Thursday, July 30, 2009

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up.

At such moments I tried to elevate myself. I would touch the turban I had made with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S HAT!"

I would pat my pants and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S ATTIRE!"

I would point to Richard Parker and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S CAT!"

I would point to the lifeboat and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S ARK!"

I would spread my hands wide and say aloud, "THESE ARE GOD'S WIDE ACRES!"

I would point at the sky and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S EAR!"

And in this way I would remind myself of creation and of my place in it.

But God's hat was always unraveling. God's pants were falling apart. God's cat was a constant danger. God's ark was a jail. God's wide acres were slowly killing me. God's ear didn't seem to be listening.

Here is one of those books I had sort of resisted reading just because they're so popular. I'm more cynical than I care to admit, I suppose, and I usually assume the worst about super-popular things simply because they're so popular, especially when there is a vocal minority who say that thing is awful (and isn't there always?). But I won this copy from Amanda (thanks Amanda!) who didn't care for the book, and so I decided to give it a chance. As is usually the case, I found that neither is the book as awesome as its supporters would say, but neither is it horrible. Life of Pi is a good book with some substantial flaws.

On one hand, it's a survival story that makes Hatchet look like a camping trip. Briefly (because I know you know about it), it's about young Pi Patel, who is on the way to Canada from India with his zookeeping family and a bunch of animals when the boat sinks, leaving him, a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker in a lifeboat together. The zebra, orangutan, and hyena are quickly dispatched but Pi spends months at sea trying to train Richard Parker to respect him as the alpha male on the boat and ensure the survival of them both.

This section of the book is really quite gripping; it's no small task to make being stuck in a lifeboat for months a good tale, tiger or no tiger. The thing about being stuck at sea is that very little happens. Martel does a great job of getting us to really inhabit Patel's skin, dealing with the incredible burden of survival while struggling with the notion that, in all likelihood, none of his family survived.

Unfortunately, I think this is one of the rare species of book that works better as an adventurous yarn than a spiritual statement. The problem is that the parts of the book that speak to Pi's spirituality are the thinnest parts of the book. Martel paints him as a lover of God who, back home in India, tries to become simultaneously a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. This leads to some pretty out-of-place comedy when his three spiritual teachers meet and realize what's been going on, like in a sitcom when the main character's three girlfriends accidentally end up in the same place at the same time.

But the worst part is the end--and here I'll add the SPOILER ALERT for those who haven't read it--which disappointed me, though Jim loved it. In fact, he loved exactly what I disliked about it: in the book's final chapters, Pi is pressed by interrogators from the shipping company to tell what "really happened." Pi changes his story to one where he and his mother were trapped in the lifeboat with a murderous Frenchman and others. The interrogators quickly discover that all the characters in this second story correspond with the animals from the first (and Pi with Richard Parker, which is admittedly a nice touch), and ask Pi why he lied. Pi's excuse is that the first story is better, and yet retains the truth of the second. The idea here is that Pi's story is like the three different stories of God in the three religions he follows; none are quite truthful but they all represent the fundamental truth of God's benevolence.

I have several issues with this. The first is that, really, is this much better than the old film trope where the character wakes up to find out it was all a dream? Honestly, I think I'm right to feel a little cheated. Secondly, the second story that Pi tells is pretty horrifying, and would have made a good story in his own right. I don't think the interrogators' agreement that the first story is "better" makes sense. Better how? And why? Because it has animals?

Thirdly, there is nothing particularly reflective about this kind of spirituality. I run the risk of offending here, so I'll tread lightly. In her post, Amanda remarks that she didn't like what Pi has to say about agnostics. I honestly don't recall what Pi says about them, so I reserve judgement--but isn't what Pi is espousing to us a sort of agnosticism? The assertion that we understand fundamental truths about God through a number of colorful stories leaves what we know, by nature, very vague. Nor does it address the parts of those religions which directly contradict each other (how, for instance, do we reconcile a monotheistic and a polytheistic religion?). This is exactly the reason that Pi's words about God come across so thin--they are generally lacking in substance. One might respond that one thing we learn about God is He is (They are?) fundamentally mysterious, yet there is nothing mysterious about the supposed "true" story about Pi's journey. We are supposed to accept that the story with the tiger is better, because it is more whimsical perhaps, and less cruel, but I think that perhaps this raises parallels that Martel does not want to raise.

I feel as if I am in the minority in this, when you average in Carlton and Brent, so I'd love to hear your thoughts. However, I will restate that I did like the book, though I feel like this flaw prevented me from really thinking highly of it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

The Percy Jackson series was a little hit-and-miss for me. The first book was nearly pitch perfect. It was a fast-paced adventure that managed to be inventive and funny and have interesting characters. With each successive book the story moves further and further into the world of the gods. While this seems like a very logical move storywise, it is why I didn't enjoy the next four books as much as I expect I would.

Part of the charm of the first book was the interaction between the world of the gods and the "real world" or world of mortals. That Percy had one foot firmly in each world made for funny situations. This lessens after the first book.

The Last Olympian pits Percy and the forces of good, which include most of the gods and many of the demigods against the Chronos and his forces, which include many of the lesser gods and also a large number of demigods. The final showdown takes place on the streets of New York City.

The Percy Jackson series started off with a bang. The Lightning Thief was excellent, but the rest of the books were not nearly as good. All in all, the series was just okay. It fell way short of His Dark Materials and Harry Potter.

I saw the teaser for The Lightning Thief before the latest Harry Potter movie. It looked cool. I expect that the movies will do well.

My review of The Lightning Thief (Book One)
My review of The Sea of Monsters (Book Two)
My review of The Titan's Curse (Book Three)
My review of The Battle of the Labyrinth (Book Four)

More mini-reviews + one that got a little out-of-hand

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Kavalier & Clay tells the story of two Jewish cousins in 1940s Manhattan and their rise to the top of the Comic book industry. Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Pargue, is the artist while Sammy Clay provides the storylines. Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer Prize and I understand why. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The writing is sharp and witty and the story moves a long nicely. I'm not a comic book fan, myself, but you walk away from the story with an idea of how comics developed from glorified magazine advertising into the multi-million industry that Hollywood has taken such a shine to. Its a bit thick at 650 pages but I would recommend The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to anyone.

The Summer of '49 by David Halberstram

To borrow some baseball terminology (as Halberstram did so often it became cheesy), this book was right in my wheelhouse. It's about three things that I really love: Is it about baseball? Check. Is it about the New York Yankees? Check. Is it about the New York Yankees beating the Boston Red Sawks? Check. Really as far as it goes for me... That's all I need from a book. If you're not a big baseball/Yankees/sawks fan than I don't know if I'd recommend this to you. The writing is a little corny. Actually it's a lot corny. But then I guess the 40s were kind of a corny time.

Air Force One is Haunted by Robert Sterling

Okay this book was just out of control remix. I found it in a bin of English language books in Paris for 2 Euro and I had to pick it up because I thought it was the best title I've ever seen (that KILLS Snakes on a Plane). As soon as I started reading it I decided to mark passages with ridiculous &%$@ and terrible writing. If I posted every one of those passages in here it'd be by far the longest post in this blog's history. The hits just kept coming. First off here's what's written on the back;

---AT HOME,---
the most devastating depression since the 30s has stricken the nation.
the Soviets have signed a nonagression pact with China and now move toward the final showdown with America.
---IN SPACE,---
The United States has perfected the ultimate anti-missile defense system.

With a devastating first strike against Russia, President Jeremy Haines can end all his troubles... Or can he?

Aboard Air Force One, the President receives his answer - from the living apparation of another President, dead many years. Complete with his famous laugh and steel crutch. A man for all crises, especially depressions and world wars.

So essentially the President can wipe out the Russians but he has to decide if he wants to kill a bunch of innocents. So FDR's ghost starts visiting him on Air Force One for some reason. He's very helpful. The president sees a female psychiatrist. She's hot. They fall in love and eventually bang. This gross breach of doctor-patient decorum is addressed for like 3 lines and then never brought up again. Oh yeah, turns out the protagonist decides NOT to vaporize a couple million Rooskies and comes up with a clever ploy to secure peace. Also for some reason FDR tries to talk the President into melting Asia into a big piece of glass. No real explanation for that either. Love it.

As soon as I started the book I knew the first chapter was going to start with the President telling someone (turned out to be a shrink) that he was seeing a ghost. But they wouldn't name the ghost... Not just yet. And then the last line of the chapter would be something like... "What does the ghost looke like?" "You're not gonna believe this... But it's Franklin Delano Roosevelt,"

That's almost word for word what happened. This book has so many god-damned gems I don't even know where to start. But here's two or three that I can't help but post:

Washington observers, surprised at Collison's open insubordination, were stunned at the President's Milquetoast reaction. "Haines carried turning the other cheek too far," the Washington Post grieved. There is growing belief in world capitals, including America's, that Jeremy Haines has lost his ability and even his will to lead. If this is true, Franklin Delano Roosevelt must be turning over in his grave.

This one wasn't even in the book, it was in the prologue! We're only on page xv and it's already laughable! This next one is describing McNulty, the hard-nosed but loveable Secret Service agent, outside of the President's chambers after FDR's first visit.

...Or he was talking to someone else just before Cardella checked and didn't want to tell the pilot who it was. That had to be it... Excpt that his Irish intuition kept telling him something was wrong.

Irish intuition? Is that like Spidey-sense?

The Speaker chuckled, "I'll admit that most Congressman couldn't keep a secret longer than a nympho can hang onto her virginity, but that doesn't include yours truly...

Hahahahahahaha. Okay last one I promise (I'm sorry but I literally have over 50 passages like this marked and it's so hard to pick and choose).

'Good luck, and keep me informed,' Rafferty said. But for a long time after Duane Collison left, the Speaker of the House sat in his study, brooding. In the bowels of his conscience was a gnawing ulcer of doubt.

Yup. Final notes:

1) I don't think Robert Serling knows what ubiquitous means.
2) Wasn't TR the Roosevelt that said 'Bully?' Because FDRs ghost says it about 10 times in here and it'd be brilliant if Serling screwed the pooch on that one too.
3) If you can get your hands on this book, do it. I read it in like 3 hours and it was about as much fun as I've ever had with a book. It was like reading a Nicolas Cage film.

Sorry - I have to include this. This was on the page following the novel's wonderous finish:

- Must reading for all fans of the star of Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit -
BURT REYNOLDS: An Unauthorized Biography by Sylvia Safran Resnick
"No respectable Burt Reynolds fan should miss it" - Asbury Park Press
"A lot of goodies that manage to show some insight of the man behind the hunk." - Fresno Bee


Monday, July 20, 2009

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen


The word came. I would have been destroyed and torn and smashed. Driven into the rocks and destroyed.

Luck, he thought. I have luck, I had good luck there. But he knew that he was wrong. If he had had good luck his parents wouldn't have divorced because of the Secret and he wouldn't have been flying with a pilot who had a heart attack and he wouldn't be here where he had to have good luck to keep from being destroyed.

If you keep walking back from good luck, he thought, you'll come to bad luck.

I wanted to read Hatchet because I was a big fan of Dogsong, which I thought stood out as one of the best pieces of YA fiction I'd ever read. Hatchet is cut much from the same cloth: it is essentially about a boy having to survive in the wilderness, and through that survival he comes to what I suppose you could call manhood, or at least a greater understanding of himself and his world.

In Dogsong, the main character was trying to recover a way of life lost to his Eskimo kin; here in Hatchet, survival is an unwelcome necessity: Brian Robeson is on his way to visit his father in the Canadian oil fields when the pilot of the single-engine plane carrying him has a heart attack and Brian is forced to land the plane in a lake. All Brian has with him is a hatchet, with his mother--quite fortuitously, I might add--gave to him for his birthday. He also carries with him, in the metaphorical sense, a Terrible Secret that actually turns out to be a Pretty Banal Secret: He saw his mom kissing another man, which he knows (but his father does not) is the reason for his parents' impending divorce.

That causes him some added discomfort at the lake, but soon it fades into the background as Brian is forced to learn how to survive on his own--he quickly figures out how to forage for berries, and through a long, painstaking, incremental process figures out how to use the hatchet to build shelter, start a fire, catch and cook food. By the end of his ordeal, which lasts for a couple of months, Brian is a tanned, fit survival expert. It's like Survivor Man for the tween set.

There was a mystical element to Dogsong that helped it transcend its genre; Hatchet could have used something similar. What Paulsen accomplishes--a gripping YA book almost completely without dialogue--is arresting enough, but it seems awfully plain in the other novel's shadow. Its most glaring flaw is the awful subplot about Brian's parents and their divorce, which is completely useless, wisely dropped early on, and never resolved--only briefly referenced in the postscript. Still, it has a pretty solid pedigree as a YA book; but as I told Brent, don't waste your time if you haven't read Dogsong, which is its superior in every way.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Associate by John Grisham

“Duquesne University. Five years ago. Drunk frat boys and a girl.”
Kyle’s body and mind had different reactions. His body conceded— a quick slump of the shoulders, a slight gasp, a noticeable jerk in the legs. But his mind fought back instantly. “That’s bullshit!” he said, then spat on the sidewalk. “I’ve already been through this. Nothing happened and you know it.”
There was a long pause as Ginyard continued to stare down the street while Plant watched their subject’s every move. Kyle’s mind was spinning. Why was the FBI involved in an alleged state crime? In second-year Criminal Procedure they had studied the new laws regarding FBI interrogation. It was now an indictable offense to simply lie to an agent in this very situation. Should he shut up? Should he call his father? No, under no circumstances would he call his father.
Ginyard turned, took three steps closer, clenched his jaw like a bad actor, and tried to hiss his tough- guy words. “Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. McAvoy, because I’m freezing. There’s an indictment out of Pittsburgh, okay. Rape. If you want to play the hard-ass smart-ass brilliant law student and run get a lawyer, or even call your old man, then the indictment comes down tomorrow and the life you have planned is pretty much shot to shit. However, if you give us ten minutes of your valuable time, right now, in the sandwich shop around the corner, then the indictment will be put on hold, if not forgotten altogether.”

This weekend, while visiting with family in Charlottesville, I picked up local author John Grisham's latest legal thriller off my grandma's shelf. Three-and-a-half hours later, I was done with my first ever Grisham novel. It was short and exciting, pretty much all I was expecting.

In The Associate, Kyle is a brilliant law student headed for a public-interest job when a secretive fellow named Bennie approaches him with a threat. Take a job at Scully, a prestigious firm defending a defense contracter in a top-secret case or face having a video leaked that connects Kyle to a possible rape that occurred five years ago. Kyle takes the job and becomes an associate at the largest law firm in the world, the fictional Scully, something and something. He is introduced to the world of Document Review and billable hours immediately, and also the world of billing a client for black cars, $2400 dinners, and 2500 hours a year (that's 50/week not counting non-billable time spent in the office and vacations). The young associates are told that the divorce rate for their "class" is 70% and that only ten percent will ever make partner. The rest would burn out way earlier or be asked to leave the firm.

In between sticking it to corporate clients and hating life, Kyle also has super fun biweekly meetings with Bennie in which the latter threatens Kyle with the video unless he ratchets up the sketchiness and starts getting B what he wants: top-secret shit. Meanwhile, Kyle's phone, car and home are all wire-tapped so he has to go out of his way to meet with old fraternity brothers also implicated in the video. One of them, fresh off rehab, feels so guilty about the issue that he tells Kyle he's going to apologize to the girl (who has a lawyer and is amping for a criminal or civil case) - only to wind up shot to death in an interstate restroom, victim of Bennie's associates who want him to be quiet (or their deal with Kyle is up).

Kyle, realizing how serious the situation is -blackmail, extortion, murder - contacts an attorney of his own, who hears his story and decides to involve the FBI to catch Bennie et. al. They set up an elaborate sting that involves Kyle going along with the plans to steal corporate secrets, and offering the girl from the video a hefty sum to drop the matter. With his incentive to work for Bennie gone, Kyle cooperates with the FBI to catch Bennie...but the plan fails and B escapes. The books ends when Kyle has quit the big firm and declined a position in the federal witness protection program, instead choosing to open a small-town law firm with his dad. Aw.

This book has been billed as a return to formula for John Grisham, the sort of tight legal thriller that made him famous (interesting tidbit: my grandma has lived in Charlottesville since forever and says of the Grishams, who moved there in the 1990s: "I have never heard anybody say anything ugly about that family. They are good people." So there's that too.) I have to say, I can definitely see why the formula works: this book was a great, quick summer read that had just enough substance to keep me interested.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by JD Salinger

The first night, just this last week, that I felt quite hale and bullish enough to go back to work on this Introduction, I found that I'd lost not my afflatus but but my wherewithal to continue to write about Seymour. He'd grown too much while I was away. It was hardly credible. From the manageable giant he had been before I got sick, he had shot up, in nine short weeks, into the most familiar human being of my life, the one person who was always much, much too large to fit on ordinary typewriter paper--any typewriter paper of mine, anyway.

Leave it to Salinger to put these two works together--works that, like Franny and Zooey, form two halves of something much more cohesive--and leave the one called "Introduction" for last. There is a great irony to that title, not only because this is the last book-length piece Salinger published, but by the time the narrator of Seymour: An Introduction sits down and begins to write, Seymour has already been deceased for decades.

Both of these novellas are about Seymour from the perspective of his brother, Buddy, and both are marked by Seymour's absence. In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Buddy recalls taking leave from the army to attend Seymour's wedding in New York, but Seymour never arrives and somehow Buddy gets trapped in a car with the Matron of Honor and other members of the bride's wedding party, most of whom have a very poor opinion of the absent Seymour. Seymour: An Introduction is a more comprehensive treatise on Seymour, covering only the early parts of his life and written well after Seymour's suicide.

In a manner of speaking, Seymour's presence and absence define much of Salinger's works about the Glass family: He appears in two works, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which recounts his suicide, and "Hapworth 16, 1924," a late Salinger novella written from a young Seymour's perspective. And yet, he is the subject of these two novellas, and casts a long shadow in death over the events of Franny and Zooey; in Introduction, it is suggested that Buddy is the author of Catcher in the Rye, which casts the relationship between Holden Caulfield and his dead brother Allie in a new light.

These two novellas make it clear that Buddy is somewhat in awe of his brother. Though all the Glass siblings are invariably intelligent--one recurring references in the books is to a radio roundtable show, "It's a Wise Child," in which they all took part as children--Seymour occupies a singular place. Buddy describes him as a poet, sometimes literally, but often simply possessing of a poet's soul, deeply wise in the manner of Zen Buddhists. The title of the first novella comes from a line in Sappho, which Buddy's sister Boo Boo leaves in a note for Seymour on his wedding day:

Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man.

Taller than a tall man--this describes Seymour perfectly, not just on his wedding day, but as the figure which towers over all of the other Glass siblings as the pinnacle of wisdom, kindness, and self-sacrifice. In Introduction Buddy is continuously apologizing for his efforts, as a writer, to place himself in the same spotlight, as his brother, but there are conflicting desires here: One, to step out of the way and let the world see Seymour for the genius that Buddy believes he is, and two, to be recognized in the same way. Buddy reprints a letter Seymour wrote to him in which Seymour affirms their connectedness:

The membrane is so thin between us. Is it so important for us to keep in mind which is whose? That time two summers ago when I was out so long, I was able to trace that you and Z[ooey] and I have been brothers for no fewer than four incarnations, maybe more. Is there no beauty in that? For us, doesn't each of our individualities begin right at the point where we own up to our extremely close connections and accept the inevitability of borrowing one another's jokes, talents, idiocies? You notice I don't include neckties. I think Buddy's neckties are Buddy's neckties, but they are a pleasure to borrow without permission.

There is a valid temptation here, I think, to see Seymour and Buddy as facets of Salinger himself--on one side, the transcendent philosopher, and on the other, the very human writer. Perhaps there is a Buddhist-like attempt here to separate the lofty from the ordinary, and throw the ordinary away, but the very nature of these novellas affirms that the two are inextricably connected. The question that remains is why Seymour, whom Salinger paints as brimming over with joy, wisdom, and kindness, chose to commit suicide. I often think that the answer to that question, if we could find it, might provide some sort of answer to the question of why Salinger has silenced himself for the past fifty years.

In any case, I think that Seymour: An Introduction might be the best thing that Salinger ever put out. It's written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion, not like Joyce, but as close to stream-of-consciousness as a writer as mannered and minimalist as Salinger could achieve. I recommend it highly.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Could a man ride home in the rear smoker, primly adjusting his pants at the knees to protect their crease and rattling his evening paper into a narrow panel to give his neighbor elbow room? Could a man sit meekly massaging his headache and allowing himself to be surrounded by the chatter of beaten, amiable husks of men who sat and swayed and played bridge in a stagnant smell of newsprint and tobacco and bad breath and overheated radiators?

Hell, no. The way for a man to ride was erect and out in the open, out in the loud iron passageway where the wind whipped his necktie, standing with his feet set wide apart on the shuddering, clangoring floor-plates, taking deep pulls from a pinched cigarette until its burning end was a needle of fire and quivering paper ash and then snapping it straight as a bullet into the roaring speed of the roadbed, while the suburban towns wheeled slowly along the pink and gray dust of seven o'clock. And when he came to his own station the way for a man to alight was to swing down the iron steps and leap before the train had stopped, to land running and slow down to an easy, athletic stride as he made for his parked automobile.

Revolutionary Road
is a desperately sad book, and sadder for its realism: Here is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young, good-looking couple with small children living a plain life in the Connecticut suburbs outside of New York City. Frank and April are bright and well-educated, and both yearn for something more than a life as excruciatingly ordinary as the one they have, and rightfully so: Yates' depiction of the suburbs is almost paralyzing in its dullness. And yet at the same time, Frank and April are so cavalier and spiteful about their surroundings, even when trying not to be, they come across childish, and their aspirations lead them to quarrel and ultimately into tragedy.

What is horrifying about Revolutionary Road is that Frank and April are more everyman and everywoman than they suspect; or at the very least everyman-or-woman-who-might-pick-up-this-novel. Their suspicions of suburban life walk a narrow line between legitimacy and egoism, falling alternately into one realm or the other and exposing how similar the two can be. To indict Frank and April is to indict anyone who has entertained, as Frank and April do, the notion of pulling up stakes and moving to Europe (and admit it--haven't you?).

Frank and April decide to do exactly that, jobs and children be damned, and we must wonder whether they would have gone through with it if not for a single event that complicates things mightily (and which I shall not reveal). The scuttling of this plan leads to the widening of the already apparent rift between the two, to the escapism of adultery, and finally serves to cast a light on the futility, emptiness, and frustration that characterize suburban life. The final act is unbearably gruesome, but grimly appropriate.

I didn't love Revolutionary Road; it was too bleak for me. I can handle a book like The Road, which is horrifying and grotesque but takes place in a world that seems far removed from our own, but the world which we do inhabit has only become more like Revolutionary Road in the past fifty years. Yikes.

N.B.: Christopher Hitchens' recent review for the Atlantic Monthly is excellent.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley

The first thing you must know about writing is that it is something you must do every day-- every morning or every night, whatever time it is you have. Ideally, the time you decide on is also the time you do your best work.

This Year Write Your Novel was a wedding gift to me from Carlton, who was under the impression that this was a new, more abstract Easy Rawlins novel. After reading the book once and being completely confused about the plot, I tried again and realized that it works best as an instructional book rather than a traditional narrative.

The book exists in some writing netherworld between The Elements of Style and something like Bird by Bird, but is probably closer to the former then the latter. The bulk of the book, such as it is, is mostly concerned with fairly basic ideas, like “write every day” and “write honestly.” The instruction is clearly written and enjoyable to read, and Mosley has a distinctive voice even in this setting, coming across as a gruff, grandfatherly figure who's been around the block a few times.

There are pros and cons to Mosley's approach. On the one hand, the book is slim and quite readable, and it inspired me to begin a couple writing projects I've been putting off. On the other, there isn't much here that anyone who's read a couple other good writing books doesn't already know. Ultimately, This Year is most suited for brand new writers who have no idea where to start, or experienced writers who just need a kick in the pants. I'm the latter, so it was worth it for me.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

"I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

Last year, after several aborted attempts, I finally made it through Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. It took some doing, but by the time I finished it, I was really enjoying Faulkner's mastery of the stream-of-consciousness style and especially his lyrical writing. I intended to follow up with The Sound and the Fury, but then I read Chris's review and, since it sounded approximately 10x more difficult than As I Lay Dying, I wussed out... until now.

The Sound and the Fury may be Faulkner's best known and most critically acclaimed work, and also his most complex, although this is coming before I've read Absolom Absolom. It follows one family, the Compsons, over about a decade. The actual storyline is a dark southern Gothic tale of family, betrayal, incest, and a mentally retarded manchild. So it's basically Anne of Green Gables.

The actual narrative is tough to summarize, and at some points, even to follow--I found out upon reading chapter summaries that I'd completely missed a major event; the book is really more about the characters and the way thy see and interact with one another than a storyline. Each section of the book is narrated by a different character, except the last which has an omniscient third-person narrator. The first section is narrated by Benjy, the aforementioned manchild who has no sense of time or place and whose narration skips from the past to the future without warning. The second is narrated by Quentin Compson, the neurotic, intelligent younger brother, and the third by Jason Compson, the cruel, cynical eldest child who takes an iron fist control over the family after the death of the father. Tying all these disparate narrators together is the enigmatic figure of Caddie Compson. Even with three different perspectives on her, we never get a firm grasp on what she actually is. To Quentin, she represents his repressed incestuous thoughts, but also his need for security and to protect. To Benjy, she is his only steady link to the real, linear world. To Jason, she is a thankless whore whose only contribution to the family was Quentin II, her illegitimate child and the bane of Jason's existence.

The Sound and the Fury is a tough book, both narratively and thematically. The Compson family and their neuroses are fully explored and the story itself is both intense and moving, but the actual heft of the book eludes me. At a base level, it seems to be about family and what constitutes it. Benjy, for example, is a much better brother to Caddie than Jason, and Dilsey, the Compsons' slave, is more of a mother to all the children than their own biological mother. I can't help but feel there's a lot that I'm missing here. Unlike Chris, I did feel myself connected to this band of misfits, but much like Benjy, I can't quite tie it all together.

I'm not sure my review makes it clear how much I enjoyed this book, but I thought it was great, and even enjoyed the Benjy section, which a lot of readers find offputting. Faulkner is a master stylist, and it was worth reading just for that, even if I can't quite figure it all out.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

My first glance round me, as the man opened the door, disclosed a well-furnished breakfast-table, standing in the middle of a long room, with many windows in it. I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

The hardest types of books to write reviews for are not the complex, thematically deep ones where the biggest problem is how to reduce the book into 500 words and do it justice. Nor are they the godawful disappointments, which at least lend themselves to kvetching, always a treat for the vitriolic reviewer. No, the most difficult is the excellent book damned with the faint praise of "Good for what is is"; the well-charactered, well-plotted page turner, worthy of ink and praise but doesn't lend itself to much analysis. For me, The Woman in White was exactly that sort of book.

Mild Spoilers Follow.

The story, told in a bastardized epistolatory format by way of the diaries, letters, etc. of several different narrators, is complex and intricately plotted. Walter Hartright, a young art teacher, is commissioned to teach two sisters, Marian and Laura Halcombe, on the secluded Cumberland estate. On his way to the estate, he unwittingly aids the titular Woman, Anne Cathrick, who has recently escaped a mental institution. Upon finally arriving at Cumberland, he falls in love with Laura, and becomes close friends with Marian, her older and less attractive older sister. He leaves the position and the estate after learning that Laura is engaged to the clearly skeevy landowner, Sir Percival Glide. Laura is married and then the real story begins, as Glide and his mysterious friend Count Fosco set into motion a complicated plan to steal Laura's money and end the threat posed to them by the enigmatic Anne Catherick.

Spoilers End Here.

From my opening paragraph and the plot summary, I don't want to give the idea that The Woman in White isn't a good book. It is, in fact, one of the best mystery/suspense novels I have ever read. James Patterson could learn something about crafting complex, believable plots, and almost anyone could benefit from Collins' tight, frequently witty prose. The characters are also well-formed, two in particular. Marian Halcombe may be one of the earliest feminist characters in literature, consistently besting the men in the story in both emotional control and logical thinking. Count Fosco is also very well drawn, a gentleman control-freak who seems to know everything that happens around him and has an almost romantic attachment to Marian.

Like I said, I don't really know what to say about this book. There's not a lot of food for thought her besides trying to suss out the expertly-paced twists and turns, and it' probably not goig to change your life. But it's enjoyable, it tells a good story, and I'm glad I read it. Sometimes, that's more than enough.

A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants.


I have mixed feelings on One Hundred Years of Solitude in the sense that if I'd never have heard about this book before reading it, I would have completely loved it. And thats not to say I didn't love it, but after hearing tons of people tell me it's the best book written in the past 50 years and how it changed their lives and how it 'should be required reading for the entire human race' I felt a little underwhelmed. Its a good novel. Excellently written with an interesting story... But what's so earth-shattering about it? It just struck me as a good read with very little message behind it.

I'll start off with what I enjoyed about the book. I loved a lot of the characters: Ursula, Jose Arcadio, Aureliano (first iterations all) especially. I specifically remember one beautiful passage about Ursula losing her eyesight but learning to interact with the world in other ways. Marquez's writing style is very readable. In a lot of ways, the structure and writing of One Hundred Years... reminded me of McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Long run-on sentences where the most surreal and surprising events unfold in the most mundane language. Its one of those books where you'll be reading a description of an old faded mural, and then in one of the sentences mid-paragraph a main character gets eviscerated and you do a sort of double-take and have to go back and make sure what happened really just happened. I also liked the cyclical nature of the story. You follow 7 generations of Buendias over the course of a century and yet you find the same little vignettes playing themselves out over and over.

That sort of leads me to one of the main problems I have with the novel. Marquez insists on beating you over the head with explicit explication of his themes instead of just allowing the reader to recognize them organically. I dont need the narrator to tell me that the Buendia family is living life in a circle. I'll recognize that after the 4th Aureliano succumbs to the same fate as his great-grandfather. I guess I have the same problem with Spanish films like Pan's Labyrinth or The Orphanage where the director/writer feels the need to jam this absurd, out-of-place happy ending down our throat after 100 minutes of nearly perfect film-making. I mean, give the reader/viewer some credit. Most of us are intelligent enough, we can hash this stuff out on our own. Me and Chris always argue about that, but then Chris is a putz.

Highlights: Gorgeous imagery, deep characterization, nearly hypnotic writing.
Lowlights: If I had to read the line 'Years later, as (insert character name) faced the firing squad...' I was going to throw the book out the window.

PS - Writing this review from a cyber cafe in Paris. Be jealous. Also forgive any spelling mistakes as the french keyboard is all ass-backwards.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

I don't have a whole lot to say about From a Buick 8. The book opens in the present day, but the story really begins years earlier, when a Buick is abandoned at a little gas station in the middle of nowhere, owing to the driver going to the bathroom and never coming back. It looks, in most ways, like a normal car, but there are a few things off about it. One side has more windows than the other, and somehow it's completely spotless. It doesn't even appear to have an engine. The police, including Ennis Rafferty who narrates most of the book, tow the car back to the station and put it in storage. Strange things start happening almost immediately: eerie midday lightshows, unidentifiable objects and creatures emerging from the trunk, and so on. Eventually, it becomes evident that the Buick isn't really a car at all, but some sort of dimensional gateway.

Eventually people start dying, of course, but that's where Buick gets interesting. Although Rafferty implies most of the officers believe that the various tragedies visited on the station are because of the car, the story never ties things up so neatly. Nothing really occurs, besides possibly the final scene, that couldn't have happened in the exact same way minus the car. An officer disappears, one is hit and killed by a semi, one's marriage begins dissolving. In the heat of things, it seems reasonable to assume that these things came with the title of the “car”, but it's also defensible that the car serves as a MacGuffin, a plot device to allow King to tell the story he really wants to, one about people. People with misplaced priorities, people who can't live in the present, people who make bad decisions. The various narrators mostly sound like people who've been through life and learned nothing from it. They take turns blaming the car for every bad thing that's happened in the last twenty years, none them considering that the real problem might lie not with the car, but with them.

In that sense, Buick actually has more in common with King's non-supernatural stories like The Body than with Christine. Human wickedness is all we conclusively see. The supernatural evil, such as it is, is never explained. No one ever steps through to the other dimension and confronts the makers of the Buick. There are no otherworldly messengers warning of imminent doom. Even the climax is understated, with victory arriving more by the passage of time than by any particular move on the part of the officers. That said, Buick is interesting and thought-provoking without being particularly good. If you like King, especially late-era rambly King, you'll probably like this. If you're not a fan or you've never read anything of his, start somewhere else.

The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville

"Can I be so changed ? Look at me. Or is it I who am mistaken? -- Are you not, sir, Henry Roberts, forwarding merchant, of Wheeling, Pennsylvania ? Pray, now, if you use the advertisement of business cards, and happen to have one with you, just look at it, and see whether you are not the man I take you for."

"Why," a bit chafed, perhaps, "I hope I know myself."

"And yet self-knowledge is thought by some not so easy. Who knows, my dear sir, but for a time you may have taken yourself for somebody else? Stranger things have happened."

Last year, I decided to tackle Moby-Dick, the quintessential huge American novel. Despite its reputation for being difficult and frequently dull, I didn't find it to be either, particularly. Sure, there were diversions aplenty, but when it came down to it, Moby-Dick could read as a great adventure story, albeit one of intentional ambiguity at points. I loved the book but knew next to nothing about Melville's other work, so when I saw a rather handsome edition of The Confidence-Man, I knew I had to give it a shot.

The story takes place on a riverboat populated by a wide variety of people, from clergymen and beggars, to carpenters and misers. In their midst, however, there are con-men of all shapes and sizes, willing to use any deceit or means necessary to relieve the innocents of their hard-earned cash. And that's it. The plot basically begins and ends there.

Of course, in practice, it isn't so simple. Far from being Melville's version of that Simpsons episode where Bart and Homer become grifters, The Confidence-Man is written like a track meet—that is, with plenty of baton-passing. Most chapters focus on the interaction of two or three people, and, at the end of each, the omniscient narrator follows one of the participants as he moves to another part of the ship and interacts with another of the passengers. Most of the characters are unnamed, and are referenced primarily by a visible attribute, i.e. the lame beggar, the man with the yellow hat, the student with the book. Using this device, Melville pulls a confidence game of his own, keeping the reader off balance and not sure exactly who is who. Is there a compelling reason that the man with the yellow hat cannot also be the lame beggar or the student with the book in another guise? In reading about The Confidence-Man after finishing it, I learned that there is really no consensus on just how many confidence men are on the boat.

That brings us to the idea of confidence, which is itself both an explicit and implicit theme of the novel. The plot itself necessitates the theme to some extent, but throughout, characters grapple with questions of identity and trust. Can a man be both good and evil? Can he hate Indians and yet love his fellow man? And can anyone really be trusted at all? Over and over, the marks themselves are assailed with pleas to simply place their confidence in the man before them, to give money to some cause or time to some effort they know little to nothing about, but Melville steadfastly refuses to give any real closure. Are the men who give to grifter for a seemingly good cause better off than those who refuse to trust anyone, or are they fools who would have done well to have a little more skepticism?

On the front cover, The Confidence-Man is touted as “the great metaphysical comedy” but you'd be forgiven for missing that. There are some humorous bits, but the overall picture is dark and confusing. The Confidence-Man resisted my attempts to draw any solid conclusions from it, but then again, maybe that's the point.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Gun With Ocassional Music by Jonathan Letham

I knew all at once I didn't care about the woman who'd left me like this, that I didn't want her back and I didn't want revenge, and I didn't want Celeste or any other woman besides the one with me right now. I wanted Catherine, I wanted her with everything I had—except I didn't have it anymore. What I had to offer, what I should have had to offer, was missing... I wanted Catherine, but I wanted to take her with a different self, a self that wasn't available. The thing I wanted wasn't lost in the past at all, and never had been. It was lost in the future. A self I should have been, but wasn't. A thread I'd let go of in myself, thinking I could live without it, not seeing what it meant.

It seems appropriate that I'm posting this review right after Chris posts his review of Ubik, because Gun With Occasional Music is essentially a noir in the Dick-ensian setting. The style is hard-boiled, the plot labyrinthine, the ladies beautiful and cold and the men strong and solitary. And, of course, there are the babyheads, infants with adult intellects; anthropomorphic animals including a kangaroo assassin, an array of government-sponsored drugs with names like Forgetorall.

Conrad Metcalf, a tough-guy private investigator, is living a fairly comfortable life when his services are requisitioned by a man, Orton Angwine, who is accused of a murder he didn't commit. Metcalf reluctantly takes the case and, of course, finds that its roots go much deeper than he originally anticipated. I'm giving the plot the short shrift here--there's quite a bit more of it—but I'd rather focus on the world and themes in the book because a) someone might want to read this book, and b) it's just more interesting.

There's a lot going on in Metcalf's world, much of it related to the theme of identity. On the surface, there are the obvious connections: who is framing Ortwine, who is behind it all, and so on, but Gun takes these questions and digs deeper. Metcalf himself is something of a male-female hybrid, left without the ability to feel sexual pleasure after a transplant gone wrong, and he struggles with his place in relation to the women he meets throughout the story, most notably with Catherine in the included excerpt. Further, the concept of identity is further confused by the government's encouragement to citizens to use drugs of various sorts, drugs which make them forget, sleep, and enjoy themselves. This aspect reminded me quite a bit of Brave New World. Another interesting aspect is Letham's invention of Karma, not the Buddhist idea but a concept more closely tied to the colloquialism “Good Karma”. Karma in Gun's world functions as sort of a universal currency that controls not a person's ability to buy and sell but their ability to enter places of business, get jobs, or even form relationships. In short, a person's ability to live is governed by Karma which is regulated by the government based on behavior ultimately leading to a lack of autonomy among the populace. Even asking innocuous questions is considered unbelievably rude. This leads to a lack of individualism and, of course, governmental corruption and societal manipulation by those with the money and/or Karma to do whatever they want.

One issue I often have with science fiction is that, given its nearly limitless narrative potential, it rarely spends time examining the deeper questions of humanity. That's something I love to find in my reading, even my genre reading, and something Letham delivers. But fear not, sci-fi fans: there's also a kangaroo assassin.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Finally--I feel like I've been reading nothing but disappointing books for months. Ubik is like a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster condensed to 200 pages: Full of action, intrigue, and a lot of confusing twists. I will try, without giving anything away, to explain the plot:

Sometime in the future, portions of mankind have developed psychological powers. These people are called psis, and come in various flavors, the two most important of which are telepaths and precogs. Precogs--you may recall from the Dick adaptation Minority Report--can predict the future. In the future, the psis represent a significant threat to business interests, as a rival organization may plant telepaths in your organization or use precogs to see what you're going to do, so "prudence organizations" use the talents of antis, who block psis' powers, to protect themselves. Glen Runciter is the head of one of these organizations, which he manages with help from his dead wife who is kept in "half-life"--a cryogenic stasis where communication with the dead can be maintained, although the more you speak with them, the closer they get to true death.

Runciter and his team, including his right-hand man Joe Chip, accept a job on the moon where they believe many of the world's greatest psis have gone to cause havoc. The job turns out to be a trap, and Runciter is killed--or so Chip and the others think. When the team returns to Earth to bury Runciter, they find that somehow every thing is reverting to its earlier incarnation--for example, automated pay elevators (you have to pay for everything in the future, even doors) have become old-fashioned elevators with steel grates and elevator operators. Cars are reverting to 1920's era-Model T's, etc., etc. At the same time, they seem to be receiving, on the backs of matchbooks and in newspapers, strange, cryptic messages from the dead Runciter, advising them to find a mysterious substance called Ubik, which is the only thing that can protect them when members of the team start dying off one-by-one. Luckily, it is available in convenient spray-can form. Whew.

I loved Ubik because it's unbelievably fun and quickly paced, as well as deeply funny. But it doesn't come off as hollow entertainment; Dick manages to weave some very interesting thoughts about God and death in as well. Ubik itself seems to be an analogue for God--after all, it comes from the Latin word ubique, meaning "everywhere." It is a protective force, preventing decay and staving off entropy, preserving the forward motion of time when all else is tumbling backward. A series of epigrams that begin each chapter tout Ubik as a commercial product (Can't make the frug contest, Helen; stomach's upset. I'll fix you Ubik! It takes more than a bag to seal in food flavor; it takes Ubik plastic wrap, etc., etc.), perhaps going so far as suggesting the commodification of God in this future society, perhaps suggesting that order can be found in the universe in strange places.

In any case, I highly recommend Ubik. Safe when taken as directed.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

The boy didn't need to hear it. There was already a deep and black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.

Hm. I love Flannery O'Connor. Along with Carver, I think she is probably the premiere short story author to come out of 20th Century America. Her stories are invariably dark and tinged with a peculiarly Catholic brand of guilt and tragedy, and distinctively Southern in outlook and style. So why doesn't Wise Blood work?

I think it is because of precisely what I said--O'Connor is a fantastic short story writer, but many great American short story writers, like Carver and Poe, never tried to write anything longer. Poe had a theory he called "the unity of effect" that dictated that a work of literature must be read, and be able to be read, in a single setting to have the maximum impact upon its reader. I don't agree with Poe (who does?) but if he were to return from the dead (Zombie Poe!) and try to defend himself, he might point to Wise Blood, which is stitched together of fascinating parts but somehow fails to come together.

The story follows Hazel Motes, a young man just out of the army heading to the Southern city of Tulkinham. Hazel has some pretty peculiar ideas about Jesus--he can do without him--and when he runs into a street preacher named Asa Hawks, he is determined to outdo him by become a street preacher himself, one who preaches The Church of God Without Christ. You might call that Judaism, or Islam, but to Hazel it's a kind of religious philosophy that rejects the need for salvation. To spite Hawks further, he intends to seduce his underage daughter Lily, but Lily isn't exactly making it difficult for him to seduce her, and Hawks is pretty happy to have the girl out of his household.

Complicating matters is a young man who ingratiates himself to Hazel named Enoch Emery. Enoch believes that he has "Wise Blood," a kind of sixth sense that predicts the future in vague terms. Enoch, wishing to aid Hazel, and driven by his Wise Blood, steals a mummified child from a local museum to serve as the Christ figure in the Church.

There is a scene I liked a lot in which Enoch--an adult who, it is suggested, may be a little bit on the slow side--waits in line with a bunch of children at a theater to see the "star" of a King Kong-like movie only to find out it's a man in an ape suit. Angered and betrayed, he sneaks into the man's van and steals the ape suit, strips off his clothes in the middle of the forest, and becomes, by putting on the suit, the pinnacle of his desires. That's really fascinating in a particularly O'Connoresque way, but the problem is that it is difficult to place that scene, and many others, in the context of the entire novel. The scene is almost exactly duplicated in a short story of O'Connor's, though I don't know which came first. The short story by itself is intriguing, in the context of Wise Blood it is confusing.

Very few novels stump me. Though a lot of ideas may elude me, I am usually able to reflect somewhat meaningfully on a book I've read. Wise Blood is one of the first times that I've felt as if I just don't get the book. There is something going on with Christ figures--the way that Hazel tries to avoid Christ completely, but is bombarded with Christ substitutes, whether they be Hawks, or himself, or the mummified child, or Enoch's ape suit. It is, I suppose, a statement on the way that Christ pervades all things and cannot simply be escaped, even by a nonbeliever.

But that seems only a partial explanation. Why does Hazel want to separate Christ from God? What is the purpose, thematic or otherwise, of Enoch's "Wise Blood," which informs the title but seems to be near-irrelevant? What is the connection between Enoch and Hazel? There are too many questions. The pieces of this novel hang separate from one another and refuse, to my mind, to come together in anything approaching coherence.

Note: They made a movie of this where Hazel was played by Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, That Really Good X-Files Episode Where He Plays a Psychic Murderer Who Speaks to Scully'sDead Father). Brad Dourif was born to play this role.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

After finishing Into Thin Air, I needed to read something a little less harrowing. Sure, nature can be scary, but there have to be a few great pursuits that anyone with a little free time and a backpack can do, right? I picked up A Walk in the Woods because the premise sounded interesting and because Bill Bryson is a pretty amusing dude. I wasn't disappointed.

A Walk in the Woods follows Bryson and his friend Katz, an overweight, outgoing loudmouth, on their attempt to walk the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. The A.T. is a huge undertaking, 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine, requiring 6-8 months, lots of food, and some good boots. Bryson and Katz start out as complete amateurs and end feeling like grizzled mountain men.

Although the trail itself was very interesting, some of the anecdotes not directly related were most interesting to me. For example, there's a town somewhere in the States (I can't remember which state and don't have the book handy) where, 80 years ago, a coalfire began underground. The heat caused the ground to begin cracking and collapsing, eventually turning Coalville into a vertual ghost town. The fire is still burning beneath it, and a few hearty souls still live there.

I don't really know what to say about this book. I enjoyed it and it had something of a surprise ending (SPOILER: They quit before the end of the trail), but mostly what I got out of it was an appreciation for nature and for the scale of the United States. Unlike Into Thin Air which probably put me off mountain climbing forever, A Walk in the Woods made me want to take a hike myself. Anyone want to be Katz?

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I read this book on a dare from Reinhold Messner. We were shooting the breeze one evening and he told that not only was I incapable of climbing Mt. Everest myself, I was probably incapable of even finishing a book about someone else's expedition. I took him up on this challenge, and while he was out climbing K2 for the fiftieth time, I read Into Thin Air.

I'm not a survivalist by any stretch of the imagination, but the first half of Krakauer's book, a true account of one of the most deadly ascents ever attempted on Everest, I was ready to go to base camp myself. The narrative follows Krakauer all the way from preparation until the disastrous denouement of the trip, when the majority of both parties on the mountain, including two of the most experienced climbers in the world, died as a result of an unexpected storm near the peak. There a little bit of dishy stuff, including some pretty direct criticism of some of the other climb leaders, but for the most part, Jon sticks with the narrative and the overarching theme: nature is dangerous and is not to be messed with, no matter how much experience you have.

By the time I finished reading, I'd completely lost any interest in climbing Everest myself. Messner returned from K2 and I filled him in. Of course, he just laughed. He's actually kind of a jerk. This book, however, was great. I recommend it.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The King of Torts by John Grisham

I'm getting tired of Grisham. I only read this one because I got it for 75 cents at the library. He must have had a bad experience at a big firm, because he is constantly writing the "young lawyer makes it big in corporate/personal injury law and then hubris sets in and he gets screwed" story. This one wasn't too bad; it was quick and accurately portrayed the settle first at almost any cost environment that pervades most civil suits these days. There were only a couple of places where I thought, "ok, that's completely ridiculous." and they were easy to get past, so I guess that's good. So yeah, I don't 100% agree with the guy who wrote "Of the 13 Grishams I've read so far this is the first one I didn't enjoy" in the front cover (for two reasons: I've read Grishams that I don't enjoy and because this one wasn't too bad, though that's probably because I have such low expectations for him at this point). If you ever find yourself with a day or two to kill and you're trying to pad your stats for some kind of book reading blog, then pick this one up. Otherwise you probably don't need to.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Ludmila's Broken English by DBC Pierre

Blair's eyes cut into slices. He drew back his finger like an arrow, and fired it at the keyboard.


Women leapt on to the screen. Women with hairstyles and poses unseen since the days of sheiks and flappers, against lurid studio backdrops of lakesides, beaches, and boudoirs.

And in the lower right-hand corner of that self-conscious assortment, one face shone out from the thick of a genuine life.

One wild, beautiful face.

Blair's penis twitched up to his hand.

I was a big fan of DBC Pierre's first novel, Vernon God Little, which was despised by many critics but I felt succeeded on the virtue of its cojones alone, along with a skewed but evocative sense of language. That book was a dark comedy about a school shooting in Texas; it was amazingly distasteful but cut deeply into the insecurities of the American psyche in this century, and had quite a bit to say about how our superconsumptive and obsessive culture abets great violence. Ludmila's Broken English, by contrast, is a book written for some other audience, in some other time.

The titular character is Ludmila Derev, a young girl living in a war-torn Caucasian wasteland, who, in the opening scenes of the novel, kills her grandfather after he makes a drunken attempt at raping her. Without his pension check to keep their family afloat, Ludmila must journey to the nearest town to find work, and eventually--after many of what I can only describe as hijinks--her face ends up on a website advertising Russian brides.

The other half of the book follows Blair and Bunny Heath, a pair of recently separated conjoined twins who have been released from their group home and find themselves in London, a cosmopolitan world that they don't understand, where alcohol and sex--or at least the suggestion of sex--are readily available. Though Bunny wishes for nothing more than to return to the home, Blair is fascinated by this new world, and the prospect of getting laid, and finds Ludmila on the internet, bringing both stories together when he and Blair travel to the Caucasus to meet her.

What is the point? Vernon God Little seemed urgently relevant, but writing about Eastern Europe seems, without being condescending to those who live there, so twenty years ago. As far as I know, with the exception of the revolutions in Moldova and the Ukraine (both of which resulted in improved governments), and the Russia-Georgia conflict, Eastern Europe has been relatively conflict-free since the Clinton era. The rest of the world has turned its eyes to the Middle East; as a satire isn't this a case of beating a dead horse? Perhaps, as he did for American culture in Vernon God Little, Pierre wishes to show us how the endless pleasure gratification of the London lifestyle can corrupt the innocent in the case of Bunny and Blair, but Blair is assuredly not, like Vernon, an innocent caught up in chaos. Vernon is a child; Blair brings the horrific events of the novel's final chapters squarely upon himself.

Ultimately, Vernon God Little is composed of the grotesque and the baroque; Ludmila's Broken English is simply made up of ugliness. There is nothing really likeable or redemptive about it; when these characters fail I find myself without sympathy. It is as if, sadly, Pierre willfully took on the role that his critics tried to foist upon him after his first novel.