominican), it's superb and outstrips the way that he dealt with this topic in "Drown." But, man, the ending totally blew it for me. It struck me as lazy. I can rationalize it--Oscar's fate, repetitious though it may be, brings us full circle with the novel's exploration of the family curse--but I can't really appreciate it. It seemed like an easy solution to ending a novel for which I could not imagine an appropriate conclusion. Maybe that was the problem--there was no good way out of this narrative, so Díaz opted for the one that lent it some structural elegance even as it seemed fairly unsatisfactory. (less)
Beginning as another of Melville's traditional Polynesian tales--and thus picking up where Typee and Omoo left off--Mardi transforms after the first o...moreBeginning as another of Melville's traditional Polynesian tales--and thus picking up where Typee and Omoo left off--Mardi transforms after the first one hundred pages into something philosophically symbolic (think Gulliver's Travels) and then something politically allegorical. It shouldn't work--and Melville's critics didn't think that it did--but the novel, for me, represents a remarkable achievement. Someone remarked that the novel's use of the boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-goes-after-girl narrative as a vessel to explore the human search for a divine essence of being is unwieldy (in other words, they ask, how can a mundane romance carry the symbolic weight of a spiritual quest). I disagree. Translating the search for God as the search for a lost love manages to simultaneously aggrandize romance and particularize a spiritual journey. Mardi may not reach the sublime heights of Melville's more mature later work (Pierre, The Confidence Man, and his novellas, in addition to MD), but it certainly outshines his pre-1850 oeuvre (which isn't to say that Typee, Omoo, Redburn, etc. are not without their charms), and it is certainly worth your attention if you enjoy Melville or, more broadly, American literature of the mid-19th century. (less)
Conceited as it may sound, I'm probably Ms. Groff's ideal reader. As a student of Cooper, a longtime resident of upstate-/central-NY, a graduate stude...moreConceited as it may sound, I'm probably Ms. Groff's ideal reader. As a student of Cooper, a longtime resident of upstate-/central-NY, a graduate student, and an appreciator of the various strains of the American Romance tradition, I thought I'd devour this book. I did. But I devoured with dismay and disappointment. Groff's literary genealogy is impeccable--herein you'll find not only (obviously) shades of JF Cooper but also hints of authors past and present (Stephen King, William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hannah Webster Foster, Susanna Rowson, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Brockden Brown, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick sprang to mind at various points in the novel). Yet, reading "The Monster's of Templeton," I did not think about Groff furthering the projects of those varied authors. I thought about rereading the work of those authors. Groff reminded me of what I love in (mostly) 19th c. American literature not because she achieves the same effects as those authors but rather because she mimics them, for the most part, poorly. Am I harping too long on her relationship to these other authors? Maybe. But she asked for it. You don't set your novel in Templeton and focus in part on Cooper's and (sort of) Rowson's fictional personages if you don't want your readers to consider the allusiveness of your work.
In any event, it's not simply that Groff's novel pales in comparison to those she apes. It's also that her novel is poorly written. Its reliance on exposition is tedious. It's been a fairly long time since I found myself thinking that I could have helped the author out with my relatively lackluster editorial skill. I found myself thinking that here. Why? Needless information. Lengthy passages about Willie's relationship to Clarissa or Primus contribute little to our understanding of her as a character or to our understanding of the various ideas Groff is trying to deal with here. It's information for the sake of information. And it's doubly frustrating because, in spite of the extensive details offered about Willie's life, the novel never really crafts her into a complete character. She never seemed fully realized to me. Nor, for that matter, did Templeton. Groff never gave me the sense that Templeton was a thriving, vital community. It exists, in my mind, as a hazy, indefinite place. And I've been to Cooperstown. Many times. Her writing neither evoked the real place nor an imagined counterpart. Say what you will about Stephen King, but his depictions of small town life in the northeast are evocative and, for the most part, spot on. Groff's? Not so much. The last thing that I would like to harp on: The inconsistent use of an alternative reality. I understand why Groff wants to not write about Cooperstown or Cooper and his descendants directly. It's confining to feel as though you must be true to the lives of real people if you use their real names. Except that it's a novel. And people embellish the lives of historical personages all the time in historical fiction. Yet why go so far as to change Cooper's name and the titles of his books (Luciferslips, har har) as well as the names of the geographic locations in which the novel's action takes place without also, you know, changing Natty's or Chingachgook's or Uncas's name? Ugh, I could go on and on about the things that irritated me, but I won't. People seem to love this book. And if it hips them to some of the authors Groff is working with, cool. Still, I won't recommend it.
That said, I do want to highlight the element of the novel that I did like: The historical chapters. Groff's description of the lives of Marmaduke Temple and those around him was, really, pretty amazing. I'd almost go so far as to say that I'd have rather read that story than the one that's the focus of her novel. Really, Willie's story is pretty lame, hinging on inexplicable actions and feelings (on her part) as well as a mystery the resolution to which, if you read mysteries at all, will be painfully obvious from fairly early on (if you were surprised, you either weren't reading very closely or you don't know about the law of the economy of characters). But the 18th and 19th c. stuff. That's good writing. It's not the most original story, depicting, as it does, typically sordid deeds, but it's much more interestingly written than Willie's narrative (even if most of the narrator's of the historical stuff sound pretty much the same). (less)
**spoiler alert** I think that this book fixes the major problem that (heh heh) plagued "The Stand." By backloading the localized apocalypse, King avo...more**spoiler alert** I think that this book fixes the major problem that (heh heh) plagued "The Stand." By backloading the localized apocalypse, King avoids the conundrum that any author of post-apocalyptic fiction faces: How do you make what comes after the end of the world more interesting than the end itself? Not sure you can. That's why apocalyptic lit will always reign supreme with me, and why I think that "Needful Things" is a more interesting work than "The Stand." "Needful Things," though, has much else to recommend it, especially the social fabric that King creates. I've always enjoyed his depictions of small-town Americana (particularly in the first half of "'Salem's Lot" and the majority of "It"), but here his focus is not on a small group of characters, as it was in those earlier novels; rather, Castle Rock, as an actual place with a variety of people, is, really, the main character here. Admittedly, King has lapses in judgment. The quarrel between the town's Christian sects at the end is a little laughable--nowhere near as affecting as some of the other violent altercations--and I'm not totally sold on Alan Pangborn as one of King's finest heroes. Also, if anyone expects a modicum of mystery in this tale (ie, who is this mysterious Mr. Gaunt?), you're going to be out of luck. These issues didn't bother me very much though, and, ultimately, I think this is one of King's finer efforts at purposefully melding social criticism and horror. (less)
I found this totally engrossing. I have some reservations about it (more on that in a second), but I really enjoyed reading a contemporary, literary n...moreI found this totally engrossing. I have some reservations about it (more on that in a second), but I really enjoyed reading a contemporary, literary novel that was written with unassuming prose. I enjoy the linguistic pyrotechnics of some authors (Whitehead and Lethem come to mind), but hyperstylized writing can be a bit much. Chaon writes clean, clear, elegant sentences (that only occasionally stumble into cliché). And the story itself is intelligent enough. I recall reading a review when it came out that said something along the lines of "its treatment of identity won't shock anyone familiar with critical theory" (and I think that was meant as a compliment). That's true. If you're at all familiar with the broad outlines of poststructuralism you're not going to be surprised. That said, I think that this book offers a usefully reductive way of encountering those ideas. In other words, it's a lot easier to read "Await Your Reply" than it is to read "Dialectic of Enlightenment" or other critiques of Enlightenment subjectivity. As such, I'm pretty keen on teaching this book alongside works like "Orlando" or "Pierre" or "Pale Fire." I think it's thematically resonant with those novels but is probably a little more palatable to students.
**WHAT FOLLOWS MAY CONTAIN INTIMATIONS OF PLOT POINTS**
As to my reservations about the novel: I had suspicions about, how shall I put this, certain things pertaining to certain characters fairly early in the novel (about one-third of the way through). I was convinced that I was correct about those suspicions about half way through. Although the second half of the novel forced me to reconsider my assessment, the end of the novel confirmed that I had been right the whole time. Unraveling this central "mystery" was not ruinous to my enjoyment of the novel. However, it did seem overly convenient and possibly unnecessary. As I write that, I think to myself, no, in fact it is entirely necessary for Chaon's exploration of de-centered subjectivity. Even if I do wind up thinking that Chaon's central conceit is unnecessary, I think that the context in which he presents his final reveal works in the novel's favor. Though certain aspects of the plot may be unnecessary they are by no means illogical. (less)
I came to this book after reading and enjoying (to varying degrees) two other books by Reynolds--"Blissed Out" and "Generation Ecstasy"--that managed...moreI came to this book after reading and enjoying (to varying degrees) two other books by Reynolds--"Blissed Out" and "Generation Ecstasy"--that managed to be both entertaining and intellectually rigorous. It's too bad I didn't read "Rip It Up..." first. Although there are moments of socio-cultural insight into this particularly fertile and varied strain of late 20th c.-music, it winds up reading like a lot of band biographies. Unlike "Generation Ecstasy" or the best pieces in "Blissed," there isn't an overarching point, except, maybe, that postpunk was a more forward-looking and adventurous genre than punk. It's a fine point, but I'm pretty sure anyone who pays close attention to the music of the late 1970s and early 1980s would agree. Even the people who hold up punk as the apotheosis of rock music implicitly reinforce Reynolds's argument that it's a fundamentally reactionary and conservative movement (musically if not politically). ... Don't get me wrong: I did enjoy this book, but it's far less stimulating that Reynolds's other work and, given its weak thesis, far less vital. I did prefer his writing in the second-half, which focuses on New Pop/New Romanticism/Etc., but that likely stemmed from a lack of familiarity with that part of the postpunk story. If you liked "Our Band Could Be Your Life," this might be up your alley, as it does provide a fairly extensive history of an alternative musical movement. If, however, you're hoping for Reynolds's more academic/cultural-studies side to make an appearance, you'll probably be disappointed. (less)
Sirota's book is both intelligent and infuriating. Many of his points hit their intended targets, but, I think, most do not. He seems so concerned wit...moreSirota's book is both intelligent and infuriating. Many of his points hit their intended targets, but, I think, most do not. He seems so concerned with rendering the 1980s as an exceptional decade, in terms of its lasting cultural, social, political, and economic effects, that he forgets that such a case could be made, really, for just about any era. In the end, then, I'm not totally buying his overall thesis, even if individual observations are both astute and important. His reading of the effect that "The Cosby Show" had on white conceptions of race is pretty amazing, but analysis of other topics--the emergence of anti-government rhetoric in popular movies and on popular TV, for instance--is really problematic and historically facile. And this is to say nothing of his questionable use of sources both qualitative and quantitative. He makes rhetorical moves that I chastise my students for in their papers, such moments as using a quotation that doesn't actually prove his point but saying that it does anyway. For me the book was not "bad" but ultimately disappointing--there're a couple of great articles buried in the 220+ pages here that he should've sold to "The Atlantic" of the "NY Times Magazine" because surrounded by significantly specious claims they lose their impact. (less)
**spoiler alert** I tried to read The Stand when I was 11 or 12. I didn't make it very far into the novel before giving up. Flashforward nearly 20 yea...more**spoiler alert** I tried to read The Stand when I was 11 or 12. I didn't make it very far into the novel before giving up. Flashforward nearly 20 years and I found myself on vacation and in dire need of something other than Herman Melville to read. Enter Stephen King... Since last essaying this book, I've read both a lot more fiction and a lot more Stephen King. I'm an avowed fan. I know King isn't on the same level as, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne (or, for that matter, in a more apt analogy, Raymond Chandler), but he also isn't the utter troglodyte that certain literary critics (I'm looking at you Harold Bloom) would have us believe him to be. He is, simply, a very (occasionally very, very) good author of popular, plot-driven genre fiction. That said, because he's so prolific, his body of work is a bit spotty--not PKD spotty but spotty nevertheless. For the most part, I've tried to avoid novels that, I feared, would bring out his worst tendencies--rote horror without any intellectual attention paid to the narrative. Thus, I've kept my distance from Firestarter, Cujo, Christine, etc. I've largely benefited from this strategy: For the most part, I have enjoyed the Stephen King novels to various degrees, finding some absolutely astonishing (IT) and others little more than an appealing diversion (Carrie). Every once in a while, though, my gut fails me. Interestingly, this situation has primarily occurred when I've tackled what seem to me (in my own un-scientific study) canonical King. The Shining bored me to tears, and, while The Stand is definitely better than that dog, it also strikes me as a rather amateur attempt at updating the Lord of the Rings-style fantasy/quest narrative. It's an admirable attempt, and it's certainly ambitious (particularly in its long middle-section, during which we're privy to the Free Zone's attempts at forming a politicized society). And its first 200 pages, during which King outlines the ravages that Captain Trips visits upon the United States, are convincingly rendered--the scenes he spins in this part are thoroughly chill-inducing. In spite of its strengths, though, The Stand is little more than an impressive failure, its shortcomings arising both from its structure (as interesting as the middle-section is, it makes the final part seem incredibly compressed and brief) and the fact that the subject matter (good vs. evil, duh) is dealt with in a more facile manner than it is in The Dark Tower series. When I started the novel, I wondered why King bothered with that much longer narrative after writing The Stand. After all, the series is, what, a similar type of narrative spread out over seven-times as many pages? By the time I finished this novel, I was of a very different opinion. The 7,000-plus pages of The Dark Tower series give the subject matter much greater depth. Am I glad I read The Stand? Very much. I think, in fact, that I would never discourage someone from reading the novel. Quite the opposite. Nevertheless, this novel strikes me as among the most overrated in King's oeuvre (almost but not quite as overrated as The Shining).(less)