Friday, October 30, 2009

Review: Borne back ceaselessly into the past

Olivier Adam’s short, lyrical novel Cliffs, kindly sent by the Pushkin Press, is a wonder to behold. What begins in a fugue-like manner, as if fearful to begin the story, the narrative subtly explodes and investigates the narrator’s life and the effect of his mother’s suicide that changed his family’s dynamic. It’s a tale that tries to proclaim as intently as possible that ‘the past is a fiction, that you can wipe the slate clean, that you can build on top of ruins and live without foundations.’ 

Cliffs does feel like a story that we’ve heard before: The narrator, to the day, returns with his family to the site and the hotel where his own mother killed herself by jumping into the cliffs of Normandy twenty-something years before. In honour of this, he pays his respects the only way he knows how: by meditating on the past, by trying to understand why he is where he is, why his family disintegrated slowly but surely. After his mother dies, an eventful funeral where his brother falls into a coma becomes the start of many problems. His father becomes abusive and totalitarian, which accelerates both siblings’ desire to run away from home, an act they both do accomplish in disparate ways. A brief reunion of brothers does more than bring back two men, but the gaunt thoughts of their mother:
At dawn, we walked to the beach and he went skinny-dipping as the sun was coming up. He showed me his new tattoos on his back and chest; I told him I liked them. He had that faint smile, the one I’d always loved, the one he wore when he knew he was impressing me. Suddenly my mother started to float on the still water, then dissolved after barely a second.

I never saw or heard from him again after that. I don’t know if he’s still living that life, if he finally settled down somewhere, or if he’s dead.
Brief chapters don’t allow these thoughts to expound on each other, like in a Virginia Woolf novel; but they act like intense vignettes that jerk the reader back and forth, cascaded on the rapids, like waves smashed on to the crags of a cliff. There is a slight sense of echoing, where a minor thought is revealed earlier in the narrative, only to reverberate later on, tremoring the story into something that feels like it could fragment or adhere. And in that the novel rides on the border of cliché and brilliance at all times, an interesting and tenuous threshold to remain on.
Building on that idea, the only parts of the novel that seem somewhat out of place are the mid-sections about the narrator’s sexual history, the argument of how he met his wife. The focus is so much on the body and explicit description that it feels like this could be part of another novel. But when one looks closer it’s fascinating to see the argument of the unity of mind and body that this novel encapsulates, how truly interconnected physicality and perception really are. There is something pleasantly lachrymose about this novel, one of the most aware of its kind.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Awards Time

The past two weeks have been Crazy with a capital ‘C’. I had a birthday, enjoyed a visit from my parents, and took a business trip to South Dakota (!). Needless to say, I’ve been a bit behind [my Google Reader has backed up to 450+ unread posts. No bueno]. I’m afraid these things almost got lost in the madness, but they made it out alive.

J.T. @ Bibliofreak honored us with the Humane Award
She states:

“This award is to honor certain bloggers that are kindhearted individuals. They regularly take part in my blog and always leave the sweetest comments. If it wasn’t for them, my site would just be an ordinary book review blog. Their blogs are also amazing and are tastefully done on a daily basis. I thank them and look forward to our growing friendship through the blog world.”

J.T. is participating in our Back to School Reading Challenge, and I hope you are too!

I also got an email the other morning informing me we have been listed in the 101 Book Blogs You Need to Read. We appreciate the mention, and be sure to explore the list; there are some great blogs on there!

Review: Princess Snark

Reasons I may like YA fiction: Maybe it’s because I don’t believe my interests have changed much since I was about 14. Maybe it’s the jaded adult in me looking back wistfully at a simpler time. Or maybe it’s that I’m trying live my teen years vicariously, now instead of then, because I thought I was far above juvenile behavior when I was, in fact, juvenile. I still don’t consider high school that far away, but the more YA novels I read, especially this one, I’m starting to realize [egads!] that it was. I’ve turned into the sensible adult that I always said never understand the complex mind of a teen.

Adriana Trigiani makes her YA novel debut with Viola in Reel Life. Viola is a 14-year old Brooklyn native who lives behind her camera, a trait inherited from her documentary filmmaker parents. When mom and dad head to Afghanistan for a year, Viola is sent to Prefect Academy, an all-girl boarding school in South Bend, Indiana. It’s a nightmare for Viola–being dragged away from her friends and beloved New York City, sharing a room with four strangers. Despite a miserable first day, Viola decides her time isn’t worth being spent miserable, and the pending year suddenly looks brighter as she makes new friends, finds her niche, and even acquires a boyfriend.

This book definitely makes certain you know it’s a YA book. The first 50-100 pages are saturated with timely yet unnecessary teen references. The Jonas Brothers, BlackBerries, Audrina from the Hills…sure, maybe they’re relevant right now, but in 10 years (and let’s be honest, probably more like 2), it’s going to seem incredibly dated. I blame the editor for this. It’s not like Trigiani is a new author, and though I’ve never read her other books, I’m pretty sure they are still rather popular. I can’t imagine them littered with pop culture that instantly take away their “timeless” potential. Maybe the editor thought this was the necessary step to put her writing in the YA category, but I think it was a weak move. It’s a good thing the presence of these references leveled off early in the book.
Overall, the pace of the story was slow but not in a bad way. It kept me entertained, especially as Viola gets involved in the production of her own first film. She is a character I hope teen girls would enjoy reading; she has culture and class, a wry and humorous personality, and artistic quirk, but she also has a little bit of that self-involved brattiness [Viola is the self-described Princess Snark] that makes her both a real and relatable character. She learns from her mistakes and tries to make the best of most situations, which I think are commendable characteristics in a 14-year-old girl.
Plus, this story was fun. It didn’t try to define teens as older than they really should be; it wasn’t saturated with the sex and drama that seem to unnecessarily (and unrealistically) pop up in YA media. It describes a girl trying to define herself and adjust to a new setting. Tidbits felt a little unrealistic in the way characters seemed to so gracefully handle difficult situations, but that could just be the jaded adult in me.
I’m pretty sure I found this book while browsing for others like The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which I loved. Do you have any good YA suggestions?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: The pains of growing up

AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book, lately shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a mammoth of a novel, more sprawling than it perhaps should be in its 675 pages. It attempts to tell the story of a couple of families at the end of the Victorian age, all surrounding around the children’s book writer Olive Wellwood. It’s a time when the Fabian Society is starting and going strong, when women are fighting for their right to vote, as the English and the Boers are fighting a war in South Africa. Byatt bombards the reader with enough historical information about the goings-on that it sometimes feels more like a history textbook than a novel itself.

Olive Wellwood has a collection of children, but the only two that seem to matter are Tom – the eldest boy who seems to be stuck in a perpetual state of innocence and naivete – and Dorothy – a girl who does not see gender as a difference in any regard and fights to become a full-fledged doctor. Tom and Dorothea (and sometimes Olive) seem to have the only personalities in this work; they’re the only ones that the narrator spends enough time developing and delving into. Otherwise the rest of the characters feel one-dimensional, as if a pastiche of the types that perhaps were living at the turn of the last century. She doesn’t allow for their development, and just as they do become interesting characters, they’re tossed aside to allow for more plain narratives to take their place. A character Julian is experimenting with sexuality, and as soon as that is mentioned, Dorothy’s interest in medicine takes about 50 pages of description.

As the Wellwood children grow up, we experience the games they play, the lack of attention that they get from their mother, their bouts with different philosophical societies, and the invention of theatre and storytelling on their psyches. More often than not it feels like Byatt is showing off her vast knowledge of the timeperiod and needed to find a venue to expound on such ideas. And this is unfortunate, because in her story collections – The Djinn and the Nightingale’s Eye and Little Black Book of Stories, for instance – she is an absolute master of the faerytale, of the enticing narrative. Here it’s just a way to showcase the research and the names she can drop in order to entice readers to go on, to ask how JM Barrie, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, HG Wells, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and EM Forster will further the narrative. Sadly they won’t.

What starts as a wonderful and drawing faerytale-esque narrative ends up being bogged down with bare, blunt, and boring descriptions of life between 1890-1919. The only thing that saves this narrative from total destruction at the end is the Great War, which ends with the destruction of most of the family members and the family structure; but by the time I got to that it already felt like a cliche, especially when one of the characters becomes a trench poet. It’s a narrative about growing up, but the metaphors for growth are a bit hackneyed by the time you reach them that you’d rather stay with these characters whilst they’re young.
At the very least though, as Byatt is good at doing, it’s an interesting mix of literature, science, and art thrust together to form some sort of protean novel.

AS Byatt will be reading tonight at The Strand, 7.00pm.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Review & GIVEAWAY: What the hell is a Gefilte fish?

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the Bible Belt. In case you had any doubt, Protestant is the way of life there. Growing up, I knew a handful of Catholics and only two Jews. Two.

Then I moved to New York. I started hearing descriptions that involved one’s Jewishness instead of one’s Baptist-ness, and I had no idea what any of these characteristics meant. And though I’ve spent five years here and numerous hours with my friends in the “Jew frat,” I still don’t find much to which I can relate. Who knew that Challah bread was 1) Jewish, and 2) not pronounced like ‘chew’ or like ‘chronic’? Well, not I, as the kids I babysit informed me last year as they ridiculed my Jewish naivety.

When I was approached with Sex, Drugs, & Gefilte Fish: The Heeb Storytelling Collection, I had my doubts—not of its quality or humor, since several top-notch actors, writers, and comedians contribute to this story collection, but if I had absorbed enough New York Jewishness to appreciate (or even understand!) the humor.

However, these stories on sex, drugs, work, and family are more like a casserole of angst-ridden, self-reflective hilarity with a little bit of Jewish flavor thrown in. The publisher describes it as “an examination of what ‘Jewishness’ means” to the stories’ authors, but I think it can be relatable to anyone with an experience that is just so ridiculous, it becomes self-defining. The stories are occasionally vulgar, mostly hilarious, and always refreshingly honest. One of my favorites was about a 12-year-old boy who thought Bo Derek was a man, so he convinced his mom to take to him to see “10” to find out what was so special about “him.” Another by actor/comedian Michael Showalter describes “mustorderitis,” the phenomenon that forces one to order a specific item on a menu, even if you know it is going to be garbage. Face it…gazpacho from a diner in the middle of West Virginia is not going to be very good.

The stories are so short that I found it hard to put the book down. You’ll keep telling yourself, “I’ll just read another one…ok, just one more.” I laughed throughout, but at the end, my question about gefilte fish still remains unanswered (see post title).

The fine people at Hachette have graciously offered FIVE copies of Sex, Drugs, and Gefilte Fish to our US/Canadian readers! Each of the below will get you one entry (max 3):

  1. Leave a comment with your email on this post and explain gefilte fish to me! If you don’t know, make something up and entertain me!
  2. Tweet about it (@booknerds)!
  3. Subscribe and let me know about it (if you’re already subscribed, let me know about that, too!)

Contest is open until 11:59PM EST on Monday, November 9th. Winners will be announced the next day.

Good luck!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: Middle-Aged Ennui

Every time I read a Richard Russo novel, I fall in love with his writing a little bit more. It’s an unconventional love—mismatched demographics and target audiences. I often wonder if I would better understand the complex emotions Russo conveys in his novels if I were thirty years older, but our love doesn’t play by the rules.

Russo’s newest novel, That Old Cape Magic, has the same components of his others—a simple story line, evolving relationships, and characters with emotions that are often hidden under the surface. In this one, Jack Griffin (just goes by ‘Griffin’) is on his way to Cape Cod where he will meet his wife and daughter for the wedding of his daughter’s best friend. In his trunk, he’s been carrying his father’s ashes for over a year; he just can’t seem to get around to scattering them. And his mother…she’s alive and he just can’t seem to get rid of her either. Griffin is the son of two (obnoxious) college professors, and he grew up in Northeastern academia. His youthful “rebellion” led him to LA as a Hollywood screenwriter, but a marriage pact led him back east to work as a college professor [newsflash Griffin, you are your parents]. The wedding weekend in the Cape was enjoyable enough, but it just seems like something is nagging at both Griffin and his marriage, something he can’t really put his finger on, yet knows isn’t right. [By the way, I said Russo’s storylines were simple, but not simple to explain.]

And this is when I begin to love Russo and his writing. He creates and defines these characters that are (usually) middle-aged and seem perfectly normal, but it’s the stuff below the surface that creates the conflict. It’s almost like disappointment with life, but I wouldn’t define it as simply as that. Russo has a gift of conveying these complex emotions in a single sentence or paragraph, where you just say, “Aha, I know what he means!” And I probably don’t even really know what he means since I’m only 24, but I feel like I do.

This was my favorite one. When Griffin and his wife, Joy, were arguing:

“But usually their disputes were constrained. They were about something, not everything.”

That sentence right there just summed up the whole crux of their issues. Yes, I said, I can see exactly how this fight is different and how their relationship has changed in their 30-something years of marriage. I wouldn’t say read Russo for gripping entertainment. You definitely need to know the style you’ve gotten yourself into when you pick up a Russo work. I have a thing for character-driven novels, but usually ones that also follow some sort of storyline [hence my lackluster opinion of The Elegance of the Hedgehog]. This is a category Russo fits into perfectly. While most of the story focuses on Griffin, the other characters are entertaining as well. I never got to know them as intimately as Griffin but well enough to decide if I would want to hang out with them in real life. It’s also a fairly short novel (at 250 odd pages), so it’s really worth a try.

Ah, Richard Russo. I wonder if I’ll be fifty-three someday and thinking of you and how I’m glad I learned about these complex emotions long before middle-age.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review: Chemo Schmemo

New Yorker and Glamour cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto, in her mid-forties, was ready for her marriage to A-list chef Silvano Marchetto, owner of DaSilvano. During a regular swimming session, Marisa realises that there’s a lump in her breast, which starts a cascade of worries and aggravations. Suddenly everything falls apart: Contradictory information from doctors, friends, and family members; questioning Silvano’s ability to love during such an ordeal (like an ox though, he stays by her side throughout); and hearing anecdotes and seeing the aftereffects of cancer and of chemotherapy – all of this makes up Acocella Marchetto’s graphic memoir, Cancer Vixen: A True Story, now out in paperback.

The art within Cancer Vixen is playful, even when it’s painful to read about, which shows a strength in the artist’s ability and conviction to the story. She’s unafraid to go into some unfortunate territories, like that of the mammogram or how her breasts became the focal point of her life as she was unable to think about anything else (there’s a great image of her eyes becoming breasts within the book). One of the more shocking parts of the story is that Acocella Marchetto has to get the chemo needles into her drawing hand, which is a frightening thought as she makes a living doing sketches with that hand; and we watch as she almost has a meltdown thinking that this chemo may takeaway more than her hair and her privacy and her energy – but also her livelihood.

Cancer Vixen, like most graphic novels, balances the grim with some humour. Perhaps the pacing wasn’t perfect, as it sometimes felt hard to turn the page (the material within might have something to do with that too); I found myself wanting to put it down after a couple of minutes. But, having an aunt who’s going through such chemo sessions right now, I found the book to be informative and original and perhaps even helpful to understand what it’s like to be under such duress and stress – how brutal cancer really is and how wonderful it is to have people who love you around you.

Marisa Acocella Marchetto will be doing a reading and signing at the Barnes & Noble in Greenwich Village at 7.30pm tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: After the storm

I remember entering my sophomore year listening to the reports of the devastation in New Orleans. I started classes almost immediately after Hurricane Katrina and—despite pleas from various university activists—I never gave enough attention to the actual events that took place after the deluge. I knew about the loss, the degradation, the ruin, but I never understood the exact series of events. This graphic novel made the days following Hurricane Katrina not only accessible, but heart-wrenching and vivid.

Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge chronicles five separate stories from a few days before Hurricane Katrina through the storm and the terrible aftermath. Each story is distinct in character and events. Neufeld chose his characters due to their completely diverse backgrounds and the different ways they braved the storm. It’s clear that Neufeld is close with his characters especially during the final portion of the book when he draws himself into the frame. After reading A.D. I have a new sense of what happened in New Orleans. The confusion of being lost in a once thriving city is visible in every frame. What was familiar became alien.

The drawings are clear with dark lines. Each section takes on a new tint, but for the most part the pages are monochrome. The changes in hue help establish new settings or time periods without having to waste frames with exposition—but could that exposition help the reader understand the characters?

The one thing comics don’t relate all too well is time; one could rely on titles which establish time, but don’t allow the reader to relive time. It takes a lot of drawings to recreate time and most artists just don’t have the resources to create such sprawling works. I think there is an even larger work waiting to be written. If Neufeld finds the time I would love to see what other stories he collected throughout his research.

This is definitely a worthwhile read and great for anyone looking for a personal account of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A.D. was developed through SMITH magazine which is a great online resource for indie storytelling. Check out this little web-doc about their series Next Door Neighbors—you can see what kind of writing they prefer and how that influenced the creation of A.D. (I helped out on this web-series; a little cross promotion never hurt anyone, right?)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: A real bildungsroman in Harlem

When someone points a gun in your direction but doesn’t want to shoot you in particular you should
A. run into the nearest building.
B. yell and scream while you run away.
C. stand still.
D. hit the ground.

A couple of months ago, I listened to This American Life on NPR which repeated a segment about Baby College, a place where parents learn about ways of not threatening their children with violence in New York City. One of the forerunners behind this programme is Geoffrey Canada, whose work at the Harlem Children’s Zone seems like nothing short of a miracle come true: their idea is to get the community involved in self-improvement, starting at the home, by not using violence as a threat to motivate children. A workshop for parents is held, and participants learn about alternatives to the toxic behaviour of the ‘streets’.

On that note I tracked down Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, based on a friend’s recommendation. And what a thrilling and telling read it was. Canada details how he was raised in Harlem, how he learned violence – its effects and its ‘need’ – in the neighbourhood, and how he developed a programme that would attempt to eliminate said ‘need’. The descriptions of gunfights (which have basically replaced fist- or knife-fights of yesteryear) and of torture that schoolchildren inflict upon one another are as powerful and as frightening as Raskilnokov’s horsebeating dream, which still makes me sick thinking about it.

Canada had a knife which he tended to like a pet: ‘The knife was my passport. As I approached a group, my hand would slide in to my right pocket to position my knife so that it could be immediately opened, then I would set my eyes straight ahead and wait for a challenge,’ Canada writes; this knife accidentally later disfigures one of his fingers, a problem he still has today. But this is how he learned to live, where there was pride in violence.

This book goes into theories of how to eliminate the need for this way of handling issues, even discusses failed programmes like Nelson Rockefeller increasing the penalty for drug dealers, which then created a new problem of children taking the dealers’ places – worsening the situation for all. He discusses how police forces in poorer neighbourhoods tend to be slightly racist, which doesn’t help the fact that residents don’t see the police as helpful but harmful. Canada even has suggestions at the back of the book which discuss sociopolitical ways that violence in schools and in cities can be ameliorated, ideas that make sense on paper and, based on his success in Harlem, in real-life.
I found this a enthralling and fascinating read, one that I was unable to put down once I started. The author is articulate and his ideas in this book resonate today even after the tragedies of Columbine and Virginia Tech, especially since the book was written back in 1995. Very impressive all around.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Asymmetrical

Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry has probably been my most looked-forward-to book of the year. I (like everyone else) loved The Time Traveler’s Wife. What I liked about it: the love story, the supernatural, the fact that you get so engrossed in the characters that you don’t care about the flaws or holes or plausibility of the time traveling. I knew that Her Fearful Symmetry was going to contain the same kind of supernatural storyline woven into the plot, and I was excited for the escape from reality.

Niffenegger’s second novel (6 years after her first one) involves two sets of twins: Elspeth and Edie, and Edie’s twin daughters, Valentina and Julia. Elspeth has just died of cancer and left her London flat to her two nieces whom she has never met. So when the inheritance kicks in as the girls turn 21, they decide to leave their home in Ohio and take their humdrum, unmotivated lives to London.

Valentina and Julia are the kind of twins that you look at and say, “Shouldn’t they have grown out of that by now?” They look the same, dress the same, but unbeknownst to the casual observer, they do not think the same. Though they have always led their lives “together,” things are changing. Julia wanted to go to London; Valentina did not. Valentina wants to go back to college; Julia does not. They struggle with their codependence and their desire to be apart, but ultimately, Valentina feels stifled by Julia and wants to lead her own life. While fighting their internal demons, they encounter some external ones as well. The twins learn that the ghost of Elspeth is trapped in the apartment, and they can communicate with her. Throw in the creepy setting of London’s Highgate Cemetery and an eccentric supporting cast, and we have ourselves a kind of ghost story.

The strongest part of this book is the setting. Niffenegger’s sense of setting is fabulous. She is so descriptive and has a skill of setting the scene to draw you in the mood and tone of the story. The secondary characters are also excellent. We meet Robert, Elspeth’s younger lover that lives in the flat below the twins, and Martin, a middle-aged OCD man who is determined to get better so he can get back his wife that left him. However, I was left with a lot of questions about relationships. For one, the author attempts to describe some kind of complex twin love that sounded frighteningly more sexual than it should, but she never took it far enough to really matter. The aspects of relationships that should’ve been deeply explored were not. I never felt too connected to most of the characters; they just didn’t have much depth, and I couldn’t really understand the logic behind their actions or emotions. Martin and his wife Marijke ended up having the most satisfying storyline of all.

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies, but at exactly page 306, I knew how this story would conclude. I didn’t even have that much desire to read more than just the last page. But I forged ahead, and yes, I was correct in my guess. I was left at the end just saying, “What?” A lot was left open, and I don’t mean “open to interpretation” open. I mean it just seemed like she got lazy and gave up. Audrey Niffenegger has proven herself to be a creative person, so I know she’s got it in her!

I couldn’t put down Her Fearful Symmetry. It was an engrossing read that I got through quickly. I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t know if I liked it. However, I’ve read several reviews that say this was the reviewer’s favorite read of the year, so to each her own, I guess.

What did you think? Did it live up to the hype for you?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Back to School: No more school!

I watched Douglas McGrath’s 2002 adaptation of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby on a whim and, besides the lead actor’s flat acting, enjoyed it tremendously. Thus I decided to change my ‘Back to School’ reading list and add this coming-of-age tome.

The eponymous character is an angry but loving young man who loses his father early in life; his father unfortunately left his family in a bit of a conundrum – he rids them of their savings on a business plan that goes awry. And so the Nicklebys are forced to ask for help from Ralph, Nicholas’s uncle, a man who has no love but for money, no care but for manipulation. Nicholas, eager and willing to do anything for a shilling, decides to work at a Yorkshire school (Dotheboys Hall) under the auspices of Wackford Squeers and family, but upon arriving he sees the utter brutality and ignorance of the Squeers – how they cane the boys, feed them something worse than gruel, and mentally unprepare them for the world outside.
When the physically – and mentally – disabled servant of Dotheboys Hall, Smike, tries to run away and is caught by the Squeers family, when Wackford decides he will torture and mutilate the boy in front of the rest of the school, Nicholas finally steps in and saves the boy from his fate, instead whipping Squeers. Nicholas and Smike become a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of sorts along the English countryside, trying to find a way home, a way back into favourable society, and a way that Nicholas and his family can be independent from Ralph, who becomes much more sinister, especially when you see how he terrorizes Nicholas’s sister and her innocence (it’s almost surprising she doesn’t follow the path of Tess of the D’Urbervilles).
Of course, as this is a Victorian novel and one by Dickens, there many more storylines and characters than this. And the McGrath film adaptation does a fine job managing them all in an entertaining and essence-capturing way. I found the second half of the book a bit annoying, as if there was such a change in theme (Nicholas finds a love interest) that it didn’t have the same exciting energy that the first half had. Additionally – and I know that this a large aspect of 19th century writing – I did not enjoy how everyone was so black or white; characters couldn’t be in the grey area, having good and bad qualities, having issues of the past that they’re working against. And I felt like Dickens manipulated the narrative too much when it came to Smike: although he was my favourite character in the novel itself – and Smike himself had some of the best, tearjerking lines – I didn’t find it necessary that he had to be so abused and so belittled that he was so dependent upon Nicholas and, eventually, his family.
But in closing, my preferred lines from the novel:
‘Do you remember the boy that died here?’ [Smike said]
‘I was not here, you know,’ said Nicholas gently; ‘but what of him?’
‘Why,’ replied the youth . . . ‘I was with him at night, and when it was all silent he cried no more for friends he wished to come and sit with him, but began to see faces round his bed that came from home; he said they smiled, and talked to him, and died at last lifting his head to kiss them. Do you hear?’
‘Yes, yes,’ rejoined Nicholas.
‘What faces will smile on me when I die!’ said his companion, shivering. ‘Who will talk to me in those long nights? They cannot come from home; they would frighten me if they did, for I don’t know what it is, and shouldn’t know them. Pain and fear, pain and fear for me, alive or dead. No hope. No hope.’
As beautiful and as provoking as this passage is, it is dripping with melancholy. But still, a worthy read.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review: L’Élégance du hérisson

My experience with Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog was the exact opposite of what I expected. This may be the first review I’ve written that has a more negative than subjective tone, but I’m just gonna be honest. Maybe it’s because I had high expectations or maybe it was really that boring, but I’m gonna say it’s a combination of the two.

First of all, this book has an awesomely creative premise. The story focuses on two unique individuals that live in the same upscale Paris apartment building. We have Renée Marcel, the 50-something concierge that secretly enjoys art, culture, and literature, but is usually overlooked. Then there is Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old daughter of a wealthy family. Paloma is extraordinarily intelligent but has decided that life is a fish bowl. There’s nothing to look forward to in adulthood, so she has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.
So this seems like a great setup for a story, yes? Well, about 250 pages in, you might finally be satisfied with the direction the story is going. The book is structured with alternating chapters written by Renée and Paloma, but the first 200+ pages were just intellectual garble to me. This is how the characters are introduced to the reader, but we have to listen to internal monologue after internal monologue about this or that philosopher/artist/musician. It felt like a philosophical discourse for which I hadn’t done the reading. It takes more than these 200 pages for the two characters to actually meet and interact—an event I would have expected and liked to happen much earlier in the novel.
When people call this novel brilliant, I think they must be referring to the last 100 pages, because that’s where the story I expected seems to begin. Yes, I understand the point of this book. Two individuals who are overlooked, underestimated, and deal with the loneliness that comes with being unique. The relationship they have with each other is gratifying and cultivated. They bring out the best of each other; they’re kindred spirits of sort (to pull out Anne of Green Gables reference). But I just felt like I was missing something. I was never fully engrossed with the characters, though I did enjoy the last part of the book.
I think this deserves a re-read on my part. And please, do read it and give me your opinion. It’s been a NYTimes bestseller and all of France seems to love it, so it there must be something good about it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: Wonk

I’ve been told for quite a while to read George Saunders. And just recently between a ‘This American Life’ broadcast and a New Yorker podcast, Saunders has infiltrated my system ‘aurally’. His intensely brutal sense of humour is something to be admired. His writing isn’t necessarily literary as it is conversational. It’s like reading as someone speaks.

In Persuasion Nation is a collection of stories which build up to being one long diatribe against advertisements, television, and mass market consumerism. Each is interested in defaming popular culture, a culture that is solely attune to the latest products and individual behaviour. For the most part the tales are touching or laugh out loud funny, but there are moments of dead time or aggrandizement.
‘My Flamboyant Grandson’ is a humorous tale about a grandfather who takes his theatre-and-Babar-obsessed grandson to the wildly lit world of a futuristic New York City. Along Broadway they experience personalised advertisements (in the future everyone will have advertisements tailored to your brain waves). Unfortunately as the grandfather and grandson are running late, the grandfather physically nudges an advertisement man/Citizen Helper (a title that just is reminiscent of Communism and 1984) and therefore has to go through re-education. ‘This, to me, is not America. What America is, to me, is a guy doesn’t want to buy, you let him not buy, you respect his not buying. A guy has a crazy notion different from your crazy notion, you pat him on the back and say, Hey pal, nice crazy notion, let’s go have a beer. America, to me, should be shouting all the time, a bunch of shouting voices, most of them wrong, some of them nuts, but please, not just one droning glamorous reasonable voice.’ It’s an amusing statement, even though a bit heavy-handed and dripping with the narrator’s own propaganda.
My personal favourite story is ‘Adams’, where the narrator of this tale walks into his home and sees his neighbour Adams in his kitchen, barely dressed facing his kids’ rooms. And with that starts a neighbourly war, beginning with the narrator wonking Adams on the back of the head. This hysterical and biting short story goes into the theories of pre-emptive strikes, protection of children, neighbor gossip, and sick thinking – all of which loses its effect if I try to explain it. ‘Adams’ may be the shortest story in the collection but it is certainly the most memorable.

Joshua Ferris does a fantastic, dead-on reading of ‘Adams’ via the New Yorker podcast, which can be found here. Ferris’s articulation on the line ‘As if he is the one who is right!’ acknowledges Ferris’s mastery of the story and mastery of reading. In another’s hands, that probably would have been slurred. But he gives ‘Adams’ a wonderful reading and he and Deborah Triesman have an interesting discussion that does open the story to a more ‘political’ reading.
Saunders also has a new story in a recent New Yorker.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Review: The Moon’s Warm Embrace

Last week I saw the Broadway opening of playwright Tracy Letts’ new show, ‘Superior Donuts.’ Letts’ previous show, ‘August: Osage County,’ won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and enjoyed a long, successful run on Broadway. So of course, when his new show opened, everyone immediately compared it to his last one, when the two are very different. 

I hate this kind of comparison. It irritates me when an author’s books or movies or plays are compared to each other in quality (particularly when one has been saturated in praise) rather than critiqued as independent works.

Rebecca Wells’ The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder seems to have gotten trapped in this pattern. The success of her previous Ya-Ya novels left high expectations for Crowning Glory, the first of her four books to feature new and different characters. The majority of reviews I read expressed disappointment with Wells’ new novel, but I really don’t understand them and completely disagree.
Calla Lily Ponder is the protagonist of the story, and we follow her life as she transitions from childhood to adulthood in the small town of La Luna, Louisiana. Calla enjoys a blissful childhood, soaking in the compassionate love of her hairdresser mother, M’Dear, and the nurturing light of the Moon Lady–“the feminine force that will guide and protect her throughout her life.” Calla’s childhood is defined by innocence until she is forced to grow up fast. Hometown heartbreaks lead Calla to New Orleans after high school to take up where M’Dear left off with her “healing hands.” Calla enrolls at L’Academie de Beaute de Crescent as a fresh start, determined to develop her skill and passion for soothing pain and changing lives. But of course, New Orleans also brings a whole slew of new friends and a whole slew of new troubles.
This book had me hooked by the second chapter and crying by about the sixth. Wells’ writing, as usual, oozes southern charm. She has created another leading character that is defined by her southern upbringing, one that is tied so tightly to her setting that she couldn’t exist anywhere else. Family, love, heartbreak…the themes and emotions of the story are universal, but Calla is not. I loved the characters and their depth of emotion at very realistic situations.
Though it takes about four hundred pages to do so, this book is essentially telling you one thing: love, live, dance often, and believe that life (and the people in it) is basically good. So maybe that is more than one thing, but you get the gist.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Author Interview: Ben Segal

I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Ben Segal, the author of 78 Stories: A Crossword Novella, reviewed earlier this month. Mr Segal will have a chapbook called Science Fiction Pornography publishing in November by Publishing Genius Press. Without further ado, the interview:

The title of your book is 78 Stories and yet the subtitle is A Crossword Novella. So, do you refer to it as a collection of stories or a novella? 

I think the subtitle comes from grasping for some way of neatly describing the project. While certainly within a lineage of experimental texts, the actual form of 78 Stories is (as far as I know) unique. So in describing it to people, I had to develop a functional shorthand for what it is. Novella is probably the wrong term, but I guess we went with it for the subtitle because it’s associated with an approximate word count, a level of cohesion, and the status of a ‘book’. The title and the subtitle together speak to both the independence and interdependence of the constitutive stories.

In a former interview with Orange Alert, you mentioned that you were intrigued with the idea of irritability when developing 78 Stories. Why write something that may irritate and jar readers from pushing forward?

This question is an interesting misreading on your part. I was speaking about iterability and iteration- how the same textual mark (be it letter, word, paragraph, etc.) can be written again and again and signify differently each time. The crossword puzzle was a kind of iteration engine or machine for the production of multi-directional meaning. As for irritation, I do think that that can have a place in literature. Frustration and difficulty are often part of an ultimately rewarding reading.

The concept of your novella reminded me a lot of a Bach fugue, where the same voices and tones are heard, but are of course tampered with, added to, reduced, etc. Is music something that informs your writing?

I wouldn’t say that music is a direct influence. I’m not someone like Harry Matthews who studied music seriously and has a crossover interest in the forms of both. I’m sure that the music I listen to influences me indirectly. Right now I’m listening to Rocketship. They’re pretty great.

78 Stories’ structure is reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, in that it doesn’t allow for a single gesture to be taken away, otherwise the whole project would fall apart like a house of cards. Plus the reader also gets to choose how to read the book. Do you find such tight writing constraints and open reading liberations helpful?

Constrained writing and open reading are both very exciting for me. All writing is under constraint (of language, grammar, convention) and working under well defined formal constraints can be very helpful in producing work that is not trapped in stale, received plot and language structures. Open reading is, like constrained writing is for constrained nature writing in general, a way of highlighting the actual openness of all reading. When we have a physical text object like a book, we have the ability to skip, skim, re-read, deface… All readings are individual and in the hands of the reader. Reading and writing are both active processes of producing meaning through text more than simple transmissions or receptions of said meaning. I am interested in readings and writings that highlight the material and artificial condition of the work and the co-dependence of reader and writer.

Are you a fan of Nabokov? And if so did Nabokov’s interest in crosswords, as he created the first one in Russian, bolster your project?

I am a fan, Pale Fire especially, although I’ve not read nearly as much Nabokov as some of more dedicated friends. As for a direct link between Nabokov’s crossword interest and mine, there isn’t one. It’s a nice link though and maybe I should claim it. I was, however, inspired by Perec as crossword maker.

In paraphrasing Georges Perec, the puzzle-maker in essence has to be his every puzzler. Thus the writer has to be his every reader. When the reader unravels 78 Stories physically and mentally before him, is he then looking at a reflection of the author, the reflection of himself the reader, or an invention of ordered chaos?

This is getting at all kinds of tricky topics like authorial intent and the relation of the writer to his text. I’m sure that 78 Stories is in certain ways a reflection of me, of my interests and temporary obsessions when I was working on it. Still, I think that the book is a text like any other. What a reader takes from the book is very personal and dependent on the analytical frameworks she brings to it. I’m not sure I can really speak to how the book ‘should’ be experienced. I’m just hopeful that people will like it.

Your short stories are so pregnant even though they rarely use more than 500 words. Do you find inspiration for this from poetry or other prose?

I tend to find inspiration from prose writers who are concerned with aesthetic questions (language, rhythm, form) that are usually relegated to poetry. My lists below of books I’m looking forward to and writers I admire are full of such people.

Your stories also have a unusual feeling to them, as if they could be set anywhere about anyone. Yet most writers usually embody the world they live in: Cormac McCarthy and the American Middle/South, Seamus Heaney and rural Ireland, Leo Tolstoy and the whole of Russian consciousness, Jonathan Ames and subaltern physicality. Is there a section of this world that you want to be Ben Segal territory?

It’s interesting that you give Ames a non-geographical space. I’d like to take a similarly conceptual one, but I’m not sure what I’d designate it. My relation to place in writing is almost a non-relation. I’m much more interested in bodies than environments and the physical presence of language than of scenery.

Do you see yourself as a puzzle-maker type of writer? A puppeteer? A camera?

The approach depends on the project. I think mostly I am resistant to these comparisons because I’m interested in writing as writer. What I mean is that I’m interested in the specific properties of text and of the reading experience, so while I can appreciate comparisons to other media, I really do try to write medium-responsive fiction.

Who are the contemporary authors you like to read?

Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, Ben Marcus….many others

Which books are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I’m currently reading and enjoying ‘Boons’ and ‘The Camp’, a pair of novellas by David Ohle that just came out. Also looking forward to Blake Butler’s ‘Scorch Atlas’ (also out now) and Molly Gaudry’s ‘We Will Take Me Apart’ (forthcoming shortly).

And in as few words as possible, Why write?


Friday, October 2, 2009

Review: And the winner is…

Comparing a novelist to another novelist is an unfair and shoddy form of criticism. But when a novelist is touted as the next Ernest Hemingway, one must react with either stern skepticism or a chuckle at the publicist’s audacity. I chose the latter. The Longshot by Katie Kitamura is a novel written in pared, brief sentences much akin to those of America’s favorite lion hunting author.

The Longshot follows Cal, a mixed-martial arts fighter, and his long time trainer, Riley, as they prepare for a fight with the champion. Cal stood toe-to-toe with the champ before and walked away on his own; a feat no one had done or has done since. Still, Cal is a longshot and he knows this every moment of the book.

I’ve sat on this review for a long while because I am an over-thinker. I usually associate brief sentence structure with a writer inability to delve into the depths of his or her characters. With that being said, The Longshot needed that sort of language in order for the reader to understand the relationship between Cal and Riley. The two have likely spent the last four years side by side, yet neither can muster more than a few words to the other—it’s how the trainer/fighter relationship works and Kitamura is keenly aware of this.

Kitamura drifts between past and present with ease and never lingers too long during her exposition. Nothing in the novel is too long. Everything exists in brief moments and reactions. Punch. Counter-punch. Combo.

I’ve read a few reviews that claim the ending is ambiguous, but I think it’s quite clear. It just isn’t dwelled upon. The main question throughout the novel is: Can the longshot win? When it’s answered, the novel ends.

The novel is beautiful in its brevity and is worth reading. I cannot say I am a huge MMA fan, but I do fancy some of the bigger battles. With boxing nearly defunct—especially heavyweight—MMA is primed to replace it, but my assumption is (and I apologize if it’s poor) that many of the lingerers don’t fancy pugilism. Is a novel’s topic the most important factor when picking up a book? How strong does a review have to be to sway your opinion? Or, have I completely misjudged the readers and ignored our huge boxing contingent?

Review copy provided by author.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

OCTOBER Book Events: New York

An interesting mix this month. Some big author names like Audrey Niffenegger, Michael Chabon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gore Vidal, Chuck Klosterman, and John Irving. BUT, you can also see the infamous Julie Andrews, Mario “AC Slater” Lopez, Andy Williams (he’s still ALIVE??), Richard Belzer (SVU anyone?), and Paul Shaffer…yes, the obligatory musician sidekick of Dave Letterman.

And perhaps my most favorite…should you be a huge fan of Clueless, you’re in luck—Alicia Silverstone and Wallace Shawn in the same month! Inconceivable!

10/1 Thursday

  • “Shootin’ the Sh*t With Kevin Smith” Kevin Smith, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “The Financial Lives of the Poets” Jess Walter, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “Stardust” Joseph Kanon, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “In the Falling Snow” Caryl Phillips, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
10/5 Monday
  • “Her Fearful Symmetry” Audrey Niffenegger, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “Jhumpa Lahiri reads Mavis Gallant” Jhumpa Lahiri, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
10/6 Tuesday
  • “Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies” Julie Andrews, B&N Tribeca, 5:30 pm
  • “Wordy Shipmates” Sarah Vowell, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • Launch Party for Poem Strip, Idlewild Books, 7:00 pm
  • “Spooner” Pete Dexter, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
10/7 Wednesday
  • “Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son” Michael Chabon, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “Barack Like Me: The Chocolate-Covered Truth” David Alan Grier, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “Essays” Wallace Shawn, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
10/8 Thursday
  • “Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel” Jeannette Walls, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • Launch Party for Best American Travel Writing 2009, Idlewild Books, 7:00 pm
10/9 Friday
  • “Good Eats: The Early Years” Alton Brown, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
10/10 Saturday
  • “Family Affair” Caprice Crane, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
10/12 Monday
  • “The Kind Diet” Alicia Silverstone, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
10/13 Tuesday
  • “Moon River and Me” Andy Williams, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
10/14 Wednesday
  • “Hell’s Kitchen Homicide” Charles Kipps, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • Launch Party for Tokyo Vice, Idlewild Books, 7:00 pm
  • “We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin’ Show-biz Saga” Paul Shaffer, B&N Union Square, 7:30 pm
  • “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife” Francine Prose, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
10/15 Thursday
  • Scott Westerfeld, James Dashner, Michael Grant, Carrie Ryan, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife” Francine Prose, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
  • “I Am Not a Psychic!” Richard Belzer, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
  • “When You Reach Me” Rebecca Stead, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm
10/16 Friday
  • “Mud Tacos” Mario Lopez, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 6:00 pm
10/19 Monday
  • “A Quiet Belief in Angels” R.J. Ellory, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “Mathilda Savitch” Victor Lodato, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
10/21 Wednesday
  • “Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare” Gore Vidal, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” Richard Dawkins, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “Chronic City” Jonathan Lethem, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
10/22 Thursday
  • “I Am the New Black” Tracy Morgan, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “Mere Future” Sarah Schulman, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
10/23 Friday
  • “Chronic City” Jonathan Lethem, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
10/26 Monday
  • “Eating the Dinosaur” Chuck Klosterman, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
10/27 Tuesday
  • “Upstairs at the Square” Sherman Alexie, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance” Elna Baker, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
10/29 Thursday
  • “Last Night in Twister River” John Irving, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “The Story of Edward Sawtelle” David Wroblewski, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm

Review: The widening gyre

I’ll preface this review with saying that hitherto I unfortunately haven’t read anything by Marcel Proust. He may be one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, the forerunner of stream-of-consciousness and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf; but the fact of the matter is In Search of Lost Time seems like too much of a behemoth to attempt.

So instead, at last week’s Brooklyn Book Festival, I decided to pick up Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, part of Melville House Publishing’s The Art of the Novella series. This little book informs me that Proust has a sense of humour, can adapt his voice to sound like others (as he does quite nice parodies of Balzac and Flaubert, French authors with whom I’m much more familiar), and from what I understand even foreshadows his triumph of Modernism by showcasing how one little moment can spark a million different thoughts and sidetracks and responses.

The premise behind this book is that at the turn of the twentieth century, a Monsieur Henri Lemoine claims to have the secret of turning coal into diamonds. Like the philosopher’s stone or the fountain of youth or any other alchemistic wonder, people get on board. However, those that do are not common folk but Sir Julius Warner, then president of DeBeers diamond company, and Marcel Proust, the author himself. In 1909, M. Lemoine is sentenced to 6 years in prison, and in his introduction, Proust tells us that the trial didn’t make much fuss in the French world. But it was enough to get the author to respond with these little, irreverent tales mimicking and perhaps mocking the masters of 19th century French literature.

We move from the keen eye of Balzac’s world to the picky one of Flaubert’s to, one of my favourites, a fictional Sainte-Beuve review of the fictional ‘The Lemoine Affair’ by Gustave Flaubert, where we don’t just get a retelling of this Lemoine issue but we get a critique on the style and art of Flaubert’s writing and themes. ‘Sainte-Beuve’ extols Flaubert for his confrontation of ‘the enemy on all sides . . . he accepts all challenges, regardless of the conditions that they are offered, and never demands a choice of weapons, never seeks strategic advantage from the lay of the land.’ But then this reviewer quickly riposts with a diatribe on realism:

Well, we say to Mr. Flaubert, that is not true; esteem–and we know that the
example will touch you, since it is only in literature that you belong to the
school of insensitivity, of impassivity–is acquired by a whole
life devoted to science, to humanity. Literature, once upon a time, could procure
it also, when it was only the gauge and so to speak the flower of the man’s
urbanity, of that entirely human dispoisition that can indeed have its
predilections and its goals, but that allows, alongside images of vice and
ridicule, those of innocence and virtue. . . . The author is again visibly
starting to amuse himself–nay, we’ll use the word–to mystify us.

This is a fascinating and perhaps appropriate claim for/against Flaubert, who certainly reigns at the top of French writing. And it’s some of the more insightful statements in this work. Which is unlike the final ‘story’ in this novella, ‘In the Memoirs of Saint-Simon’, a tale that is inherently annoying and tortuous. The narrator rambles on about nothing for pages on end, about little inane relations between people (reminiscent of The Picture of Dorian Gray‘s chapter on tapestries etc) only to conclude that ‘this digression on the peculiarity of titles has taken us too far astray from the Le Moine affair.’

What makes this an amusing and wonderful piece of writing is that though the book is called The Lemoine Affair, it seems to have very little to do with Lemoine himself. Narrators just mention Lemoine peripherally, and although everyone and every story may be revolving around Lemoine and his deceptive deed, we never get to truly understand what it is he did or why people are perturbed with him in the pages of the novella. The false alchemy is rarely mentioned. The novella just acts as a way of bringing random characters together, all somehow tangentally affected by Lemoine’s trickery.

Apparently this is the first English translation of The Lemoine Affair, which makes you wonder why Proust scholars and Anglo-Francophiles haven’t attempted it sooner, as it’s a cunning, biting, and humorous read. Definitely worth seeing how an author can amusingly attack and appreciate other authors.