Monday, February 14, 2011

Love, literati-style

I've been remiss in my book review duties, and plan to get back on track, but for now here's some, I mean perfectly cromulent content.  In honor of Valentine's Day, here some of my favorite literary pontifications on love:

"For a moment Anne's heart fluttered queerly and for the first time her eyes faltered under Gilbert's gaze and a rosy flush stained the paleness of her face. It was as if a veil that had hung before her inner consciousness had been lifted, giving to her view a revelation of unsuspected feelings and realities. Perhaps, after all, romance did not come into one's life with pomp and blare, like a gay knight riding down; perhaps it crept to one's side like an old friend through quiet ways; perhaps it revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music, perhaps. . . perhaps. . .love unfolded naturally out of a beautiful friendship, as a golden-hearted rose slipping from its green sheath." -- Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of the Island

"Call me unimaginative, but I still can't think of anyone I'd rather be with. On our worst days, I figure things will probably work themselves out. Otherwise, I really don't give our problems much thought. Neither of us would ever publicly display affection; we're just not that type. We can't profess love without talking through hand puppets, and we'd never consciously sit down to discuss our relationship. These, to me, are good things. They were fine with Hugh as well, until he saw that damned movie and was reminded that he has other options." -- David Sedaris, "The End of the Affair"

“Who wants to go to town?” demanded Daisy insistently. Gatsby’s eyes floated toward her. “Ah,” she cried, “you look so cool.”
Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.
“You always look so cool,” she repeated.
She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw. He was astounded. His mouth opened a little, and he looked at Gatsby, and then back at Daisy as if he had just recognized her as some one he knew a long time ago." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

"I missed him. Love, I realized, was something your spine memorized. There was nothing you could do about that." --  Lorrie Moore, Anagrams

And another favorite, somewhat related though not technically in book form:

"The book of love is long and boring;
No one can lift the damn thing.
It's full of charts, and facts and figures...
And instructions for dancing.
But I,
I love it when you read to me.
And you,
You can read me anything"
-- "Book of Love," The Magnetic Fields (though the Peter Gabriel version is preferred)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Faithful Place by Tana French

Ah, the cop with a traumatic past. It's a classic. Bonus points for having a dysfunctional family and a past relationship that has ruined his ability to connect with any other woman. Super double bonus points if he's a loose cannon at work.

Anyway, such a figure has been the basis for many a beloved thriller/crime novel, and Tana French's Faithful Place is no exception. The rogue cop in question is Frank Mackey, a minor character from French's second novel, The Likeness. Frank is an undercover specialist who has no fear of mingling with drug dealers and Dublin thugs, but is terrified of his own dysfunctional family. You can guess who, then, is the driving force behind his narrative.

Everything starts when Frank gets word from his sister (the one member of his family he hasn't completely shunned) that a suitcase was found in a crumbling house in the Old Neighborhood(tm). The suitcase just happens to belong to Rosie Daly, the girl with whom teenage Frank had made secret plans to run away from home in 1986. Rosie never showed up that night, and a wounded Frank moved on by trying to disappear (almost literally) into police work and an unhappy marriage. It's not an ideal life, but it kinda works for him, and he gets along on the thrills of his job and the genuine happiness his young daughter brings him. Then the suitcase turns up, and all hell (read: introspection) breaks loose when he's force to go back to his the neighborhood (Faithful Place) to figure out what the hell happened to Rosie. Did she ditch their plans and their ferry tickets to run off to London by herself? Was she a casualty of the ugly, booze-soaked underbelly of their blue-collar cul-de-sac?

The book moves back and forth between the ordinary love story of two blue-collar kids wanting to escape the Dublin projects (which makes it more Bono than Bon Jovi) and Frank's present-day struggle to accept the various possibilities of Rosie's abandonment. And looking into Rosie's disappearance means hanging around the old 'hood, which hasn't changed much--and his family, who have changed even less. At first, you think Frank might be exaggerating about the awfulness of the Mackeys--but then the obvious resentment they all feel (alternately shrieking and simmering) starts to create pressure in your own head by about a hundred pages in, and you start to understand why Frank would rather be punched in the face than go home for Sunday dinners. Drinking, emotional cruelty, neighborhood brawls, this crowd has it all.

As with her previous books, French's best work is in her characters. Frank is obnoxious, but likable (something I didn't think was possible after his first appearance in The Likeness). Even his collectively awful family has some positives as well, undercutting Frank's characterization of them as total savages. Rosie comes off as a little, well, rosy, but that's probably to be expected when she exists mostly as a flashback of first love.

And I still love her method of series-building--creating place and mood without confining her fictional world to a single voice/perspective. Of the three novels, I think Faithful Place is the best-written, start to finish. Frank's arc is most satisfying of all the protagonists', and French doesn't let the plot kind of sputter out like she does with the first two. This one does deal more in cliches (the aforementioned short-fused cop, the heavy-drinking Irish family, etc.), but the writing is layered, and constructed tight enough to distract from that. French works hard to refine familiar elements of crime/detective fiction, and mixes it all up so inextricably in her characters that it feels fresh. My biggest regret with this one is that now it'll be at least a year or two until her next one comes along.

Monday, August 16, 2010

One Day by David Nicholls

If you have a one-night stand with someone who becomes your best friend, is that a touching story of human connection, or a lesson in how not to have a one-night stand? Well, both.

One Day, a novel by David Nicholls, explores the twenty-ish-year relationship of Dexter and Emma, two young Brits who cross paths for the first time on the night they graduate from college in 1988. The book checks in on them every subsequent year on the same date, July 15 (St. Swithin's Day). (There's a reason behind this structure, which you find considerably later in the narrative.) After an exceptionally awkward--but cute--night together, they find they can't cut each other loose or make the decision to become lovers for real. So they take the platonic path by default.

Dexter, a charmed kid all around, heads out on postgrad travel to figure things out (read: spend his parents' money while "finding himself" in India, Dublin, Venice, etc.). Meanwhile, Emma, an earnest and practical suburban girl, is stuck with a more pedestrian self-discovery process in England. But they stay in touch--Dexter's brief, cheerful postcards cross paths with her long, self-consciously cute letters for that first year. And somehow, they end up as each other's de facto best friend.

The next few years find Dexter's life moving upward (he's got television career opportunities and more girls than he can handle), and Emma's settling in somewhere around "aimless despair." There are some painful near-misses, as they alternate being the one who contemplates pursuing something deeper (mostly on her part, though there's an especially cringe-inducing letter that Dexter decides not to send). But for the most part, they settle into a pattern: Dexter sleeps with anything attractive that crosses his path, and takes it for granted that "good old Em" will be there whenever he needs companionship (unless a better sex or party option comes up). Emma unintentionally keeps all her other relationships at arm-distance in case Dexter changes his mind. Once they're both settled in London, it becomes a form of "just friends" kabuki, with specific rules and expectations.

Over the years, their circumstances shift and their relationship shifts (spouses, baby, career success, career failure, an estrangement, etc.), but their codependence is such that you know that no matter how douchey Dexter gets (and it gets pretty heinous) or how neurotic Emma gets, there's no walking away from that shared history. It's an honest, sometimes brutal portrait of a relationship between two people who know on some level that they need to be together--but just can't verbalize it or push it to the next level. And the best thing that Nicholls does is make Dexter and Emma appealing and funny enough that even in their most unpleasant individual moments, you still want them to get together (or kill the other one once and for all) on the next July 15th. The ebbs and flows, like and dislike, lust and meh, feel awfully real as the advantage pings back and forth between them over the years.

Also entertaining is the time span: 1988 - 2007. It's basically a rousing game of "hey, remember the 90s"? Dexter becomes a VJ-type microcelebrity who hosts various loud pop culture shows on TV. Emma works at an obnoxious American Tex-Mex chain restaurant in London, and dates an aspiring stand-up comedian who bases his material on observational humor. From the clothes to the hair, the little touches are cute.

The writing itself is solid and Hornby-esque: engaging, full of self-amusing references, and extremely readable. The structure, the once-a-year check-in, keeps the narrative from getting too bunchy. And it lets Nicholls keep the sentimentality to a minimum (until the somewhat maudlin ending, which didn't thrill me). In fact, some of the cuts and revelations are flat-out merciless, because they have to be. I appreciated the fact that this forces the writer and reader to look at the long-term implications for both Dexter and Emma, not just the endless present that most novels would pick. And it'll translate well into its movie incarnation--especially because the story's not as predictable as you might expect.

Overall, a satisfying read.

Parts I liked:

"She had imagined this arrangement to be sophisticated, modern, a new design for living. But so much effort is required to pretend that they don't want to be together that it has recently seemed inevitable that one of them will crack. She just hadn't expected it to be Dexter."

"Sometimes, she thought, she missed the intensity....of the early days of their friendship. She remembered writing ten-page letters late into the night; insane, passionate things full of dopey sentiment and barely hidden meanings, exclamation marks and underlining. For a while she had written daily postcards too, on top of the hour-long phone calls just before bed. That time in the flat in Dalston when they had stayed up talking and listening to records, only stopping when the sun began to rise, or at his parents' house, swimming in the river on New Year's Day, or that afternoon drinking absinthe in the secret bar in Chinatown; all of these moments and more were recorded and stored in notebooks and letters and wads of photographs, endless photographs. there was a time, it must have been in the early nineties, when they were barely able to pass a photo-booth without cramming inside it, because they had yet to take each other's permanent presence for granted."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

If you've ever wondered what keeps a friendship together over the years, I don't recommend going to an Ian McEwan book for answers--the response could be "banging the same chick" or "not much."

McEwan's Amsterdam, the latest Jacob-Katy book club novel, delves into issues like the nature of friendship, as mentioned, but also explores what happens when spite bubbles up through the veneer of civility and poisons everything. It's an interesting character study of what people do when petty disagreements are inflamed further by ego and self-justification.

The novel focuses on Clive (a composer working on a major piece to celebrate the upcoming millenium) and Vernon (an editor trying desperately to prop up a flailing newspaper), two old friends who come together for the funeral of Molly Lane. Molly wasn't just a mutual acquaintance--at various times in her life, she'd dated both men. But at some point their shared lust for (and ultimate loss of) Molly turned into a slightly bitchy, though apparently genuine friendship. They've also bonded over their joint contempt for two other guys connected to Molly: her last husband and another ex, a vaguely insufferable British politician. After Molly's death, the four men come together for one last show of (subdued) macho one-upsmanship, before returning to their lives.

In the funeral's aftermath, terrified of their own mortality, Vernon and Clive make a pact to be there for one another if things ever get as bad as they did for Molly, who died from a rapid and grotesque degenerative disease. Meanwhile, Molly's husband presents Vernon with a shocking memento from his wife's belongings: pictures of Julian, the politician, in a politically embarrassing position. Vernon struggles with the possibility of saving his career by publishing such a sensationalistic story--but at the cost of ruining a man's life. As Vernon tries to move ahead with the photos, against the nagging voices telling him otherwise, there are some interesting Julius Caesar-esque intrigues in his newspaper office. He looks for some guidance from his friend, but gets little except testy opposition from Clive, who is increasingly consumed by the symphony he's trying to compose.

As Vernon bumbles around trying to justify his decision, Clive starts sacrificing everything to create his musical masterpiece--and makes a few moral blunders of his own. The stressed-out crankiness of both men escalates into an overblown fight, which leads to regrettable decisions that undo pretty much all of the goodwill they'd built in their post-Molly lives.

The book is short, and very blunt. The story never ventures far from its central line, and McEwan doesn't waste time in pushing the narrative to a vicious and somewhat surprising (if a little underbaked) ending. I think he could have fleshed out the story a little more--and could have illustrated Molly a little better, too, before dropping her almost entirely from the story. McEwan's female characters tend to have a bit of a glossed-over appearance: doting, attractive, and game for the male chatacters' sexual whims. They're plot levers. But what I like most about McEwan's writing is in full effect: his sharp and perfectly-phrased sentences, as well as characters you can't shake right away.

Amsterdam is one of the shorter and less complicated books in the book club oeuvre, but was fairly successful. And the discussion had no friendship-ending arguments, so I don't think we need to worry about going the way of Clive and Vernon--at least not for a few years yet.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Audiobooks, But Were Afraid to Ask

While the world is obsessing about eBooks, Woody Allen has a different ultra-modern technology on his mind. Audiobooks.

Audiobooks by a Technophobe

From the article:

How were you persuaded to embrace the audiobook format? Do you own or regularly use any of the high-tech gadgets that play these files?

A. I was persuaded in a moment of apathy when I was convinced I had a fatal illness and would not live much longer. I don’t own a computer, have no idea how to work one, don’t own a word processor, and have zero interest in technology. Many people thought it would be a nice idea for me to read my stories, and I gave in.

Oh, Woody. What do you want to bet someone told him audio would be a nice 1974? (...She scoffs, as she runs to iTunes to fork over $1.95 for "The Whore of Mensa.")

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Some people think President Lincoln was gay. Some think he was a patronizer of prostitutes. Some think he was a Republican. Lots of theories, lots of dubiousness. But we can shut all the rest down, y'all, 'cause I think we have a winner: Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter, and that was the consuming issue of his life.

Okay, not really. (But this seems just as plausible as the idea that he was ever in the same general political room as Dick Cheney, no?) And it's the central idea of Seth Grahame-Smith's novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The book essentially takes what Grahame-Smith started in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and applies it to a public domain life instead of a public domain Victorian novel.

As someone who would put Lincoln in her top five presidents, but isn't necessarily a presidential purist, I liked it. I think there are respectful ways to be playful and cheeky with historical content, and that's what Grahame-Smith does--he takes something you already know, tweaks it a little, and makes it seem fresh without undercutting the original. In P&P&Z's case, that means channeling Austen-style feminist rage through flesh-eating monsters. In Lincoln's case, it's pulling a context (vampire domination) over the crushing inhumanity of the slavery issue. (Slaves are essentially captive prey for vampires, leading Lincoln to conclude that African slavery ends up enslaving all Americans.)

The most successful part of the book is that Grahame-Smith weaves everything together so that you tend to forget where the real threads stop and the absurd new ones begin. Like, I know that Real Abe Lincoln suffered some heavy losses in his life (mother, sister, girlfriend, children, etc.). But I also don't stop to question it when I read that his mother's "milk sickness" was really the act of a malicious vampire. Or that Jefferson Davis was fighting the Union to serve evil vampire overlords who viewed Southern-style repression as the way to keep humans in check. I don't think twice when I think of Abe and his good buddy, Joshua Speed, fighting vampires side by side (though honestly, that one might be because I find their rumored real-life hooker-based shenanigans to be pretty icky).

The least successful part of the book is that it takes 300+ pages to hammer this singular "what if?" point. The book opens with a great set piece that explains how the author (or "biographer") came to possess Lincoln's secret journals and was chosen to spread this "truth" to the world. And the re-framing of Lincoln's childhood and young adulthood as a 19th century Buffy Summers has its charm (there's even an Edgar Allen Poe cameo!). But by the time the umpteenth Lincoln loved one is killed by a vampire, and the Civil War is raging, with supernatural-tinged casualties at Bull Run, you're kind of over it. And so is the author, I think. But such is the problem with taking existing material for your base: you have to run its predetermined course. And any purported Lincoln biography has to end at Ford's Theater, if you're really going to commit to your conceit.

Overall, I'd recommend, especially for summer reading. No one will mistake the the scholarship for Doris Kearns Goodwin, but at least now we know that one of our presidents was committed to saving us from the scourge of vampires (thanks for nothing, Millard Fillmore).

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut

Even if you haven't read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or either of its sequels, chances are you know someone who has--or at least you've seen someone with his or her nose stuck in the Swedish noir on public transportation. But if you've actually read it, you know that the writing has some...challenges. Namely, beloved tropes and repeated language that the author uses to shoehorn certain plot elements in there.

This week's New Yorker has a spot-on parody of the books by Nora Ephron. No word on whether her movie version will star Meg Ryan.

"She tried to remember whether she was speaking to him or not. Probably not. She tried to remember why. No one knew why. It was undoubtedly because she’d been in a bad mood at some point. Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father you had once deliberately set on fire and then years later split open the head of with an axe."

As JF pointed out, the only thing missing from the Ephron version is a trip out for sandwiches and espresso in the middle of the night.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Harper Lee joint

Who knew there's a reclusive author out there who makes the late J.D. Salinger look like an extrovert?

Britain's Daily Mail managed to score a rare and prized interview with Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the book. The catch? She won't talk about the book. Or anything relating to the book. The extent of the interview:

"Thank you so much,’ she told me. ‘You are most kind. We’re just going to feed the ducks but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it."

Something tells me she won't be hitting up Oprah next. But I found it kind of charming. You've got to respect a writer who either knows her limitations, and didn't force a bunch of less satisfying books into the market just to prove she could do it again; or who simply decided she was Over It and didn't want to publish anymore.

Of course, there's the "what literature could we have had?" argument. But while I'd be curious about that, I don't think authors really owe us anything. And I don't think I'd trade the impact of, say, Franny and Zooey for a drawn-out, increasingly morbid and self-obsessed canon (sorry, messieurs Roth and Updike).

And this article reminded me that I really do need to read To Kill a Mockingbird (instead of saying I'd read it when, really, I'd just "read" the Gregory Peck version). It's a sad fact of my public school education, English major career, and general American Lit devotion that I've managed to avoid it so far. This summer, I swear!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

40 is the new 26

So the New York Times announced The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 list. Do we really need an article about an article? Why not just wait for the magazine to print the freaking list? Usually, this kind of hijinks is saved for the hard-hitting venues, like Access Hollywood's exclusive "Inside People's 50 Most Beautiful People List." But anyway, since it's obviously not a secret anymore, here are the picks for the top 20 young go-getters of fiction:
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32
  • Chris Adrian, 39
  • Daniel Alarcón, 33
  • David Bezmozgis, 37
  • Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38
  • Joshua Ferris, 35
  • Jonathan Safran Foer, 33
  • Nell Freudenberger, 35
  • Rivka Galchen, 34
  • Nicole Krauss, 35
  • Yiyun Li, 37
  • Dinaw Mengestu, 31
  • Philipp Meyer, 36
  • C. E. Morgan, 33
  • Téa Obreht, 24
  • Z Z Packer, 37
  • Karen Russell, 28
  • Salvatore Scibona, 35
  • Gary Shteyngart, 37
  • Wells Tower, 37
Of the 20, I've only read one extensively (Joshua Ferris). So I can't really get excited one way or another about the actual inclusions. But I find their ages very interesting. Only two of them are younger than I am. This means there's still time to produce that great work of fiction I haven't managed to produce in almost 30 years. Nice! See ya, Orson Welles watermark.

Monday, May 31, 2010

BEA postgame

Book Expo America (BEA) this year was kind of a weird affair. Book publishing has been in death throes for a while now (if you listen to all the Chicken Little articles, anyway), but apparently books are still being signed, created, and publicized--go figure. But the times, they are a-changin' regardless. Instead of the usual four-day book bacchanalia, this year's expo was condensed to two midweek days at the Javits Center here in NYC--and one floor of the convention center. Lean times or late reservation paperwork? You decide.

There were still the usual elegant booths for the big publishers, homey little ones for the smaller ones, and freebies galore. I scored, in no particular order:

* a large purple umbrella
* a foam rubber gavel
* a massive tote bag (I felt slightly guilty about accepting it from a direct competitor, but it probably saved my poor shoulders, which can't schlep as much free stuff as they used to)
* several smaller tote bags, including a replacement for my beloved BookTV one from last year
* a candle advertising the latest James Patterson book
* a tree sapling
* a Steve Martin lunchbag
* lots of galleys

I was a little surprised at the overall selection of books coming out this fall. I didn't see much in the way of big-name memoirs. Even the event's headliner, Barbra Streisand, was there for her book on design. The high-profile stuff was mostly political-ish, like the upcoming Earth (The Book)--and The Promise, signed by Jonathan Alter, which was my personal highlight of the day. I'm still working on The Bridge, but am really looking forward to this one too. Sadly, I didn't manage to complete the Obama trifecta by getting a copy of The Manchurian President, the author of which was also at BEA. Shucks. (On a similar note, the Regnery booth just didn't seem as busy as many others. Fewer freebies than other companies? Not many birthers among the librarians, booksellers, and publishing people milling about?)

There was also a surprising number of books on growing/legalizing pot. Not so surprisingly, those booths (at least three different publishers by my count) were hopping.

All in all, it was a good day. Believe it or not, my main intent wasn't (just) free books, but rather research. I got some interesting info on digital products (the smaller companies really seem to be ahead of the curve on that), and met a good number of people. I also made a friend at one point when a guy walking by was excited about the James Patterson galley I had in my pile, and was genuinely touched when I offered it to him. Good book karma. (And justification for my indiscriminate galley-accepting policy at these events.)

Now I just have to read everything I got. Good thing I finally cleared out the pile from last year! (...she said, knowing that the best of intentions won't stop this vicious cycle from repeating itself in 2011.)