Tuesday, June 24, 2008

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

A clever fun read of a novel by a young British writer. The novel is about a company that makes products for kids and teens and it's at times too obvious in its critique of the marketing and corporatization of toys (easy easy target) but it's clever in that the protagonist is a code-maker/cracker and so naturally there are lots of codes and fun stuff included. The novel also references pretty much every bit of science and psychology that the average college freshman gets exposed to--Milgram, Turing, etc.--cocktail party science that I confess I enjoy. And then there's the math ... I don't object to math, I'm fine with math (my department recently mocked me for referencing prime numbers and how they relate to workshop--they don't! we split into groups!), but this math was definitely beyond me... and the novel has a clever way of dumbing it down. Thomas puts most of the math into the exposition. And so it is being explained to the protagonist when she is a little girl. So it can be explained really really simply. This trick could have backfired but the characters are set up to be people who talk about math in dialogue and so it works out just fine.

And there are some nice surprises in the end that make this a novel especially well suited to teenagers who haven't yet lost their idealism.

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo

I love Sully. The elderly, stubborn pain in the rear protagonist of this novel is completely unavoidably loveable. And that's pretty much how all the characters react to him as well. They want to smack him (sometimes they do smack him) but they love him all the same. And the only way for that to feel believable--that such a jerk would be so universally loved--is for the reader to fall in love too. And how do you do that... it's a hard trick. Rabbit of Updikedom shares a lot of traits with Sully--cheats on spouses, sexualizes women constantly, abandons family members, behaves selfishly stubbornly and stupidly--and yet I want to smack Rabbit (twice) and don't love him at all. But Sully...I love Sully.

And I suppose it's because Russo makes Sully self-aware (he embarks the novel on a "stupid streak") and on the path to redemption (fresh start with grown son, good relationship with grandson), and a caretaker for quite a few members of the town (especially elderly women who he treats with great respect and affection). But it helps too that Sully is a working class guy who had a terrible father and who doesn't have a lot of prospects for the professional advancement that would get him out of this small town--which he doesn't want to leave anyway. Rabbit on the otherhand is an well-educated, well-off guy--and yes, that makes his behavior less forgiveable. Call it reverse classicism or maybe even condescension but it's real. The working class character--if treated fully and fairly (as in not stereotyped)--from small town America is probably almost always a more sympathetic character than the upper middle class guy from the suburbs.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

This slim collage novel of an old woman's thoughts is full of gems I'd like to pull out of my pocket and study at will (in other words, I wish I could memorize paragraphs). It's really more like a portrait gallery than a novel--pictures line up next to each other in a deliberate order but placing it into a narrative is really up to the reader--like glimpsing someone else's consciousness without them organizing it first. A form that fits the subject well. It's also a novel that assumes a high level of cultural knowledge--no explanations but lots of references.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Often the phenom of connected stories bugs me--it feels publisher induced--but in this case the book really is all the stronger for having the title character star in a number of stories and appear in the rest. And Strout has managed to pull off stories that all feel individual and complete and link them together in a way that doesn't feel like she should have just expanded the links to write a novel instead. These need to be separate stories because they don't all center on Olive--but her brief appearances in those other stories still add dimensions to her character as we keep reading the book.

Basically Olive is a bitch. But she's more a bitch to her husband and son than to everybody else in town. To them she is the old woman who was once the scary elementary school teacher who sometimes reached out to them in ways that really mattered. So we see her struggle--humanely, she's a bitch you feel for--in the stories that center on her life, but we also see how compassionate and strong and loving she can be to those around her. The fact that she can't sustain that behavior nor play it out for those closest to her feels tragic and real in a way that's effective.

There's something Alice Munro-ish about Strout's writing, so part of me feels like, well, we've still got Munro, do we need Strout? but I'm going to go with yeah, we do. The more Munros the merrier.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

A funny very short novel (novella really) by the reigning master of satire. Phil is a robot-like creature who runs roughshod over the handful of residents of a neighboring country so small only one inhabitant--and only a part of that inhabitant at that--can fit in it at one time, so that the citizens all rotate, the rest standing as short term residents in Phil's land. And if that sentence makes sense to you, you've probably read Saunders before. If it didn't well, you should go see for yourself.

When I first read Saunders' early short stories, which largely mock corporate culture and mass consumerism, I really loved them, but over time began to feel if he didn't find some new aspect of the USA to make fun of, he was going to lose steam. And then Bush II came into office. And Saunders' fiction (I'm generalizing some here) and nonfiction seemed to focus mainly on the antics of our duly unelected government. And I don't have any problem with that, except for the fact that Bush II and co. are very easy targets--their actions, whether you agree with them are not, are so big. And in some ways I'm more interested in realist fiction and nonfiction about these times rather than satire--what is it really like to be profiled or spied on by your govt, what is it really like to go to war when all you wanted was a college education, what was it really like to live in Iraq under Hussein, what is it really like to live in Iraq now etc etc. So the moments when The BFR of Phil (which came out in 2005) works best for me are actually the least overtly allegorical ones--it's not the self-reporting media nor the goon drafting tactics of Phil--but rather the stranger aspects of the fiction that made me think and react the most. The stuff that goes well, you think what's going on is bad--just see where else it could lead.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Slaughter-house Five by Kurt Vonnegut

It's interesting reading books way late--as in long after the age when most people read them (in this case, lots of people seem to read Slaughterhouse-Five in high school) and also long after many other writers have written their own novels under the influence of this one (certainly Tom Robbins but even Tim O'Brien seems to have been affected). The great thing about Vonnegut though is that despite my having reached the age of almost-thirty-seven and of being aware of the novel and hearing people mention it for decades, I could never have predicted what was inside. I knew it was about prisoners of war and I knew it was by the author of the hilarious Cat's Cradle but I could never put those two things together and come up with a prediction of what would lie there in. And yet now that I have read it, it seems perfectly Vonnegutian. A serious but funny novel that uses the storytelling practices and philosophical beliefs of a group of aliens to perfectly depict post-traumatic stress in a soldier. If I had read this in high school (we read Cat's Cradle instead) I know there would have been much discussion of the Christ symbol of Billy Pilgrim and whether or not the aliens were real, but sometimes, I admit, it's nice just to feel a book rather than interpret it. And I definitely felt this book.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Jonathan Franzen somewhat famously championed this novel back into print and I can see both why he did and why it was out of print. It's quite good, but it feels of its moment--the 60s--in a way that's sort of uncomfortable now. The 60s have been mythologized by the winners--the rock and roll generation--not by the losers--their parents (I generalize, of course) and this feels like a novel of the parents who were frightened by just how dirty and dangerous the coming changes felt (or so I hear, I'm not as young as I feel but I'm not as old as all that either). So it's a novel about people who are completely unnerved by the coming moment.

One of the things I admired was the novel's tight structure--it's short, 156 pages in my edition--and is centered around a three day period in which the protagonist is bitten by a cat and then waiting to hear if the cat is rabid. But the lesson therein is that the novel is not about the cat bite and the waiting. It's about all the things that were already going on in this character's life that coincided with--and were then framed and illuminated by--the cat bite. One of the mistakes student writers tend to make in planning a novel or even a short story is they have a concept--woman bitten by cat must wait to discover if she has rabies!--but confuse that with a plot. As Ron Carlson used to say (probably still does), into what life has this day come. In other words nobody is sitting around waiting for a cat to bite them (well, metaphorically I might be), they have stuff to do, things going on. That stuf is your plot. The bite is what brings it all into focus.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Away by Amy Bloom

I was only so-so on this novel by the very talented Amy Bloom (lots of critics liked it though), but I was interested in how she used a journey structure but managed to avoid an overly episodic feel. Most journey novels have something clearly at stake for the beginning and the end--the thing that is the reason for going on the journey (in this case, Lillian, the protagonist, is trying to go back to her four year old daughter who she had left for dead after a Russian pogrom in the 1920s)--but the whole middle can feel a little random (anything could happen! anyone could be met!). In this case, Lillian has to get from NYC to Alaska to Siberia without any money (sounds like an episode of the Amazing Race) and naturally she meets lots of characters along the way. But Bloom's short story credentials are useful here because she treats each meeting like an individual story. So the encounters last long enough for the reader to get to know the new characters, to develop concern for them, to allow Lillian to develop a genuine relationship to them and for high stakes action to happen beyond the consistent question of will Lillian stay alive and get to Sophie or not. And Bloom makes the choice to follow, very briefly, each of the characters that Lillian meets all the way through their future. So in a paragraph or two you learn the rest of their lives. This is pretty satisfying and leaves you in the end feeling like she's created a whole world of people--mostly women--who are doing the up-by-the-bootstraps American thing in the 1920s (mostly in the northwest). So the journey is the skeleton, Lillian is the heart, but everything else is the flesh.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

I have long said Toni Morrison was my favorite living writer, but reading this novel it occurred to me that the mantle might have passed to Coetzee. Not due to any diminished love for Ms. Morrison, but because he seems to still have great books in his future, and it's hard to believe that she does. So she transitions over to one of my favorite writers, and we'll switch the word living to working. Coetzee might be my favorite working writer. He's like Kundera but with plot. And he very consistently has major female characters, and he writes about race and politics and class all while being very meta-. And it probably doesn't hurt that his novels tend to be short. I enjoy a big fat read but when one has 765 books to read before she dies, well...

Anyway, Foe is described as a retelling of Robinson Crusoe but it's more like a retelling of the telling of Robinson Crusoe. In this novel, a woman lands on the island and lives with Crusoe and Friday for a year before they are all rescued. Crusoe dies before making it home, and so the woman and Friday are left to their own devices. And the woman ends up finding a writer (Foe) to write the story of their adventures on the island--which she finds she herself cannot write. And the implication seems to be that Foe wrote her out of the story and out of existence. But the novel's moral center is more on Friday--who is tongueless and ends the novel learning to write. And one of the things I like about Coetzee is he's not terribly subtle--I mean he symbolizes Friday's lack of a voice by giving him no voice--and yet he is quite complex. So you read his novels understanding exactly what is happening, but having to puzzle over what does it mean. This is more to my taste than writers who symbolize the complexities of life by leaving you without much of a clue as to what is literally going on. It seems to me the difference between confusion and ambiguity. Or maybe I just like a dark room better with a nightlight on.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen

Turns out I really like Ron Hansen. I love his short story "Wickedness" and his novel Mariette in Ecstasy and this novel...but I just only now realized the same person wrote all three. I'm not sure why I didn't put it together; he has a fairly distinct manner in which he lists characters, detailing one for a paragraph then the next for a paragraph then the next...lots of people in his fiction. And he tends to use a really flat but really specific voice. It's not emotionally colored--except I guess for the fact that flat tends to feel sad--but it always names things properly. The trees get their right name, the architectural details get their right name, anatomy gets its right name...

Anyway, I didn't know about this novel until I saw the Casey Affleck movie (some might be inclined to call it the Brad Pitt movie, but in this case the coward is way more interesting than the hero) that came out last year. And the voice-overs (why do voice-overs get such a bad rap in movies; I like them when they use language well) were so good that I thought they had to be lifted right from a novel. Turns out they were, and not only that but the dialogue was too. I mean right from page to stage (okay, screen). And it made me realize how strong Hansen is in both narration (third, past) and in scene. The dialogue makes these guys quite funny--the very puppyish qualities of Robert Ford come out mostly in what he says--but the narration makes the book serious and sad. It's like having a comic relief character in a drama--except all these guys feel like comic relief in an otherwise serious situation and setting. And the narration is actually mostly action and setting--just a detailed description of what everyone's doing and where they're doing it. But it really increases the scope and does a good job of implying the complexity of these characters (it doesn't speculate much on why they do what they do but it suggests a lot about their visions of masculinity and government and family).

One of the things that mystified me about the novel was how Hansen gets away with the old-timey language that he throws in quite often. It works; I just don't know why it works. I mean I know the setting is the Ye Old West, but the old-fashioned speech could just have easily sounded fake and silly.

Book Lists

I'm not saying these lists are good or bad, but Su's comment prompted me to point them out:


New York Times

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

As a fan of the epistolary and as a book lover, I adore 84 Charing Cross Road the book of letters written between Helene Hanff, a New Yorker, and the British bookshop from which she ordered English classics throughout the 50s. Her voice-in-letters is funny and self-deprecating and makes you think she would be a great deal of fun to hang out with. And here, lo and behold, is a sequel that I never knew existed--a diary of her trip to London, her first, made to promote the British edition. Aside from the pleasure of being reuinted with Hanff, it's interesting to see how many complete strangers adored her and called her up and took her out to eat just because they'd read her book. Are there any authors you would invite to dinner if they came to town?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Apparently Tey was a really popular mystery writer in the forties and fifties though I only heard of her recently when I read an interview with a children's book writer that declared this one of the greatest books of all time. I must say I did really enjoy it (though it wouldn't go on any best-of lists for me) but interestingly the only reason I knew it was a mystery was because the cover told me so. The novel takes place at a women's physical training college that as far as I could tell turned out gymnasts, dance teachers, girl's athletic coaches and nurses and one of the things I really enjoyed was the close study of this little post-war, pre-modern world that I never knew existed (physical training colleges?) (and now that I think about it because of the setting the novel is populated by about twenty women and three men which also made it feel unique). But what was striking was that the murder (which you assume is coming having judged the book by its cover) doesn't take place until 2/3rds, maybe even 3/4ths of the way in. And it's perfectly obvious who did it. (both who you are supposed to think did it and who really did it--it's not a spoiler, I'm telling you, you'd know). And so really what makes this a mystery? Isn't it just a novel with a murder in it? Though I like the idea of more mystery writers embracing the idea of holding off on the crime and establishing characters and setting first. Lately most of the contemporary mysteries I've read (which I admit has pretty much been limited to Elizabeth George and Kate Atkinson) put the crime in chapter one and then need to resort to a second crime halfway through to up the stakes again. The thought of building to the crime--and hopefully disguising it and its perpetrators more than Tey does--intrigues me.

Ooh, a list!

I don't tend to go for these memes (I don't even know what that word means) but I love me a book list and as a devotee of the 1001 Books I Must Read Before I Die (235 read and counting), I couldn't resist this one (which I saw over at William's and Emily's blogs). These are apparently:

the top 100 or so books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users. Bold (in this case green) the books you have read, underline the ones you read for school, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish. I think there should be another category--the ones you own but haven't read so they're on your bookshelf where visitors can't be sure if you've read them or not, I'm putting those in a wee font...

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre

The Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha

Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
Angels & Demons
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse

Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake
Cloud Atlas

The Confusion is this There is Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values

The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield

12 of them I read for high school (Go Fords!), 7 for undergrad, and only 3 for grad school. Probably says something about the list more than my education.