Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Imagine the most boring John Hughes film never made…

Why We Broke Up
by Daniel Handler
Art by Maira Kalman
Release date: 12/27/2011

“Dear Ed,

In a sec you’ll hear a thunk.”

So begins Daniel Handler’s (AKA Lemony Snicket) latest YA offering, Why We Broke Up. The aforementioned “thunk” is the sound of a heavy box flung by Min Green hitting the porch of her ex-boyfriend, Ed Slaterton. The 350-page novel is comprised of the long, long, long letter that she includes as she returns to him the minutia of their relationship. This relationship is recounted from start to finish in the letter/novel through Min’s apparently photographic recall. Scattered throughout the text are Maira Kalman’s charming illustrations of the contents of the box, which range from bottle tops to ticket stubs to clothing.

With all the drawings and white space throughout the book, it isn’t really a full 350 pages, and yet it felt longer. It was written as an angsty, teen, stream of conscious rant, and it was chock-full of pointless filler, such as detailed descriptions of dozens of fictional films, made by fictional people, starring fictional stars. You see, Min’s the substantive one in the relationship. She’s “different.” Ed’s a popular jock, co-captain of the basketball team. They’re from different worlds, with different friends! And yet they struggle to make it work.

I’ve never been an adult that had the slightest problem reading and appreciating YA or children’s fiction, but this was just an overly drawn-out, boring, and humorless waste of time. Ultimately, I found it unsatisfying on every level. And that, Daniel, is why WE broke up.

Note to parents: This novel includes frequent obscenities, underage drinking, references to drug use, lack of respect for parents and authority figures, and teen sex.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Too much... something

Too Much Stuff
by Don Bruns

I had been looking forward to reading Too Much Stuff, my introduction to Don Bruns' work. I love both comic novels and treasure hunts, so I thought this would be a sure-fire winner. Ever the optimist, in this case I was mistaken.

Too Much Stuff is, I believe, the fifth sixth novel in Bruns' Stuff series. While it's true that I have not entered this series with the characters' full back stories and histories, I have a very difficult time imagining it would have made a difference in my enjoyment of the novel. The protagonists at the center of the series are 20-somethings Skip Moore and James Lessor. They're high school grads that have been bumbling their way through a series of menial jobs. Now they've decided they're going to be private detectives. They got the licenses and placed the yellow pages ad. This leads to their improbable first job, helping track down a fortune in lost gold in the Florida Keys.

The blurb from Mystery Scene Magazine promised me "witty dialogue and likeable, wacky characters." Well, I suppose that first person narrator Skip was ok, but violent, cop-hating, married woman-chasing James left me rather cold. As for the dialogue, it was about as far from witty as I can imagine. Sophomoric is more like it. In fact, that's really the best description for these two characters. They are so unbelievably unsophisticated (emphasis on the unbelievable) that the prospect of valet parking throws them completely for a loop. I get it that these are working class characters, but, what? They've never seen a movie? I simply don't find stupidity, ignorance, and a lack of sophistication to be a recipe for hilarity. What it is is tiresome.

And perhaps I could have gotten past the cast of not very interesting or likable characters, and the decidedly unfunny comedy, if only there had been a great mystery plot. But the simple truth is, I was bored. The pages plodded, the dénouement was telegraphed, and surprises were rare. It was a short novel, but it was work to get through it.

The publisher recently offered the first novel in this series as a Kindle freebie and I downloaded it, but somehow I doubt I'll be revisiting this series. I'm glad others have enjoyed the novels, and goodness knows that humor is subjective. This stuff, it seems, is not for me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The romantic writer, the unruly muse, and the reality of the wife

Mr. Fox
by Helen Oyeyemi

Generally speaking, most fiction worth pursuing is on my radar, but somehow both Helen Oyeyemi and her latest novel, Mr. Fox, passed me by completely until they showed up on’s Best Audiobooks of the Year list.  (And rightly so, reader Carol Boyd gives a standout performance.)

Mr. Fox is different.  It is the story of the love triangle between a writer and his unruly muse (Always an excellent starting point!) and his flesh and blood wife.  But don’t for a minute think things are as straightforward as all that.  The love triangle and the muse’s struggle for independence are merely the base of a novel comprised of constantly shifting stories, each of which feature an iteration of writer St. John Fox and his imagined perfect woman Mary Foxe.  In one, he’s a psychologist and she a model.  In another, they are children in an African village.  In one he’s an actual fox and she an old woman.  The imagery of all things foxy is pervasive, from foxes both human and animal to foxglove flowers and foxholes.

Here is an illustrative exchange between writer and muse:
’Mary, I think I know what we’re trying to do with this game of ours.’
‘Tell me.’
‘We’ve been trying to fall in love.’ 
She raised her eyebrows.  ‘With each other?’ she asked coolly.
‘Would you let me finish?’
‘With pleasure.’
‘We’ve been trying to fall in love, yes with each other, but we’ve been trying to take some of the danger out of it so no one ends up maimed or dead.  We’re trying for something normal and nice.’
Mary folded her arms.  ‘That is not what we’re trying to do.’
‘Oh, what then?’
‘Your wife loves you.  Turn to her properly.  Stop fobbing her off and being a counterfeit companion.  It would be good, if after all this, just once you wrote something where people come together instead of falling apart.  Just show me you can do it and I’ll leave you alone.’
‘But I don’t want you to leave me alone.’
As you can see, the dialogue is witty as hell, and aside from the brilliant dialogue, the book is a joy to read from start to finish.  Oyeyemi’s prose is lovely.

As much as I read, there is an element of free association when I consider books.  This novel has an unusual structure, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.  I found myself thinking of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.  The two novels are completely different, but each features a base story fleshed out by many changing tales that, just as you get into them, end suddenly.  Actually, Oyeyemi’s version isn’t quite that cruel.  There is a completeness or arc to each of the stories contained within Mr. Fox, but still be prepared for a novel comprised of different stories connected only by themes, and what the tales themselves reflect upon the internal lives of the three individuals at the center of the novel.  What an amazing way to illuminate her characters!

What Oyeyemi has done is impressively complex and sophisticated without being in any way onerous for the reader.  In fact, there is a lightness of tone, and a slight air of whimsy to the proceedings despite frequently heavy subject matter.  Mr. Fox is full of fable, fairytale, and elements of magical realism.  There is a delightfully comic and romantic core to this tale, and yet, in addition to romance, these stories feature recurring themes of violence against women, death, and the pain of love.

Oyeyemi is a delightful discovery!  With three prior novels and surely a long career ahead of her, I look forward avidly to exploring her work further.

Monday, December 12, 2011

John Grisham isn't taking things too seriously

The Litigators
by John Grisham

There may be no literary cachet to this admission, but I've always enjoyed John Grisham novels. They're fun, they're entertaining, and Grisham rarely lets me down. A lot of his novels come packaged with a message, but his latest, The Litigators is really just a romp. It opens with successful bond lawyer David Zinc "snapping" on the way to his 80-hour-a-week job. Instead of the office, he spends the day in a bar getting absolutely blotto and reevaluating his life. Clearly changes have to be made. Still enormously inebriated, David staggers into the offices of Finley & Figg. If you were being charitable, you might call them "ambulance chasers." Senior partner Oscar Finley and junior partner Wally Figg are a couple of hustlers scraping by in their street practice. They aren't too picky about their cases, and don't loose any sleep over legal ethics. What other law firm would actually hire a drunken lunatic with no relevant experience?

Finley and Figg would because Wally insists that their ship is finally going to come in in the form of a huge mass torte case against a drug manufacturer. This case may indeed be their ticket to the big time, but all meal tickets come with unexpected complications. I've made the premise of this novel sound light, and it is, but things do get heavier as the story goes along. It's a good yarn, but the real strength of this novel is the characters. It's hard not to root for David to find his way as he swims with the sharks in treacherous legal waters. Wally is a larger than life and deeply flawed character, but it's hard not to root for him, too--for the entire firm of underdogs. Even a bar patron with a walk-on role held me captivated. The story moves quickly and the end is satisfying.

I was looking for a light vacation read and The Litigators was exactly what the doctor ordered. I shall look forward to seeing the film (that is surely in the works) some day.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"I hate therefore I am"

The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco

The quote above tells you almost everything you need to know about the protagonist of Umberto Eco's latest novel. Set in 19th century Europe, Captain Simonini is an equal opportunity misanthrope, and early in the novel there's a lengthy diatribe against not only the Jews (always very much at the center of Simonini's hatred), but also the Germans, French, Italians, priests, Jesuits, Masons, women, and several other groups in asides. Simonini expounds, "They say that a soul is simply what a person does. But if I hate someone, and I cultivate this grudge, then, by God, that means there is something inside! What does the philosopher say? Odi ergo sum. I hate therefore I am."

I think it took me about three attempts to make it past these over-the-top opening salvos of hatred, and a smarter reader would have quit, but Eco has defeated me in the past, and I was determined to read this entire book. Why? Why? The Prague Cemetery is a dense, complex, convoluted tour through 19th century European history. (I strongly recommend that you acquire a Ph.D. in the subject before you sit down to read.) Simonini, it seems, is--Forrest Gump-like--at the center of almost all major events, and pretty much behind every conspiracy of the era.

As you may have gathered above, he is not a good guy. At one point he justifies: "Yes, I admit it. In my conduct toward my would-be Carbonari comrades, and to Rebaudengo, I did not act in accordance with the morals you are supposed to preach. But let us be frank: Rebaudengo was a rogue, and when I think of all I have done since then, I seem to have practiced all of my roguery on rogues." Yeah, right.

The novel is an autobiography of sorts, as there is some confusion as to Simonini's identity. He seems to be possibly inhabiting the same apartment? body? mind? as a clergyman named Abbé Dalla Piccola. Simonini's memory is full of holes, which Dalla Piccola seems to be able to fill, as he inserts his own recollections into Simonini's written document. Does this sound confusing? You have no idea. "Abbé Dalla Piccola seems to reawaken only when Simonini needs a voice of conscious to accuse him of becoming distracted and to bring him back to reality, otherwise he appears somewhat forgetful. To be frank, if it were not for the fact that these pages refer to events that actually took place, such alternations between amnesiac euphoria and dysphoric recall might seem like a device of the Narrator."

On the subject of "events that actually took place," pretty much all of the history (if not the stories behind the events) took place, and in fact, according to Eco, Simonini is the only fictional character in the entire novel. So, those European history Ph.D.s are really going to have a field day. For the rest of us, not so much fun, I have to say.

If it's not yet clear, I hated this book. I violently HATED this book! Reading it gave me PTSD. I know, you're wondering why the three stars? Well, as much as I hated it, I can't actually tell you it's bad. Eco is a brilliant, talented writer. I simply can't imagine why he chose to use his talent to tell this particular story. Here are some of the issues I had with the novel:
  • The required knowledge of history was oppressive. Without that knowledge, the novel was almost impossible to follow and/or appreciate.
  • The cast of thousands, all with multi-syllabic foreign names, was impossible to keep track of, especially as characters would reappear decades after their last appearance in the book.
  • Despite the sheer amount of stuff that happens within these pages, the story moves at what, for me, was an excruciatingly slow pace. I'm not actually sure how Eco managed that.
  • Not only is the central character a truly awful human being, there really is no one to like or care about much in the book.
  • While at first I was able to shrug off the anti-Semitic content of the novel, after 464 pages of the most vile garbage imaginable, it really, really got to me. As a Jew of European descent, no matter how ridiculous and over-the-top the hatred was (from all characters, not just Simonini), I know that everything Eco wrote was very reflective of the attitudes of the era. It made me ill. Make no mistake; I don't believe Mr. Eco is an anti-Semite. I just didn't need to read this hatred. It hurt me.
Umberto Eco is a great writer, but any way you chose to look at The Prague Cemetery, I don't believe to be among his strongest works, and it is certainly not one of his more accessible titles. Despite Mr. Eco's talent, I can't recommend this book to anyone. And it'll be a long time before I decide to read him again.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It's not a masterpiece, but it's fine airplane reading

by Michael Crichton & Richard Preston

I was, and am, a huge fan of Michael Crichton's work. I never had very high expectations for this final novel, but that's no reflection on the choice of Richard Preston to complete the work. In any case, for better or worse, Micro lived up to my tempered expectations.

Like several of Crichton's earlier novels, Micro has a high concept hook. Most nanotech companies fabricate on a nano scale, but Nanigen MicroTechnologies has developed revolutionary shrinking technology. Not only can they reduce machines and robots, they can reduce living beings and then return them to full size. I won't get into all the details of the novel's set-up, but seven graduate students learn about this technology the hard way once they become a threat to Nanigen's president. Seven against one is much easier to manage when the seven (and one unlucky Nanigen employee) are half an inch tall. Before they can be dispatched quickly, however, the students escape into Hawaii's verdant "micro world."

Crichton's strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller remain consistent. His primary characters are more archetypes than individuals. Rather than Rick, Erika, Amar, and Karen, these students quickly show themselves to be the Leader, the Warrior, the Know It All, the Weasel, and so forth. Each has an assigned role to fulfill. Some barely live long enough to become typecast, because the micro world is treacherous. When you're half an inch tall, a beetle is not unlike a rhinoceros. Luckily, these students are unusually well prepared to survive their hostile surroundings--or unusually well informed about the danger they're in--depending on how you look at it. Among them there are experts in insects and arachnids, poisons and venoms, and the chemical defenses of plants and animals.

Crichton is great about translating the wonder of science. His amazing shrinking technology won't send me running to the textbooks this time around, but there's still plenty of gee whiz science to be enjoyed in Micro's pages. More than that, he effectively shows the beauty as well as the horror of the situation his characters are in. As for the horror, I have to admit that I found it especially disturbing this time out. I have no special fear of dinosaurs, but I am absolutely phobic about spiders and insects. There are scenes that I definitely could have done without reading, and if this is an issue for you as well, be forewarned.

Much like Jurassic Park, Micro has a picaresque quality, with its protagonists leaping from one threat to another. I hate to say it, but the plotting was pretty by the book. There was a police procedural subplot that never really went anywhere, and true surprises were few and far between. Despite this, I read the novel easily in a day (instead of saving it for my Thanksgiving flight like I was supposed to). Once I started, I didn't want to stop reading, and the pages flew past swiftly.

Preston appears to have done a good job finishing what Crichton left behind. There is no feeling that this is the work of another author. Still, I do find myself wondering how the novel would have differed had Crichton written it all. Alas, we'll never know. If you're a hard-core Crichton fan like me, by all means read this novel. Just don't expect this final work to be the man's masterpiece. And even if you're not a hard-core fan, if the premise sounds fun to you, you could do a lot worse for airplane reading.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It’s time to admit that I like zombies

Zone One
by Colson Whitehead

For the past year or so, I’ve been reading and reviewing all of these zombie novels with the caveat that “I’m not a zombie fan.”  While it’s true that I’ve never seen any of the classic films, I think it’s time to admit that I AM a zombie fan.  (But please don’t chip away at my vampire denial.)  I’ve read take after take on the end of the world, and each one is compelling in its own way.  There’s something elemental in the horror of an end by zombies.  Do I believe this could ever happen?  Absolutely not.  But in the hands of a talented writer, anything is believable.  All is believable.  Perhaps I am too willing with my suspension of disbelief, but this is the stuff of nightmares.

Much has been made of this “literary” foray into the horror genre.  In addition to being a zombie fan, I am also a fan of literary fiction, and I love that serious writers are now being allowed to practice their craft on a broader range of genres and are exploring plot-driven stories in addition to character-driven fiction.  This is a win/win trend for both readers and writers.  Ironically, reading this beautifully-written exploration of the apocalypse made me reflect less on how good it was, but more on how good a lot of the zombie novels I’ve been reading have been.  (Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime Trilogy in particular comes to mind.)  There’s just something deeply touching in these fights for survival, and I think a lot of apocalyptic writers are really plugging into something powerful and profound.

Certainly I count Colson Whitehead among their number.  Whitehead’s tale centers on a character identified only by his nickname, Mark Spitz.  Want to know why he’s called that?  Read the book.  As the novel opens, the worst has passed.  The zombie plague has come, many have died, and society is taking its first baby steps towards rebuilding.  Mark Spitz’s tale is told in a non-linear fashion, as he attempts to move forward despite suffering PASD (because the world has moved beyond “post-traumatic” to “post-apocalyptic” stress disorders).  As he observes the new world around him and performs his duty of putting down zombie stragglers in a reclaimed lower Manhattan, he reflects on what he’s witnessed, who he’s left behind, and on what he’s survived while doing his “cockroach impression.” 

Glancing over the reader reviews on Amazon before I sat down to type this, I have to admit that I’m surprised by the harsh criticism that many have brought against the novel.  Some had issues with the non-linear nature of the story-telling, some felt it didn’t move fast enough, some thought the author was “showing off” or using “absurdly big words,” some seem to simply hate New York.  There were many complaints about the protagonist, and I’ll admit that he’s not a dynamic character.  He’s a traumatized everyman chronicling a dying world.  Don’t go into this expecting an upper.  There are more critical reviews than complimentary, and many of them are thoughtful and articulate.  All I can tell you is that I disagree with these criticisms.  I read this book in two days, and despite the depressing story told, I didn’t want to put it down.  I was very invested in the fates of the primary and secondary characters.  Whitehead’s prose was a pleasure to read without being overly ornate or intrusive in any way. 

And one last thing—this is one of those rare novels where the author had me hanging on his words until the very last page.  And those final words were just so… perfect.  They gave me chills.  I read them over several times.  The end of this novel was amazing, and I simply don’t know how it could fail to impress.  But that’s opinions for you.  If you’re prepared to read a heavy, disturbing, and, yes, horrific tale, I’d highly recommend this novel.  But you might want to survey some other opinions of this polarizing book before you take my word on it.