Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review: Klosterman Attempts a Narrative

Chuck Klosterman cannot stop writing like Chuck Klosterman even when he shifts away from pop-culture philosophy to novel writing. Downtown Owl is so saturated with references to 80s films, fads, and trends that the story (arguably the most important part of a novel) gets moved to the back burner. But for fans of Klosterman, however, Downtown Owl will be another testament to 80s art and culture.

Klosterman follows three characters through their daily lives in Owl, ND—a small Everytown, USA. The central conflict revolves around a snow storm the readers know is coming but every character won’t anticipate until it’s upon them. Mitch, a third-string quarterback, spends his days plotting ways to kill his coach and teacher Mr. Laidlaw. Mitch hates Mr. Laidlaw because Laidlaw is hard on him, sometimes too hard, but his distaste emerges as a result of Laidlaw’s sexual relationships with teenage girls. Horace, a widower, spends his days drinking coffee and listening to the ramblings of other retirees at a local coffee shop. Julia, our third protagonist, is new to Owl and spends most of her days trying to acclimate to small town life while being completely enamored with a local celebrity.

The ending is foretold but comes without any consequence. Once the climax comes the book ends and we never see the fallout after a small town’s tragedy. One flies through the first 250 pages waiting for something to happen, but after that incident has occurred we aren’t given the proper satisfaction of what becomes of Owl.

I won’t say Downtown Owl is bad because that wouldn’t be true. Klosterman can write; he’s proved that with his other work and this piece continues his analysis of bygone culture. But sometimes his analysis speaks over the characters we are reading. One section of the book is narrated by Cubby Candy, the town’s resident psychopath with a knack for getting into fights and winning them with no regard for his opponent’s life. Cubby’s home life is far from perfect; he tells us his father’s “sadism seemed to materialize out of an empty void.” That’s an eloquent way of describing his father, but not the words Cubby would have used. Cubby’s a brute—not by his own doing—but a brute none-the-less.

Klosterman’s abilities make him a wonderful cultural historian, but these skills do not translate to novel writing. Stick to his earlier work and you’ll find all the interesting bits from Downtown Owl without the unfulfilled narrative.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review: The Biggest Hoax of All

Maybe I’ve been nostalgic for college recently, as I’ve been (re-)reading Cornellian authors – Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon, most intently. I was in need of a comedy recently; and in my apartment, one of the few straightforward comic novels I own is The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon’s sophomore work which I believe he has disowned at this point. Too bad, because it’s stellar. And gets better with each reading.

The Crying of Lot 49 is the story of Oedipa Maas (her given name should suggest Oedipus; her surname translated from the Dutch means ‘loop’, an infinity of sorts) who is named executrix of a former lover’s [Pierce Inverarity’s] will. Confused by the situation she tries to understand why this has happened, which eventually leads into a tale of drugs, death, madness, mail-carriers, miscommunication, and ‘the shortest line ever written in blank verse: “T-t-t-t-t . . .”’. Oedipa tries to tie together all these clues that seem to be thrust at her as to why she’s executrix, what underground mail services are really doing, if there is some truth to mail conspiracy theories, and why there’s suspicious activity behind every person she comes across. Because it seems like everything is somehow connected. Because everyone seems to have an ulterior motive.

Unfortunately, think Dan Brown. But unlike Dan Brown, which makes Pynchon brilliant, there are no easy answers. The hysteria that is built up around Oedipa’s plight will remain without any definitive answers – which is in essence one of the major differences between literary and commercial fiction. Mike Fallopian, a man that Oedipa meets at a bar, asks her a pivotal question that we ourselves should be asking the whole time: ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s putting you on? That this is all a hoax, maybe something Inverarity set up before he died?’

In essence the book asks whether we should really should be searching for these clues in life, in literature. Because what if it is all a hoax in the end? Isn’t the novel the biggest hoax of all: something that suggests truth but which is based upon lies, is fictive? We get caught up in these worlds. As literary students, we begin to care about these ‘people’ (aka characters) and discuss their decisions as if they were real. And sometimes we forget that they don’t exist, that their decisions in the end don’t really matter.

The Crying of Lot 49 runs on the edge of being allegory, with characters’ names that include Dr Hilarius (a former Nazi doctor), Randolph Driblette, Genghis Cohen, the pop-rock band The Paranoids, and the radio station KCUF. And allegory tries to teach us a lesson – think back to the medieval play Everyman. So like any talented writer, Pynchon is able to create a world that resides on many thresholds, upon a fine balance. And that creates a reason for a reader to return to such works with relish.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Review: Catholicism and the English Aristocracy

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is an English novel written at the end of WWII. It tells the story of Captain Charles Ryder who, after stumbling upon the old mansion called Brideshead with his army brigade, remembers how he became acquainted with the house and its family twenty years prior.

Charles is student at Oxford shortly after WWI, at a time when the lifestyle of English aristocracy is fading from society. He befriends Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son of an aristocratic family, and they quickly form a strong attachment to each other. Sebastian is charming and attractive but deeply troubled, and his excessive escapism drinking eventually leads Charles to the rest of the Flyte family–Lady Marchain and Sebastian’s three siblings, Bridey, Julia, and Cordelia.

This is one of those novels that contains more theme than plot, more to be analyzed than absorbed at first reading. Waugh takes on the big three–love, family, and religion–in this, his most famous novel. The relationship between Sebastian and Charles is deeply embedded with homosexual undertones, and the Marchmains’ strong Catholic beliefs influence their decisions and define their relationships, both in and outside of the family. Simply put, Brideshead Revisited illustrates the conflicting war between religious morals and human desires. By telling the story in perspective, Waugh demonstrates that we can only hope to understand our actions and experiences by looking back on them.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Murder in the ‘Burbs

When I read Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner a few months ago, I had needed a nice, fun read after a horrible book I’d just read. This pretty much hit the spot. It has all the standard features of a chick-lit novel: New York City, passionate love (affair), job in some media or fashion field, problems are overly-dramatized but suck you in. While the chick-lit checklist is complete, this one takes a bit of a turn by becoming a mystery.

New-York-City-girl-turned-Connecticut-housewife Kate Klein discovers a dead neighbor with a knife in her back. This small glimmer of excitement leads her to start a full-on private investigation, digging up suburban affairs that eventually lead her to the passionate lover-that-never-was from her days as a city girl [go figure]. Typically, chick-lit novels are pretty damn predictable [which, of course, never stops me from reading them], but I like that this one had the mystery element to keep me engrossed. It had plenty of humourous scenarios and one-liners, particularly from the obligatory best friend, rich-girl-in-a-funny-way, sidekick character, Janie. An review calls Weiner an “endearing contemporary voice.” Agreed. I saw the movie version of In Her Shoes, which actually had substance as well. I should read some more of her books, because she doesn’t write total predictable, sappy, girly crap.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Review: A Boredom Akin to Hell

It was time for a classic, so I chose Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Like with any classic, it takes a bit to settle in with it, getting used to the language and style of writing. I always have to concentrate on them a bit more, so that I don’t read two pages and realize I have no idea what happened in them. This one wasn’t too bad with the superfluous style and language typical of 19th century European literature. Emma Bovary is unhappily married to a “devoted, clumsy provincial” [good description on the back of the book!] doctor. To revolt against her mundane life, she has affairs and buys a lot of things on credit, which, of course, leads to her demise.

Flaubert uses excellent language to describe the downfall of Emma throughout the novel–she never loses her dreams of ecstasy and love, but they put her out of touch with reality. All the characters were weak-minded and selfish, to some degree, so their individual outcomes were not surprising. Pieces of the story were slow–mostly all the descriptions of society’s little events that did not seem to have much role in the story’s progression. But, these gave a more complete view of the environment surrounding the characters, so that they weren’t just set against an empty backdrop. Overall, not too bad…seemed like a typical English class book (though my high school was seriously lacking in the English department, so I, of course, never had to read it).

Monday, April 20, 2009

Review: A Comic’s Life in Book Form

As I grew up I didn’t know Steve Martin as stand-up comedian; I did know him as the Father of the Bride; and I wish I didn’t know him from the unfortunate Pink Panther remakes. But after reading Born Standing Up one quickly understands the great depth and craft of Martin’s comedy. Born Standing Up chronicles Martin’s life as a comic from his attention craved childhood to his sellout stadium nights. Those who see Martin as a waning star should read this memoir to reacquaint themselves with the determined genius who spent his life trying to create and master an original comic style.

As one reads Born Standing Up they wait for Martin to announce he’s finally succeeded, but that moment never quite comes. Martin’s act was always evolving; he strove to be fresh at all times. Though Martin was selling out huge stadia he never relaxed into the ennui of success. I realized (with about 10 pages left) that for the last half of the book Martin would have been considered successful by most standards with his large following and packed shows. But comedy and performing are muscles that weaken without a proper work ethic.

When Martin felt his comedy reached its limit he promptly quit touring despite his legions of screaming fans. I’ve never read Martin’s fiction, but if it’s written with the same clarity and honesty that Born Standing Up contains than I will gladly pick up his other work.

Through simple and eloquent prose Martin reminds us that he’s an artist. Through self deprecating humor, that he’s human. I recommend this book to everyone.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Review: Bye Bye Miss American Pie

Margaret Sartor takes a unique approach in her memoir, Miss American Pie. Growing up in deep southern Louisiana during the 1970s, Sartor chronicles the rollercoaster of turmoil and ecstasy that is adolescence with a diary. At its simplest, this book is a glimpse in the life of a struggling teenager, but on a deeper level, it highlights the hilarious and heartbreaking moments that move us, shape us, and define us as individuals.

An added element of interest is the particular environment in which the author grew up. The seventies held some pivotal moments in the history of the South; racial integration was just taking hold in public schools, evangelical Christianity spread like wildfire, and the sexual revolution was blossoming in the teenage community. Margaret demonstrates how unimportant these historic events seem in our personal lives with statements like, “President Nixon resigned; made an appointment to get my haircut.” They do, however, define the world we live in and, therefore, contribute to our personal belief systems.

This book would probably be familiar to anyone who kept a diary throughout their teenage years. It is easy to see how Margaret’s thoughts developed and matured between ages 12 and 18. Entries started out as simple as, “It rained today. We went to the movies,” and developed into paragraphs of personal reflection and analysis, like how to combine the conflicting morality of sex and Sunday school. One of my favorite features of this book was the author’s introduction and, in particular, her epilogue. You can see how all of these oh-so-dramatic thoughts and events of the past reverberate into adulthood, despite how trivial they may seem in retrospect.

Review: Take a Walk on Your Wild Side

Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey is an essential read for anyone interested in our environment and our footprint on it. While I wanted to read this book out of an interest in gorillas, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is really a personal narrative of a conservationist trying to save these gentle creatures.

The book opens with Dian Fossey as a young woman adventuring to Africa so that she may study gorillas. Fossey was a pioneer in her field. She bravely set up camp in the highest mountains of the Congo, with only a few African porters and a pet chicken for company. Her beautiful, detailed descriptions of her surroundings bring you in and allow you to feel like you, too, are among the gorillas. She meticulously studies and follows several groups of mountain gorillas. Fossey presents these groups as families with histories complete with familial drama. The longer you read into these gorillas lives, the line between you and them quickly begins to disappear. You begin to see yourself in them and them in you. They play; they mother their children; they sweat when they get nervous; they smile; they cry; and they are loyal. It is incredible to see the things you often consider so innately human in an animal relative.

If you previously took little interest in the environment, this book will change you. Once you are wrapped up in the gorillas’ stories, its is all too easy to want to protect them. You immediately see how our actions can completely destroy these creatures’ health and happiness. More than once during Fossey’s time in Africa, poachers, encouraged by the government, attempted to take infants to sell to a foreign zoo. The only way to do that, however, is to kill the majority of the clan. A group’s leader will die before he lets harm come to his family. These battles are violent and only leave you to question the history of every animal you’ve seen in a zoo. That’s really the most valuable part of this book: Fossey places the animals and their habitat in a history. Their lives are wrapped up in our personal goals and politics, while all they are trying to do is survive. This book is full of drama, comedy and struggle, all beautifuly grounded in Fossey’s enthralling narrative. Gorillas in the Mist is a wonderful journey of discovery that I recommend to all!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Review: The Existential Detective Agency

Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is a detective novel on the surface and an existential essay at its heart. For those looking for something akin to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Allen Poe, you won’t find it in this collection. The entire work is made of three loosely connected novellas: “City of Glass,” “Ghosts, and “The Locked Room.” Each piece begins with an ordinary man who is suddenly thrust into a world of dark alleys and sleepless nights which may just be figments of his imagination. Auster’s characters aren’t experienced with the deceit they encounter but they welcome it and immerse themselves in their new dark personas. If my description sounds noir-ish and pulpy, it’s because Auster wants it to be that way. The protagonists in all three stories see themselves as real Sam Spades but the worlds they encounter expand beyond reality and infiltrate the protagonists’ minds.

Quinn, our detective in “City of Glass,” is actually a mystery writer who is mistaken for an actual private investigator. Bored with the state of his life, Quinn decides to perpetuate his false identity finding himself deep inside a possible murder plot. Quinn attempts to rationalize everything he’s seen, but despite his understanding of crime he cannot escape the torment his mind created of the situation. Quinn’s investigation takes him beyond the real world and into the dark shadows of conspiracies and delusions.

“Ghosts” and “The Locked Room” play out in similar fashions, but each has their own original style and twist on the human psyche; half the fun in reading the trilogy is watching as characters reappear in other stories. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for an original thriller, but don’t be mislead by the title; though the stories take place in New York, there aren’t many quaint anecdotes about the small little corners of our favorite city.

Additional read: Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli created a comic book adaptation for “City of Glass” which is rather well done. Unless you are into comics, however, you probably don’t have to read this.

Review: Honeymooning

Honeymoon with My Brother by Franz Wisner…loved it! It’s a memoir of Franz who got dumped five days before his wedding. With non-refundable honeymoon reservations, he decided to take his brother, which sparked the idea that, “Hey, maybe we should quit our jobs, sell our houses, and see the world for a couple of years.” And that is exactly what they did. Taking in trip in four different phases, they explored Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, and East Africa. Now, before you get inspired to do the same, let me preface with the fact that Franz’s year-end bonus before he quit was $77,000. A $77,000 bonus, in case that didn’t sink in the first time. Needless to say, taking two years off to travel was financially feasible for these 30-somethings who spent their nights in hotels instead of hostels. Franz’s storytelling isn’t bogged down with boring details that only serve as a reminder to the people who took the trip. He tells interesting and entertaining stories and makes some great observations, including a list of how to out-hustle the many hustlers encountered while traveling outside the U.S. The trip started circa 2000, so as I was reading, I had to question if such a trip would be possible in a post-9/11 world; they’d generally had welcome receptions everywhere they went and I wasn’t so sure if Americans would still get that reception. But 9/11 happened right before the African leg of their journey, and the trip seemed to go forth as planned, so I was happy to see it addressed. Overall, an entertaining read I highly recommend. Just expect to get the travel bug after reading.

Review: Gangs and Whores of New York

Kevin Baker’s Dreamland is an entertaining piece of historical fiction, especially living in New York City where I can picture familiar locations in a different time. The book tells the story of several individuals in New York at the turn of the century–when New Yorkers flocked to Coney Island in the summer rather than a movie house, when the Lower East Side was filled with factories and tenement housing, when gangs and loyalties ruled politics, and when the city experienced a flood of immigrants pursuing the American dream. As the reader, we experience the life of a prostitute, a female factory worker, an immigrant, a gang member, a midget in a Dreamland freak-show, and a corrupt politician. Though the novel is written entirely in third-person, Baker rotates chapters of focus on each character. His organizational style weaves the stories of each individual together, and the reader ultimately sees how their lives are all connected. The story stays fresh by the constant change of perspective, and the detail is impressive, in both event and everyday description. With stories ranging from love to tragedy to inhumanity, fact and fiction, Dreamland keeps the reader entertained throughout, despite its 639 pages.

Review: Fame and Fortune

Captain Freedom: a Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves by G. Xavier Robillard

Captain Freedom just wants a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Is that too much to ask after saving the world four times? G. Xavier Robillard’s debut novel tells the story of an unappreciated superhero’s quest for truth, justice and, most importantly, recognition.

He has sponsorships, comic books, and a movie deal, but Captain Freedom’s career as a superhero is dwindling. After being fired by Gotham Comix, Freedom’s world is turned upside down, which leads him down the stereotypical path of a fallen celebrity-drugs, alcohol and rehab. As he struggles to avoid “has-been” status, a life coach helps Freedom examine his past failures, analyze his origin story, and confront the commitment issue that may have led to his decline: his lack of an archenemy.

The world created by Robillard is not much different from our own; just pretend “superhero” is another job option right out of college. Captain Freedom blends perfectly into the rich history of American pop culture-Erik Estrada Pez dispensers nearly cause global domination by a fleet of stone soldiers; modern pirates live on an island called Kazaa and steal copyrighted music and movies; and Enterprise adds time machines to their leasing inventory. Captain Freedom is an entertaining character, because his thirst for celebrity status outweighs all the actual superhero powers he possesses. When the comic books and movies aren’t enough, he writes children’s books and becomes governor of California (where else?) in his quest to protect and promote the Captain Freedom brand. In his eyes, too much celebrity is never a bad thing.

The story of Captain Freedom began as a short piece on National Public Radio and has since developed into the satirical memoir of a character that represents the excess of American culture. Robillard spares nothing-Hollywood, politics, global warming, Homeland Security, aliens, piracy, fashion, even NPR-in this humorous statement on celebrity obsession and hyper-media. Captain Freedom will keep you chuckling at how far one person will go to stay in the spotlight and how his biggest villain may end up being upper management.

As featured on BookPage

Review: Greetings from Africa

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a modern classic that has so many components rolled into one book: historical fiction, memoir, political statement. The story follows a family from Georgia that moves to the Congo as missionaries in the 1960s. The move was decided by Nathan, the father, who believes God chose him to save the heathens abroad. He is a zealous Southern Baptist preacher whose beliefs and actions often contradict mainstream Christianity. The narrative, however, is told by the five women in the family; the mother, Orleanna, introduces each section of the book with a chapter reflecting on life in Africa after decades have passed, while the four daughters–Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May–alternate chapters to tell the story as it was happening. The 1960s brought political upheaval to the region as Belgium granted independence to the Congo (thus becoming Zaire), causing wars, assassinations, and cover-ups by the UN. The author uses her characters to showcase different reactions to the changes taking place in the Congo. They see the changes through the eyes of an American trying to adjust to a new lifestyle, but they also learn the complexities and customs of the natives and develop a new perspective. Kingsolver does an amazing job displaying contradicting viewpoints and illustrating many sides of the story. She intricately develops five very different characters, each described so specifically that the reader feels as though (s)he can predict their thoughts and reactions. The constant change in perspective is refreshing, because the narrative is continuous. I finished this book fulfilled, yet wanting to know more about the history and environment in which the story was set.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review: The iPod Generation

Arthur Phillips uses music to tell a love story in his latest novel, The Song Is You. His main character is Julian Donahue, a middle-aged commercial director obsessed with his iPod and constantly analyzing his life through songs of his past. The song of first love, first kiss, first heartbreak–Julian’s iPod is an album of memories that have left him imprisoned to the past.

Julian has a long history with music, taking after his father who can be heard requesting a song on a live recording of a Billie Holiday concert. But fast forward many years later, and Julian has separated from his wife after the sudden death of their two-year-old song. He’s in a rut of pain and heartbreak, but everything changes the night Julian stumbles in a bar and hears the music of Cait O’Dwyer, an Irish [much younger] rock singer with flaming red hair and a personality to match. Voilà, a unique love story is born.

Phillips has crafted characters full of personality and quirks. Julian’s older brother, Aidan, is a socially inept genius whose downfall came from a politically incorrect answer on Jeopardy; his wife, Rachel, is desperate to end their separation and speaks to Julian through subtle hints and clues that are often misinterpreted; Julian has trouble shifting from playboy to devoted husband, as his obsessions tend to win over self control. Metaphors are prevalent, both in the language and plot of the story, a feature of Phillips’ writing that can at times have you begging for a concise description. Julian and Cait’s relationship becomes a game shrouded in mystery and anticipation that keeps you interested in how it plays out. I got so caught up in the characters’ next moves, that I had to stop and realize how obsessive and stalker-esque this plot had become. Phillips has a bigger picture in mind, though; this obsession as a form of escapism ultimately leads the characters through their problems and out of the past, and he successfully created a piece of work that perfectly illustrates the relationship between society and technology.

Random House
272 Pages, Hardcover
Many thanks to Random House and LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for providing me a free advance copy of this book.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Review: The inextinguishable longing for elsewheres…

This is my first crack at blogging and I haven’t reviewed a book since the sixth grade… be gentle, blogsphere! And thanks to Kari for giving me something to do at work.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the recent Pulitzer Prize winner by Junot Diaz, is as much a lesson in Dominican history as it is a fictional story. Oscar is a massively overweight, sci-fi obsessed logophile who has committed so many acts of social suicide that he’ll never recover. The novel jumps back and forth through time and place, connecting the lives of Oscar, his mother, sister, and grandparents in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, all of which are defined by violence, lust, and “the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.” These scenes are juxtaposed with opinionated footnotes, providing a more in depth (and at times questionably veracious) description of the superstitious legends and savage politicians of Dominica.

Oscar is concerned about two things – writing science fiction novels and getting girls. Although there were a few girls over the years who befriended him, Oscar makes it to his twenty-third birthday without as much as a kiss. He suffers through his cokehead uncle’s taunts that Dominican men never have trouble getting “coño” and his college roommate’s declaration that no Dominican man ever died a virgin. Despite these insults, Oscar’s desire for women is indefatigable and carries him to the Dominican Republic, where like his ailing mother and spirited sister, he is chewed up and spit out by the volatile country.

Being a native Jerseyan, I loved all the references to life in there and the constant desire to move onto bigger and better things. The characters in The Brief and Wondrous Life possess differing attitudes and desires, however they all share the same struggle to take control of their lives, and sex often becomes the tool they use for the fight. This novel is a story about the inevitable failures and imperfections we face, not about successes. Yet, when Oscar had but the slightest victory, it permeated through the pages enough to carry me through the most violent scenes. As a huge fan of damaged love stories and thorny family histories, I flew through this book. I would definitely recommend it!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Booknerds Unite!

Unemployment has led me to read…a lot. And because I have had nothing else interesting to talk about on my blog, I turned to reviewing all the books I read. Apparently people like it.

Several of my friends are bookworms as well, and though we’ve talked about doing book clubs many many many times to discuss the books we read, it never happens. This just seems easier. Here you will find books of all sort and many different points of view.