First -- thanks to LT early reviewers and to the publisher for my copy. Some time ago I read this author's Lost...more"...the play is different every time."
First -- thanks to LT early reviewers and to the publisher for my copy. Some time ago I read this author's Lost City Radio, and loved it. Absolutely. Now he's back with At Night We Walk in Circles, and I loved this one even more. The blurb describing what's on the inside doesn't even come close to describing what actually happens in this character-based novel, which I would say focuses largely on identity, how past events come to be re-imagined, and the effects of blurring the line between reality and artificiality.
Without going into plot so much, (if you want more on the plot, you can read it here) the main thread of this story focuses on a journalist narrator who is trying to "decipher the mystery" around a "brief encounter" between himself and the main character Nelson, by interviewing
"his confidantes, his lovers, his classmates, people who'd seen fit to trust me, as if by sharing their various recollections, we could together accomplish something on his behalf. Re-create him. Reanimate him. Bring him back into the world."
Using these interviews and words from Nelson's journals, he tries to piece together the chain of events that started with Nelson going on a tour for a play with two other actors. The thing is though, that each person he interviews knows Nelson from a different vantage point, from different situations in which Nelson has played different parts, so that eventually we find that there are a number of different Nelsons. How then is it possible to know the true Nelson? Is it possible at all? Even he is aware of himself as an actor -- at the last drink he had with his brother he came to the realization that everyone, including himself, is always acting. When all is said and done, and as you come to the end of the story, you start to wonder if even Nelson really knows who he is any longer. What I find striking about this book is that there is so much in here about actors, their roles, performances, scripts and improvisations -- and all of this illusion works to mask what lies underneath. And the same might be said about how people of Nelson's generation in this South American country are supposed to understand themselves and their cultural past in a country where nightmarish times that once existed have now been re-imagined, where the powers that be have tried to condition people to ignore the reality underneath.
Re the title: As Henry asks earlier, when he talks to the narrator about walking in circles while in prison, "how do you set a play in a world that denies your characters any agency?" I'm not exactly sure, but I think this statement may provide some clue.
As I'm fond of saying, I'm not a lit major, so I could be totally off the mark here, but it makes sense to me. However, this book is one better experienced on your own. At Night We Walk in Circles is definitely not easygoing as far as the reading, and I know I definitely haven't skimmed the surface of the novel in this discussion. This book could be the easily be included in a literary or history course, one that spends most of the semester analyzing it. All the same, I love this writer's work and this one I can only describe as hypnotic and haunting, mixed with a touch of very dark humor at times. Highly recommended -- take it very slow, though. It's not a book you want to rush through.(less)
There's some terrible things talked about in this book, but god help me, I couldn't help but laugh.
Survivor is the story of Tender Branson, who, when...more There's some terrible things talked about in this book, but god help me, I couldn't help but laugh.
Survivor is the story of Tender Branson, who, when we first meet him, is on an airplane minus passengers and pilot, the former having been deplaned shortly after takeoff and the latter having parachuted after giving tips to Branson about how to keep the plane in the air after the pilot jumps, the amount of time before all four engines flame out, etc. Branson is the sole occupant of the plane, and is now telling his true life story to the airplane's black box which will survive the inevitable plane crash. He wants to get it clear right away that he is no murderer; getting from the beginning to the end when he finally reveals the reasons behind clearing his name is the journey the reader makes through the novel.
And what a story it is. Prior to sitting in the cockpit, Branson's adult life was one as a "full-time drudge," and part-time god." His day job was slaving away at housecleaning for wealthy employers, guided by a day planner, so that at any given hour of his workday, he and his employers know what he's doing. He's interrupted periodically by calls from his boss, who asks him questions about such topics as how to eat lobster correctly at an upcoming dinner, which forks to use, that sort of thing. Tender Branson is a whiz at home economics; he spent his life being schooled in running the perfect home. He is also, as we discover shortly after meeting him, a member of the federal Survivor Retention Program, which affords him a caseworker with whom he meets each week, a tiny apartment with a shared hallway bathroom, free government cheese and a bus pass. Branson grew up in the Nebraska church district colony of the Creedish; at age 17 he was baptized and sent out as a labor missionary. This was the common practice of the Creedish; all boys but the first-born sons (all named Adam) went out into the world to work and shared the name of Tender. The girls who were not chosen as wives for the first-born sons went out to work as well, sharing the name of Biddy. Back home, the Adams and their wives had children, children and more children, and the children spent their lives learning a particular trade. There were rules for living on the outside, though -- no dancing, no listening to broadcast media, and the biggest one of all was this one:
"If the members of the church district colony felt summoned by God, rejoice. When the apocalypse was imminent, celebrate, and all Creedish must deliver themselves unto God, amen."
While Tender Branson is cleaning grout and getting bloodstains out of leather, the word comes that the Creedish in Nebraska have been delivered; he is taken into the Survival Retention program so that he doesn't off himself. There are rashes of suicides among the survivors, and at some point, Tender becomes the only surviving member of the cult (well, as far as the authorities know), and thanks to a savvy agent whose job it is to make cult suicide look "fresh and exciting every time around," is turned into a new messiah for the people.
As Tender's lifestory is recorded for posterity, the author takes potshots at different facets of American culture that blend into Tender's experience. For example, while being refitted as a "new guru" for people who need to "make sense of their risk-free boredom of a lifestyle," he climbs the "stairmaster to heaven," and is wardrobed, told what to say, and pumped full of botox, steroids, drugs etc in order to make him media perfect. As his agent tells him,
"Nobody wants to worship you if you have the same problems, the same bad breath and messy hair and hangnails as a regular person."
Sitting in the cockpit, Branson reflects that "Reality means you live until you die...The real truth is nobody wants reality."
There are also riffs on diagnosing yourself via the DSM with the disorders of the day, things people pray for here combined into his "Book of Very Common Prayer," people being so busy with working and making money that they don't have time to enjoy their gardens, but one of the biggest ideas that comes out of this story is based on how to find salvation in the face of boredom that comes from sameness and having no control over your own life.
As I said earlier, it's not all funny, because there are some pretty tragic things described in here, but I defy anyone not to laugh while reading this book. Fantastic novel -- if you haven't read it, go and get yourself a copy soon. I love Chuck Palahniuk because he's such a great satirist, expressing questions about life in terms everyone can understand and recognize. Another one not to be missed. (less)
as always, you can read more about plot, etc. by clicking here; read on for the shorter version.
If ever there was a reason to take a break from readi...moreas always, you can read more about plot, etc. by clicking here; read on for the shorter version.
If ever there was a reason to take a break from reading what's on the New York Times bestseller list or from current fiction, this book is it. Going onto the favorites list for 2013, this novel is simply amazing. Considering it was first published in 1954, it's surprisingly current and definitely way ahead of its time. In this book, a new religion is born, and a simple message offered by a charismatic young man becomes organized, publicized, bureaucratized and ultimately bastardized before it encompasses the entire non-Islamic world. It's highly satirical, funny in a dark humor sort of way, and makes you appreciate how perceptive this author must have been, considering all of the events coming out of messianic cults over the last few decades.
Eugene Luther (which is actually Gore Vidal's real name) has been living in Egypt for the last fifty years under an assumed name. He is working on an account of "that original crisis" that sent him there, which began when he was introduced to a former embalmer by the name of John Cave ("a pair of initials calculated to amaze the innocent"). Luther meets him through Iris Mortimer, a woman to whom he was introduced by another character, Clarissa. On a visit to California, he first hears Cave speak at a small gathering, and somewhat "against his will" Luther realizes that he was totally absorbed. As Iris notes, "There's something in oneself which stirs and comes alive at his touch, through his agency." Cave's message is relatively simple: "it is good to die." This was the sole vision of John Cave, at first anyway; everything changes when Cave is put in the hands of publicist Paul Himmell and his erstwhile partner, Jungian analyst Dr. Stokharin, and Cavite Inc. is born, leading to the founding of a new religion called Cavesword.
Messiah is simply put, an outstanding novel. It seems to parallel the rise of Christianity, including the dissenters, the overlaying of old traditions to make new ones, the schisms, and mythologies that grew out of historical reality. It examines the relationship between postwar American anxieties and the need for some kind of larger-than-life solution to offer people beyond the old, superstition-based religions. It also looks at television's ability as the ultimate medium of persuasion -- considering that this book was written in 1954, that's an incredibly farsighted vision on Vidal's part. But really, the best thing about this book is the realization that comes to Luther as he comes to understand his real role vis-a-vis John Cave; sadly it's at the end so I can't really spill it. It is however, a revelation that had me thinking about this novel long after I'd finished it -- in fact, the same is true of the entire book. There is so much more to discuss, but if I wrote all I really wanted to, it would be more like a paper rather than a review. Messiah is also first book I've ever read by Gore Vidal, and I absolutely love the way he wrote -- so much so that I've already picked up two more of his books. It's as good or better than much of the fiction coming out currently, so if you're into great writing, excellent plotting and a story that causes you to sit and mull over what you've just read, you really can't make a much better choice than this one. It shouldn't be pooh-poohed just because it's nearly 60 years old ... you'd think after reading it that the author somehow had access to news of the future. Superlative. That's my final word. (less)
Let me start here with how I felt about this book when I turned the last page and closed the cover. The words "holy sh*t" came out of my mouth, and I...moreLet me start here with how I felt about this book when I turned the last page and closed the cover. The words "holy sh*t" came out of my mouth, and I was tempted to go disconnect myself from every social media site I'm on. As far as the book itself, I didn't think it was perfect; in fact, it is a bit contrived, but still a very timely read, one that gave me a case of the willies.
The story focuses on Mae Holland, who when we meet her, is working in a dead-end job until recruited by her best friend Annie, who works at a tech company called The Circle, and is in the upper echelons known as the Gang of 40, "privy to its most secret plans and data." One of the founders designed the Circle's "Unified Operating System," which
"combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy -- users' social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests."
He also invented TruYou, "one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person," where you had to use your real name, which "tied to your credit cards, your bank," and your personal identity, basically did away with online anonymity. TruYou is presented as a system beneficial to the customer, since he/she wouldn't have to remember multiple user names, multiple passwords, etc. In fact, everything that the company does is "beneficial" in some way, for example, microchips embedded in bone to prevent kidnappings or to easily locate missing children, other measures designed to prevent crimes, and technologies to make everyone and everything accountable via transparency provided by built-in cameras. And all the while, The Circle monitors everything that's going on, boosting the slogan "All that happens must be known." Its point of view is that privacy begets secrets, secrets beget lies, lies beget impropriety, and that the only answer is to be completely open about everything. In short, "If you aren't transparent, what are you hiding?"
As Mae gets into her job, and gets sucked into the community aspect of the company, she not only gets swept up in all of The Circle's potential, but also develops her own unflinching desire for success, doing all that she can to make herself well known. Soon enough she quickly becomes a rising star with designs on getting into the top ranks.
If this book were only about Mae and her ambition, well, that story's been done already, but The Circle offers a look at how promises of utopia can easily turn into a nightmare. The company has designs on making things so that eventually "all government and all life" would be "channeled through one network," with no escape from being "tracked, cradle to grave." In the world of The Circle, there will be no protection -- the by-then transparent politicians who "owe their reputations" to this company could be easily ruined by getting involved against it.
While I don't think this book is so great on character development or prose, it made me stop several times while reading to think about what I'd just read. I spent a lot more time thinking about it when I was finished, mainly about what the repercussions could be if technology induces us to give over all of our private information to one single entity that controls and monitors all information flow and all of our personal activities, vs the benefits that the technologies might offer. Yes, this book is didactic, and yes, there's zero subtlety here in terms of the message that is meant to come across, but it is definitely a thought provoker.
This book has gotten incredibly mixed reviews, so it is one that should be judged not by other-reader opinion, but by your own reading of it. I've seen everything from "this book is utter crap" to someone calling it essential reading, so the range of reader response is huge. In my opinion, it's a very timely book to be reading right now, and if it gives you a case of the willies, it's because the future described in here should scare the crap out of you. (less)
On the favorites list for 2013 this one goes. 4.25 stars.
Believe it or not, this is the short version of my thoughts on this book; a longer one can be...moreOn the favorites list for 2013 this one goes. 4.25 stars.
Believe it or not, this is the short version of my thoughts on this book; a longer one can be found here.
Just very briefly, because this book is so difficult to summarize and because it's a book a person should really read for him/herself, the novel examines three generations of the family and the legacy of Rose Angrush Zimmer, Jewish, single mom, community-minded activist and ardent Communist, the consummate “Party-made New Woman, unforgiving in her nature and intoxicating in her demands, her abrupt swerves and violent exclusions.” It spans several decades, moving through the history of various radical movements and changing faces of ideologies, all the while building on each generation, their worldviews and their reactions to what's happening in their world. It's also a novel examining relationships, especially, but definitely not limited to, the one between Rose and her daughter Miriam. There are three generations at the heart of this book, but it is also peopled with a variety of other colorful characters.
Rose Zimmer, who at the beginning of the novel is being tossed out of the Communist Party for having slept with a black detective who lives in her neighborhood of Sunnyside Gardens, is the mother of Miriam, who quits college and Rose after discovering the Greenwich Village scene at seventeen. She's also an activist in her own right, and tries hard "not-to-be-Rose." While Miriam tries to do her own thing, she's still deep down very much Rose's daughter; she also loves her. It's an odd relationship -- she hates Rose, yet she loves her, for example, in
“the ceaseless arrangement of mother and daughter coiled in fury at each other yet still bulwarked together inside this apartment against the prospect of anything and anyone else outside.”
Miriam marries Tommy Gogan, a staunch pacifist and Irish folk singer who with his brothers plays the club scene; she changes his life when she convinces him that he needs to go solo and write more political songs, starting with catching the life stories of the downtrodden in his music. Together they live in a commune housed in a brownstone, participate all the sit-ins, boycotts and protests of their era, and have a son, Sergius, who they send to a Quaker school in Pennsylvania where he lives a more quiet life and learns the guitar. His birthright, as the author notes, is "full hippie and half secular Jew." When Sergius is older, he looks to Cicero Lookins, a protégé of Rose, a "child-prisoner of her stewardship," who is trying to exorcise her from his mind as well, a college professor and son of the black policeman Rose had slept with in the 1950s. Sergius wants to connect with his now-dead mother, whom he last saw as a little boy, by trying to find out about her from people who knew her. Woven in and out of their stories are the stories of others in their respective orbits, as well as a look at a New York City over the decades.
I absolutely loved this book, and from a casual reader's perspective, the only negative thing I really have to say about it is that while I enjoyed how the author just lets loose sometimes and allows his characters their respective spaces to muse and ponder, sometimes these parts get boggy and detract from the topic at hand. Otherwise, this is truly one of the best novels I've read this year. I loved the characters, the ideological backdrop, the mother-daughter struggles, but most especially I loved watching the movement of history and change. There's so much in this book that as I noted, it's difficult to summarize or to even provide a feel for what you might expect here - so it's a book best experienced rather than read about. It's also a novel that is getting mixed reviews -- but a review, no matter who writes it, is a matter of opinion, and mine is that it is most incredible. Highly recommended. (less)
Well, here's another book for which I'm not the right audience, so I'm not going to give it a star rating as it seems unfair to do so. You can read th...moreWell, here's another book for which I'm not the right audience, so I'm not going to give it a star rating as it seems unfair to do so. You can read the chatty version here, or browse through the shorter one below.
There are two different time periods at work in Letters From Skye: first, from 1912 to shortly after WWI; second, 1940. The time periods are interwoven -- the earliest letters and correspondence are between the two main characters David and Elspeth; the later ones are between Elspeth's daughter Margaret and others. In terms of how to describe it, I'd say that the book is probably most suited to romance readers, although the marketing blurb on the back of my book says it was being promoted to historical fiction readers as well. Not that I'm sexist or anything, but imho, Letters From Sky falls easily within the category of women's fiction, and while I'm not a fan of either romance or women's fiction, it's a light and easy summer read which I'm sure will sell very well to those who like that genre.
The story begins in 1912, when David, a young college student in Illinois, writes a letter to poet Elspeth Dunn to express his admiration for her recently-published book of poems. Elspeth writes back to thank him, and those two letters begin a correspondence that lasts for years. As their writing relationship develops, eventually the letters turn into something more, and with David in Europe, eventually plans to meet up are in the works. In 1940, Margaret, who works to help evacuate wartime children to safety, keeps a running correspondence with her boyfriend Paul and with her mother, who cautions her against getting too close to Paul during the war. The two threads merge when Margaret finds one of her mother's old letters, addressed to someone named "Sue;" shortly afterwards, Elspeth disappears without a word. Her absence prompts Margaret begins another correspondence to find out about her mother's early life, thinking that perhaps it holds a clue as to how to find her.
Letters From Skye is getting really high ratings and rave reader reviews, but as I noted, I'm not the best audience for this one. While I liked the epistolary format and can personally relate to a long-distance relationship with lots of correspondence, a few things niggled: first, while David, Elspeth and Margaret take center stage, there were other characters whose contributions to the story seemed just as important; here they have only more or less walk-on parts. Second, thinking of the time period in which the letters between Elspeth and David is set, I had a very hard time imagining some of these conversations taking place in 1912. It also seems like Elspeth's character started out strong, as someone feisty and sure of herself, but as time went on, she became more overwrought and simpering, which just plain drove me crazy. Sadly, I really never got that sense of place that transported me there. And as much as I love historical fiction, this one leaned heavier on the romance -- while there are a few decent descriptions of David's time as an ambulance driver during the war, there just isn't that much history incorporated into the story.
This one's more for readers of women's fiction and romantic novels, which I most definitely am not, so I'll recommend it to that group of readers. It's an easy, light summer read, though, so if that's what you're looking for, you'll definitely find it in this novel.