Monday, June 28, 2010

Why isn't Jennifer Egan a household name?

So, Jennifer Egan's latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, went on sale on June 8th. I wrote a rave review on this blog several weeks ago which is currently the top review on the book's page. (Feel free to go vote it "helpful.") Print reviewers between here and Timbuktu have been tripping all over themselves to see who can praise this novel most highly. It's a good freakin' book.

Still, it has yet to appear on the New York Times bestseller list. I keep crossing my fingers and hoping next week. But more disturbing is this: no one I know has ever read Jennifer Egan. I'm not sure if anyone but me has even heard of her.

How is this possible? I mean, her 2001 sophomore novel, Look at Me, was a National Book Award finalist. That was the first one I read. I'm fairly certain the hardback was handed to me at some publishing trade show or other. I'm thinking it was the Northern California Independent Booksellers' Association Trade Show, and I can't believe that was back in 2001! Seriously, where does the time go? But note to publishing marketers: I read the book you gave me for free, and have been a dedicated reader and evangelist for this author ever since.

The second novel I read was The Keep, her follow-up to Look at Me. It was completely different. I loved it even more. A Visit from the Goon Squad is her best yet. Do you see a trend? I'm pretty sure I'm going to keep reading Jennifer Egan, and keep trying to spread the word. (Incidentally, I do have a signed, first edition hardback of her debut novel, Invisible Circus. I'll probably read it some day, but there's no rush.)

So, Jennifer Egan came through San Francisco on her book tour last week. I didn't realize it, but this is her hometown. She lives somewhere back east now, but grew up here. And still has people. I think I may have been the only person at Books, Inc. that was neither friend nor family.

She read the entire chapter where Scotty goes to visit Bennie. It was funny in my head when I read it, but much funnier hearing her read it aloud. The book works well for these tour readings, as each chapter is essentially a fully contained short story. The novel is made up of intricately linked stories. I asked her, "What gives a novelist the idea to write a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation?" Her answer was interesting: She wanted to try to write in as many styles or ways as she possible could. First person, third person, even second person. Past, present, future. One chapter is a magazine article. And, yes, one is a PowerPoint presentation.

In my review, I commented on the theme of traveling from point A to point B, and commented on how the motif is repeated a few times, and that even the two parts of the book that might be Part I and Part II in another book are A and B in Goon Squad. It's so obvious, but it never occurred to me until she said it that the two halves, A and B, are labeled like the sides of an LP. (Many of the characters work in the music business.) D'uh.

The other thing I thought was pretty interesting was her response when someone asked her how she decided what order to put the stories in. She said, she just tried to think of what someone would be in the mood to read after finishing the story that proceeded it. A subjective (but effective) method, as it turned out.

She referenced her next project several times during the evening. It'll be a period novel set during WWII, I think she said. It's about the women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She is reinventing herself yet again. This is a writer not content to rest on her laurels. The subject is of no particular interest to me, but you can count on me grabbing a copy the day it goes on sale. (Well, hopefully I can snag a review copy.) I hope the wait is not too long.

Meanwhile, my advice is to go out and grab a copy of A Visit to the Goon Squad. Please buy it from your local independent bookseller. (And I didn't tell you this, but if you're really, really poor, it's 45% off at that evil online retailer I write reviews for.) Read it, and comment here and tell me what you think. Have I over-hyped Jennifer, or just enough? Have you read her? Heard of her? If not, it's time to give her a try!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Feel-good fiction at its heart-warming best!

The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise: A Novel
by Julia Stuart

Look, I enjoy reading books that make me happy. As soon as I read that it was being marketed towards fans of Chocolat and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I knew that this was a book for me. And this time I wasn't let down.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise revolves around Balthazar and Hebe Jones. Because of his job as a Beefeater, the couple is required to live on-site at the Tower of London. It is there that they raised their son Milo, and it is there that they lost him. Now the grief-stricken parents are custodians only to Mrs. Cook, the world's oldest tortoise, who has been a fixture in Balthazar's family for generations.

As you would expect, the loss of a child is a brutal hit to a marriage and to their lives. Balthazar is hanging onto his job by a thread when he learns that the Queen would like him to be in charge of a new menagerie at the Tower, made up of all the animals that have been gifted to her by heads of state. Adding wild animals to the fantastically quirky and charming Tower community creates all sorts of delightful complications.

Meanwhile, we also learn of Hebe's idiosyncratic career in the London Underground Lost Property Office where we meet an equally quirky and charming cast of characters. You would NOT believe what people leave on the Tube. I'd list a few examples, but the successively outlandish appearances are too much fun to spoil.

Will Balthazar keep his job? Will their marriage survive? Will the various lovers in the book find happiness? These are the questions, and while clearly not everything in this book is happy, I think we all know from the cover art alone that the odds of happy endings are pretty darn good. Along the way there is heart-warming humor and plenty of chuckling out loud. This type of novel may be a bit twee for some, but you'll get no complaints from me. Well, one small complaint: there was some odd redundancy to the text that I'm going to assume was a style choice I don't understand. But that's it.

Julia Stuart, I want more. I'm off to explore your debut novel, and I look forward with enthusiasm to see what gift you bring me next. Thanks so much for helping me find my smile!
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There's a sucker born every minute...

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno: A Novel
by Ellen Bryson

Oh, those marketing guys over at Henry Holt & Co. are good! They did a great job of capturing my interest in Ellen Bryson's debut novel The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno (TToBF) by comparing it to two beloved books, Geek Love and Water for Elephants. And I can't even complain that the comparisons aren't apt.

Like Geek Love, TToBF is the story of... well, some "human curiosities." Bartholomew Fortuno is an employee (performer? exhibit?) in P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York as the Civil War is winding down. He is billed as "the world's thinnest man," and he just may be. His best friend is, of course, Matina, the fat lady. Like the characters in Geek Love, Fortuno views their differences as "gifts." While TToBF does share a bit of Geek Love's darkness, that's where any similarity ends. What're missing are the black humor, the wonderful satire, the knock-out prose, and the pure weirdness of Dunn's brilliant novel.

Like Water for Elephants, TToBF is a period novel--albeit one set 70 years earlier--with a male first-person narrator. And while these performers don't work for a circus (Barnum wasn't in the biz yet) some of the trappings and much of the hokum are the same. Unfortunately, Ellen Bryson can't (yet) hold a candle to Sara Gruen as a story-teller. Any comparison only serves to highlight TToBF's inadequacies in terms of character, of pacing, and of narrative substance.

The catalyst of this tale occurs in the opening pages. Unable to sleep, Fortuno happens to be looking out the window late one night just in time to observe Barnum's unexpected return with a mysterious veiled woman. Eventually she is revealed to be a new curiosity, Iell Adams, a bearded lady. From that first glance, Fortuno's obsession with this woman grows exponentially and inexplicably, putting what had been an odd but orderly life into turmoil. There are all sorts of allegiances, agendas, and intrigues within the insular museum community that get set into motion.

Reading over what I just wrote, this still sounds like a pretty interesting book--and it wasn't terrible--but neither was it good. Let's start with Fortuno. We spend the entire novel inside his head, and the two words that come to mind to describe him are: prissy and neurotic. These are not attractive qualities, but he fits in well with his colleagues; there wasn't a single character in this book that I found to be likeable. Given that, it's awfully hard to care what happens to them. Take Fortuno's pursuit of Iell, for example. Eventually he proclaims himself to be in love. If that's love, well, yuck. Just... yuck.

There are small intrigues that propel the story, but they were thin material to keep a novel going. Given the fascinating setting, it was all surprisingly boring. The pace felt glacial, and when the "big reveals" finally came, I could not have been less surprised. "It's not terrible" is faint praise indeed. My advice is go read Water for Elephants or Geek Love. You'll be better off.
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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Seems pretty close to perfection to me

The Imperfectionists
by Tom Rachman

When a novel receives the kind of high-profile rave reviews this one has, reader reaction generally goes one of two ways. You'll either be disappointed, or you'll jump on the bandwagon. Move over; make some room on the bandwagon.

As others have noted, the novel is made up of a collection of linked stories. Each story is told from the POV of an employee of "the paper," or in one case a reader. The paper is a small, second-rate international newspaper published by American expatriates in Rome. Readership is low and dropping all the time, and the publication doesn't even have a web presence! It really is an artifact of another time, though these are pressures being faced currently by more or less every newspaper in the world.

It is with the background stressors of budget cuts, limited resources, and threatened layoffs that we peek through episodic windows at the characters that make up the collage of this novel. And despite the setting and what I described above, The Imperfectionists is much more about their personal lives than their professional ones. Much of the novel is about the relationships that make up our lives: the complicated algebra of male/female relationships, the power struggles between friends, the games we play, the sacrifices we make.

All of the above make for great drama, but the book, actually, has an absolutely delightful sense of humor. Some of the chapters are uproariously funny, others are heavier. Even with the humor, however, there's a thread of melancholy that runs through the novel, adding a real poignancy.

I read a lot, but I never feel that I can find enough time to read. Every time I picked up this book, the pages just melted away. I read it in no time flat, and Tom Rachman left me wanting more. What else can I say? I'll save a spot on the bandwagon for you.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Yeah, I got bored...

So, um, I started playing around. Is this new look better or worse?

Please comment!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Without exaggeration, the best novel I’ve read in years

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
by David Mitchell

Based on past experience, I came to this latest by David Mitchell with the very highest expectations. He didn't merely exceed them, he shattered them. I didn't know how I could possibly articulate my enthusiasm for this novel, but yesterday, talking to a friend, it all sort flowed right out of me.

This is what I told her: Set in feudal Japan, this is the tale of Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. To make his fortune and win the hand of his love back in the Netherlands, Jacob has agreed to ply his trade in Asia for a period of five years. As the novel opens, he is new to this very foreign land. He's an innocent abroad in a cut-throat environment of corruption and hidden agendas, intrigue and illicit love. Jacob's tale is utterly absorbing--the time, the place, the history, the characters! It is staggering to think of the research that Mitchell must have done to write this. As long and complex as this novel is, it's not truly epic in scope. The vibrant personalities and clashing cultures are shown in meticulous, detailed focus.

I was fascinated by the way Mitchell populated his novel with a largely deplorable cast of characters, yet one-by-one, as back stories were revealed, so too were these characters' humanity in light of the harshness of their lives. I was completely engrossed, at times--literally--turning the pages breathlessly, I was so caught up in the plot! David Mitchell is that rarest of literary novelists whose magnificent language is married to an amazing story-telling ability. And deep into this novel I thought I understood the story being told. I was so wrong.

Nearly 200 pages in, David Mitchell throws in an absolute game changer. And that first is far from the only one. Mitchell's panorama was so much bigger, broader, and, yes, more lurid than I had thought! The man is a master! Honestly, I have barely touched on the substance of this book. I came to it nearly blind, and my pleasure was far greater for it. I could write essays on the characters he's created, the stories told, the unexpected humor within. But for your sake, I will resist.

Reading this novel is an investment. It's not difficult, but there are elements that are challenging. First, it's a toss-up which names are more unpronounceable, the Dutch or the Japanese. I'm going to have to go with the Dutch. Exotic names make keeping track of the cast of thousands that much tougher. Some characters speak in dialect, and one even with a speech impediment! (Thankfully, she isn't too talkative.) On top of that, communication in this time and place was incredibly nuanced and subtle. For most readers, Jacob's world will be alien. So, yes, reading this book is an investment. Do not be deterred! The pay-off is richer than you can imagine. A brief quote:

"Hollows from the fingers of Aibagawa Orito are indented in her ripe gift and he places his own fingers there, holds the fruit under his nostrils, inhales its gritty sweetness, and rolls its rotundity along his cracked lips... Lacking a knife or spoon, he takes a nip of the waxy fruit between his incisors, and tears; juice oozes from the gash; he licks the sweet smears and sucks out a dribbling gobbet of threaded flesh and holds it gently, gently against the roof of his mouth, where the pulp disintegrates into fermented jasmine, oily cinnamon, perfumed melon, melted damson...and in its heart he finds ten or fifteen flat stones, brown as Asian eyes and the same shape."

You owe it to yourself to read this novel, and you owe it to the virtuosic David Mitchell. I am a reader. It is my passion in life. A novel like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a reason to live.
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It's time for Brunonia and I to part ways

The Map of True Places
by Brunonia Barry

"It's not down on any map; true places never are."
-- Herman Melville

Apparently, I was the only person in America not raving about The Lace Reader last year. I didn't hate it, but I had a really hard time relating to the female protagonist, Towner Whitney. Having been curious enough to have read Ms. Barry's second novel, The Map of True Places, again I find myself in the disenchanted minority--and with the exact same complaint!

Brunonia Barry's new stand alone novel is set in the same world--the same Salem--as her first. Characters from The Lace Reader are referenced or make brief appearances. However, this novel is more grounded in the real world of psychology and medicine than with the ethereal subjects she had explored previously. The central character is Hepzibah Finch, known as "Zee." (And what is it with these names, Brunonia?).

Zee is a psychologist in crisis. She's just lost her first patient, and is having a hard time accepting that Lilly Braedon committed suicide. Zee's own mother had killed herself when Zee was a teen, and feelings about the two women have become entangled in a very non-clinical way. Meanwhile, other areas of Zee's life are falling apart. Her father's Parkinson's disease is far more advanced than she had been led to believe. She suddenly needs to step in as a care-giver, putting additional strain on an already strained relationship.

My frustration with this central character exists on several levels, but here is one issue I can illustrate easily enough. Allow me to share some quotes from the novel. All of these are spoken by, or refer to, Zee:

"I don't know what I want."

"The truth was, she didn't know if she didn't want to get married at all, or if she just hated the process."

"She was angry at Michael, though she had no real reason for this except that he so clearly knew what he wanted in all areas of his life, while she couldn't seem to make as simple a choice as whether or not to serve sushi at the wedding."

"Zee had once known exactly what kind of life she wanted. Now she drew a complete blank."

"I don't know what I feel."

"He had never asked her what she wanted out of life... These days she had to admit she had no idea."

"Though she was still having doubts about her choice of career, Zee knew she had to get back to work."

"I don't know what I want either."

"I don't think what I was or was not ready for was clear in any way, least of all to me."

"More than a few of the tears were relief; because... she had no big decisions to make."

"She honestly couldn't remember the last time she'd ordered ice cream for herself. It was ridiculous to be flustered by such a small thing, but there it was. He was waiting for her choice and she didn't have one."

I'm a highly empathetic reader, but I found Zee to be so bland, wishy-washy, and indecisive that I just wanted to slap her. I find it hard to become engaged in a character that passive. I pulled a whole other list of quotes that show the character to be tongue-tied and inarticulate, but given the length of this review, I'll spare you. My point was that as a reader, all I have are the character's words and thoughts to go by, and either Zee or Brunonia just wouldn't spit them out.

I can see that Ms. Barry's work resonates with the majority of her readers. That I am not among their number is unfortunate for me. But henceforth I will try to ignore my curiosity and Brunonia and I will go our separate ways, and we will both be happier for it.
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Another Lucy joins the sisterhood of primates

by Laurence Gonzales

Laurence Gonzales has a terrific high-concept hook with his latest novel, Lucy. It's the story of a teenage girl who is actually an engineered human-bonobo hybrid. (For those who don't know, the bonobos are a species of great ape, formerly known as Pygmy chimpanzees.) The novel opens with a bang in the jungles of the Congo. The feared civil war has broken out, and primatologist Jenny Lowe is running for her life. She needs to make it to the river, but she swings by a British rival's camp along the way to see if she can urge him to join her in flight. She's too late. The soldiers have come and gone. The only person she finds alive is her colleague's fourteen-year-old daughter, naked and in shock. Jenny grabs the girl and they race for the river.

A friend in the British Embassy helps get them out of Congo and back to London. Along the way, Lucy has begun to recover, and is just beginning to show what an extraordinary young lady she is. Jenny and her diplomat friend want to find relatives on Lucy's mother's side that can take the girl in, but until they can be found, Jenny decides to bring Lucy back to Chicago with her. She can't help but feel responsible for this orphan she has saved.

The only other things Jenny dragged from the jungle were the research notebooks of Lucy's slaughtered father. Back at home, when she finally sits down to read them, she learns Lucy's shattering secret. What, she fears, will happen to Lucy if others learn? Of course, they'll learn. D'uh. They always learn.

I waffled over whether to award this novel three or four stars. Ultimately, in a fit of kindness (because I've been kind of grumpy lately), I decided to be generous. This was a light, quick book that I enjoyed reading. My biggest complaint is this: the story-telling could not have been more conventional. Not a thing happened in this book that surprised me. Events were telegraphed well in advance, but even aside from that, the characters and plot were just so darn formulaic. I feel that Gonzales took the easy way out--and perhaps this will prove to be the recipe for a huge, mainstream crowd-pleaser. I'll be shocked if it isn't optioned for film.

Criticisms aside, I did enjoy reading this. It was a light diversion, and I've got a thing for primates. While Lucy's father proclaims in the text, "I named you Lucy not, as some might think, because of the australopithecine of the same name..." I'll admit it; I did and still do think that. But there's another Lucy as well. In the 1960's and '70's, Lucy Temerlin was a chimpanzee raised in a family as a human child resulting in the 1976 book, Lucy: Growing Up Human: A Chimpanzee Daughter in a Psychotherapist's Family. So here we have one more Lucy joining the sisterhood of primates. Laurence Gonzales has given us a fairly conventional telling of this story. But it's still an eternally fascinating story.
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