Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Great Booking Year: Kari's 2009

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Ah, 2009. It's been the year of Kari and books, so it seems. First off, I started this blog—a project during my phase of unemployment. I'm happy to say that shortly after, I did find gainful employment and at a publishing company, no less. And on top of that, I broke my own reading record for the year...and by a looooong shot! I've kept track of every book I've read since about the 8th grade (you know, just one of those things), and I'd guess that my average books read per year since 2000 has been about 30. Riding the subway everyday to and from work gives me a lot more time to keep my nose in a book without other distractions, so my goal for this year was 50. And I broke that record and read 60. I sort of have a feeling that will be a hard number to reach again because, well, I like to do other things too, but yay for a new personal best! So a break down reads like:

60 Books
12 Nonfiction (of which 8 were memoirs)
5 YA (only?)
2 Children's (the result of a babysitting weekend)

I attempted AND completed three challenges, one of which I hosted and all of which I enjoyed [this means it's time to find new ones]. I'll post about those later.

Now with what I was really getting to...my favorite reads of this year! I rarely read books I don't think I would enjoy (who would??), so I was pleased with the majority of what I read this year. But these few really stuck out (click for original review):

5. Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle — You may have already gathered that I love Jill McCorkle, and this is my favorite kind of novel. You follow this character as she grows and changes, and the author does such a good job of setting the mood of the environment. It makes you want to know more once you've finished the last page.

4. The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips — The characters are so rich that I just want to spend an ordinary day with them to understand their way of life. Issues of society are subtly woven in the plot, so you get a full understanding of what the Moores experience day in and day out.

3. Eli the Good by Silas House — The style is similar to that of Ferris Beach (though I read this one first), but we're hearing from a 10-year-old boy. His observations and analysis of the world around him really reminded me of what it's like to be a kid when there's a lot more going on in your head than people may think. I also think I have a thing for books set in the 1970s South.

2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley — What an amusing narrator! Flavia has the spunk that reminds me of Harriet the Spy (which is still one of my favorite movies ever). The mystery is light and fun, but it's the sophistication of Flavia that makes this story worthwhile.

1. The Help by Kathryn Stockett — Who doesn't vote this one of the best of the year? It was just a recommendation to me from a library friend, and I had no idea it'd be such a hit. Pretty much anything Southern hits home for me just because I feel like I have a connection to it. I loved the variety of voices and the multiple perspectives. It's about the gray areas that don't show up in history books and the lives beyond the historical facts. One of my favorite things was getting my mom to read this and then talk with her about her experiences in the 1950s/60s South.

I had the idea for a book blog just to get my group of friends together to discuss the books we all read, since something like a book club would be out of the question with our busy schedules that are so different. I'm so excited that it's opened up to a much larger audience that can get in on the discussion, too, and has led to such fun opportunities like author interviews, contests, and challenges. 

Thank you so much for visiting and reading and commenting and even just lurking (though I do love to hear your voices and opinions! You can start by telling me your favorite reads of the year!). 

Happy Reading and Happy 2010!

Movie Review: Lost in Austen

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I was thiiiiis close to just re-watching Clueless or writing about the Sense & Sensibility that I slept through half of for my last title in the Everything Austen Challenge, but I manned up and watched the 3-hour long Lost in Austen miniseries. Three hours...so daunting. But I'm so glad I decided to discover something new!

Amanda Price is a Jane Austen addict. Her idea of an excellent evening is sitting at home in a bathrobe with a bottle of wine reading Pride & Prejudice. She's read it so many times that she puts herself in the story and can feel the setting. She's in love with the elegance, the romance, and the custom of Jane Austen's England. But in the real world, she lives with her boyfriend Michael whose idea of romance is drunkenly proposing to her after a night out with the boys. When a girl claiming to be Elizabeth Bennett mysteriously appears in Amanda's bathroom, Amanda naturally believes she's finally cracked and is headed for the nut house. But then this Elizabeth Bennett shows Amanda a portal through the bathroom-wall-turned-door that leads to the very fictional world of the Bennetts in 19th century England. And naturally they have to switch places, right?

This movie was such a romp that I barely even noticed it was three hours long. With Amanda pretending to be a friend of Lizzy's visiting from Hammersmith, she begins to meet the entire cast of Pride & Prejudice and realizes she's entered at the very beginning of the story. But when Mr. Bingley starts to make eyes at her instead of Jane Bennett, Amanda quickly realizes she has to set the story on its correct path, a task that proves to be much harder than she could have ever imagined. The fun thing about this story is seeing how all the characters and events start to change from the original plot because of Amanda's presence. She finds out that there's much more to these characters and their world. No matter how many times she's read Pride & Prejudice, she still doesn't know the full story. 

I thought this a very witty, original story. I had guessed the ending a couple of times before the end but every time, something changed and I had to question my guess. So I'll just say that the ending is somewhat predictable, but you'll go on quite a ride before you get there.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Back to School: Greaser, Socs, and Prep School

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I waited to read my last two titles for the Back to School Challenge until I went home for Christmas, because all of my old school books are there. I thought reading two books with an average reading level of about the 7th grade would take me two days max, but I didn't factor in that I am constantly busy when I'm at home. So, ever the procrastinator, I crammed in my two books my last day and a half at home and completed the Back to School Challenge with two titles I generally enjoyed the first time around: A Separate Peace and The Outsiders.

John Knowles' A Separate Peace seems to me like a somewhat more (though not much more) plot-driven Catcher in the Rye. It's supposed to be that classic coming-of-age story you read in high school. Gene is the smart kid attending Devon, a New Hampshire prep school at the beginning of World War II. He's best friends with Phineas, aka "Finny," who is pretty much the antithesis of Gene. Finny is a star athlete, outgoing, and a natural leader. He has a way of smooth-talking his way out of any situation as he casts a sort of spell over everyone he encounters. Though Gene is by no means disliked nor unathletic, he has a whole nest of insecurities when standing next to Finny...dare it be envy? During a summer session at Devon, all of Gene's pent-up emotions finally blow up during a male-bonding sort of game invented by Finny, causing an incident that leaves Finny disabled and Gene questioning his thoughts and actions.

I was hoping I would get more out of this book reading it now, almost ten years later, but I can't say I did. I completely understand the point of it all and the latent feelings that one may or may not choose to claim as real, but I can't say that I personally relate to the story. I can understand why it's a must-read in high school—it deals with a lot of issues that need to be explored, picked apart, and analyzed. Knowles does an excellent job of getting into a character's head, even when the character is not quite sure what's going on in there. The setting subtly lends to the chaos in the characters' heads; they are quickly approaching draft age, and their future is uncertain; the war presents a looming fear that Gene is (perhaps subconsciously) desperate to disrupt. Neither Finny nor Gene are willing to accept themselves and their role within their surroundings, but ultimately, Gene has to try to understand and (most importantly) make peace with his actions and their consequences. Inner- and outer- war and peace...that about sums it all up. It sure does have plenty of themes and symbols that English teachers seem to love.


The Outsiders, I read even longer ago, in the 7th grade. In reading it now, I find even less to analyze than I did when I was 12. Where A Separate Peace seemed to be written primarily for analysis, The Outsiders seemed to be written as a straight-up story, one you could absorb and retell without depriving the story of any of its subtleties. The writing isn't that great—no extraordinary use of literary techniques (probably because S.E. Hinton was a mere fifteen when she wrote this)—but it has great character development. Ponyboy Curtis is the story's narrator. He's a 14-year-old "Greaser," what he describes as one of the two types of people (the others being "Socs"). Greasers are hoodlums—they steal, smoke, and start fights. The Socs pretty much do the same thing, the only difference being that they're middle-class and have money. Therefore, Socs seem to get away with anything, while Greasers are constantly on the run and watching their backs. Ponyboy lives with his two older brothers, Darry and Sodapop, and their gang serves as a kind of extended family. He's intelligent, athletic, and, most notably, thoughtful. Ponyboy's head is always in the clouds. His loyalty to his gang is unyielding, but the fighting and hatred just start feeling kind of pointless to him. After all, Greaser or Soc, a guy's still just a person with his own thoughts and feelings. 

I wouldn't exactly suggest this one for English class analysis, but maybe that's the only way you can require a kid to read a book. And this one should definitely be necessary. While the details seem dated (it was written in 1967), the situations are not. It's thought-provoking to the audience as Ponyboy deals with a whole range of experiences and emotions. His constant internal battle between right and wrong gives him a sense of vulnerability as opposed to some of the other Greasers. He's a very real character, and we get to see all of his confusion, all of his ups and his downs, as he struggles with his environment. The Outsiders is a story I finish without needing to analyze, because the writing is so straightforward that I got everything out of it the first time around.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: I can't go on, I'll go on

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Samuel Beckett wrote three novels that are now commonly sold together in an omnibus edition, referred to as The Trilogy, as if there were no other trilogies in this world (sorry Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Evil Dead). One of the major concepts behind these works is something between deterioration of story, character, and language, so that the narrative moves from something like a detective plot to an introspective look at the self to what could be described as nothingness. The final Beckett novel in this trilogy - The Unnamable - captures this rambling, stream-of-consciousness perhaps better than Joyce and Woolf.

These novels, which are all too under-read and -appreciated, seem to be exhumed in Joshua Ferris's new work, The Unnamed, a fiction that's title seems like an homage to Beckett's masterwork. There's something more finite in Ferris's work, suggested by the titled, using an adjective/participle. What it's referring to is the protagonist Tim Farnsworth's handicap: an uncontrollable push to meander, walk, and forget. Doctors try to diagnose what's wrong, make him wear a helmet that takes photographs of his brain to see if there's an oddity in his brainwaves, his wife and daughter handcuff him to the bed - his 'sleepwalking' just eludes everyone.

It sounds a bit hokey, and in the beginning it kind of is. Farnsworth, who is a lawyer, can't keep up with his job, his family, or even his own thoughts. Everything around him is spiraling into nothingness. It's a traditional narrative where his family is terribly supportive, willing to quit their jobs or put their personal lives on hold (even if it means forgetting about cancer) in order to assist him; where his colleagues are frustrated with his helmet and backpack he wears around the office and court, making him look like a child; where he himself slowly experiences a breakdown every time he realises that 'it's back!', a phrase he keeps saying to his wife Jane, as grating as it would be in a B-level monster film.

But as the novel progresses, as Farnsworth comes to terms with the fact that he cannot get better from this unnamed problem, the narrative itself deteriorates into mistaken flashbacks, imagined conversations and question/answer sessions, and frightening imaginary figures more like gaunt spectres. And it's here that we realise that Farnsworth's unnamed illness is not pedestrian, but something like the epilepsy in Dostoevsky's novels: a possession that seems to go beyond the physical, one that attempts to eat away at the mental and spiritual. Ferris is channeling something much darker and fearsome than anything in his black comedy début Then We Came to the End.

Farnsworth's wandering is more serious than that of Peter Stillman père/Daniel Quinn in Paul Auster's paean to Upper West Side meandering, City of Glass, for it becomes almost like an ambulatory roadtrip across the country. Farnsworth loses fingers and toes to frostbite and gangrene as we lose hair to age, making him seem like one of Beckett's unfortunate clowns onstage, terribly honest, waddling in trash and misery and noxious bodily scents.

The Unnamed works best when it's most hallucinatory and paranoid, creating more of an existential narrative when it refuses tradition and the organized. The novel evokes the final phrases of Beckett's The Unnamable, 'I can't go on, I'll go on', as everyone's will and patience are tried as Farnsworth's suburban ennui and peripatetic habits take hold fast. And as this happens, the work actually slowly evolves into something more organic, more Beckett-like, honest in its absurdity:
Q: Are you aware that you can be made to forget words, if certain neurons are suppressed from firing?
A: Certain what?
Q: And that by suppressing the firing of others, you can be made to forget what words mean entirely? Like the word Jane, for instance.
A: Which?
Q: And do you know that if I do this--
[inaudible]
A: Oof!
Q: --you will flatline? And if I do this--
[inaudible]
A: Aaa, aaa . . .
Q: --you will cease flatlining? Do you really want to confuse that for God's work?
The narrative is still much more traditional that this quote exemplifies, much more straightforward than Beckett's, perhaps even more conclusive than Auster's work. Its use of husband/wife, father/daughter, colleague/colleague, mentally ill/cancer striken dichotomies are not new and not shown in a different light. (The book itself starts with: 'It was the cruelest winter', which feels like a tired version TS Eliot's The Waste Land - 'April is the cruellest month' - and William Shakespeare's Richard III - 'Now is the winter of our discontent'). But it's still a maturing of Ferris, an attempt to push a little deeper into the canon. It's a welcome bleak refreshment, and certainly a decent sophomore effort.

The Unnamed will be published by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown on January 18, 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: Shag carpet and avocado appliances

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Jill McCorkle has this uncanny ability to delve deep into the mindset of each and every one of her characters. For this reason, her writing is some of the most relatable and realistic I've encountered. She also writes about the South. And for these reasons...I looooooove her!

My latest of McCorkle reads is Ferris Beach, the story of Mary Katherine "Kitty" Burns growing up in 1970s North Carolina. Kate is the only child of two middle-aged parents, Cleva and Frank, that she finds mismatched, liking them to Jack Sprat and his wife. Life at the Burns house holds little excitement for Kate, save the occasional appearance of her older cousin Angela who blows in from the nearby Ferris Beach and seems to always bring with her a storm. Kate equates Angela and Ferris Beach with everything her own life lacks—glamour, excitement, sophistication—but her imagination masks the underlying tension between Angela and Cleva that Kate won't discover until she's older and the glitter has faded.

When Misty Rhodes moves from Ferris Beach into the new housing development across from the Burns' house, Kate finds a best friend whose life is practically the exact opposite of her own. Misty is bold, fun, and vivacious with an eccentric mother, Mo, that contrasts Kate's reserved and practical one. Kate depends on Misty for excitement. No one else has forced Kate out of her comfort zone, into a world and mentality that extends beyond their small neighborhood. They live in a world of childhood and adolescent dreams until a sudden event one Fourth of July forces them to grow up fast.

So much happens in Ferris Beach that it's kind of hard to review. It's a coming-of-age story; it's the portrait of a character; it's a look at her environment; it's a snapshot of the times. It pinpoints the awkwardness and constant yearning that comes with adolescence. It's simple but complicated by its characters, who are raw with real interactions and relationships in which history and class sometimes play a role. Kate is a bit of a passive character. Some may find her boring, but I found her incredibly relatable when you look back on those teen years. It's like when you sometimes feel so awkward, like you just don't fit in anywhere, that it's better to stand back and watch than risk active participation.

And the setting is great. Avocado-colored appliances and shag carpet were before my time, but it made me want to hop in a car and drive home where I can lay on the ground under the trees, look up through the branches, and be completely alone with my thoughts.


Read my interview with Jill McCorkle here.

Ferris Beach was originally published in 1990 and re-released in September by Algonquin.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Thanks, Gillian!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ruminations: Sal's 10 best books of 2009

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`Tis the season for lists, even though lists mean absolutely nothing; for if you ask me again in a week's time, I'm sure I'd rearrange these titles, perhaps dropping a few. Plus I didn't get around to Paul Auster's new novel Invisible, and I didn't finish his first wife's collection The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I also wanted to get to Aleksandr Hemon's Love and Obstacles, but that one fell by the wayside. There's always something to read, and one will always miss something too.


Anyway, with that in mind, I've compiled my ten favourite works published in 2009.


10. Lowboy by John Wray (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25). The title refers to the protagonist, a young man with schizophrenia who rides the subways incessantly. A thrilling, pageturning novel, Wray creates a landscape of the underground of New York, as well as that of the mind. Will Heller, Lowboy himself, is much more amicable than Holden Caulfield - the character to whom he is most compared; you actually enjoy spending time and company with him, and the others he meets along his travels. It goes to show that New York City also is much larger than it seems, and when you're lost, you're really lost. [Even James Wood in The New Yorker gave this a good review - not that that means anything.]


9. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24). A fantastic collection of short stories where the settings and persons may seem varied, but they are all reinterpretations of a similar trope: the effects of a single moment or a single decision on a person's life. Tower is able to capture the humour and tragedies of life in what seems deceptively simple. But read 'The Brown Coast' and tell me you weren't captivated by his prose or his tense build up. It's almost like an O Henry story, and arguably more powerful. [Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times almost too zealous about this collection.]

8. The Longshot by Katie Kitamura (Free Press, $14). You can look at this novel the way Tom McCarthy does: "Hemingway's returned to life -- and this time, he's a woman." Or you can take gender completely out of it and be fascinated by the way Kitamura is able to create a paired down story of a coach and his mixed martial arts fighter, and their simple, but ridiculously moving story and relationship as they travel to Mexico for one final fight against the title holder. The novel never moves beyond its scope; it is precise, understated, and in its own way perfect. [Colin's review here.]

7. The Double Life Is Twice as Good by Jonathan Ames (Scribner, $15). From the first story, 'Bored to Death' - now a successful HBO show starring Jason Schwartzman, which I still haven't seen! - you know that you're going to get hooked on Ames's quirky, bare-faced comedy. As I wrote in my review, 'Ames has compiled essays and fiction (and in this collection, there really isn’t a difference between the two) in order to create a riotous event. There are no dull moments; there is just pure hysteria.' [My review here.]

6. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (The Penguin Press, $27.95). Forget that people have called it Pynchon-lite. It feels like the full stop to a writer's fantastic career, the period that follows the V in his debut novel V. Like with his former books, this is laugh out loud funny; heavy on the drug use, yet easier in the plot. There are fewer hardcore meandering sessions. But Doc Sportello is one wild PI to follow around. And his story really ties the whole Pynchon world together. [My review here, and there.]

5. Little Bee by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster, $24). How far would you go to protect someone, someone that you don't know, someone who is being treated unjustly? Why do you feel connected to another human in their plight? Cleave may write with the speed and sentimentality of a commercial author, but he poses questions that many literary artists wonder; the influence of DH Lawrence is certainly there: a journalistic intrigue into sociopolitical queries. Read the first chapter and you will be hooked. I've read both Cleave novels in a single sitting. No joke.

4. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volonhonsky (Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95). I hold fast to the fact that Pevear and Volonhonsky, the married translating team, have gotten me through the greats of Russian literature. Their versions are always crystal clear, effective, and - what I hope - true to the original. Always with an introductory essay, they let you know what's about to happen and why they made the decisions they did. Tolstoy's stories are beautiful, engaging, and often times humorous. This edition got me through 'The Kreutzer Sonata', which is one of the most intense pieces I have ever come across. Tolstoy is thrilling, and this translation makes certain of it.

3. Goat Song by Brad Kessler (Scribner, $24). Simple, straightforward, honest, unassuming, Kessler's narrative tells how he and his wife take in a pair of goats and decide to raise them for milk and cheese. Kessler never claims to be an expert, but never feels like he's the fool. He goes through the process, and you feel as if you're learning with him. From my review: '[Kessler] also discusses a great deal of etymology [of 'goat'], linking goats and Greek and common English words together: from the obvious word tragedy to the concept of Pan to the fantastic idea of transhumance. Everything seems so tightly woven, and Kessler’s connections don’t seem out of place or make the reader make huge leaps of faith. We’re in good hands here.' [My review here.]

2. Columbine by Dave Cullen (Twelve, $26.99). This journalistic book unfolds like a Greek tragedy: you know what's going to happen, and you don't want to see it occur, but you read to understand. Because we want to know why this happened. It's a book that keeps you on edge, uncomfortable diving into the depths of this horrific incident and how it affected the town, students, parents, administrators alike. The most frightening aspect is knowing how all the signs were there; it's just that no one was interested enough to put them together. It will give you nightmares.

1. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, $27.95). A great coincidence that this was the last book 2009 book I read this year too. It resonates. It makes one laugh. It makes one think. It makes one confused. It makes one - above all - entertained with the imagination that Lethem puts forth in this wacky, controlled, and yet sprawling novel about New York City and the hysteria it causes in the people who live here. There seems to be nothing this novel can't - or won't - tackle. And the eBay scene is absolutely priceless and that alone makes it worth reading.[My review here.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Winter Reading

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Summer vs. Winter
Photo from Flickr

One of the most defining characteristics of myself is that I detest the cold. In my opinion, the temperature should never drop below 70 except for maybe the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's, at which point snow should also be present. I think most of it has to do with living in the city. I never remember hating the cold this much growing up in Tennessee (and before you ask, yes it does get cold there. It just doesn't stay cold as long). I enjoyed getting bundled up and going for walks in the snow, or sledding, or just reading in the living room while a fire was roaring in the fireplace. Now, I have to commute on my own two feet through the cold, and when it does snow, it stays pretty for maybe an hour before it turns slushy and grimey. Not to mention, slowblowers pile the snow off the road onto the edge of the sidewalk where it remains for weeks before it melts. Outside of the holiday season, winter in New York is not a thing of beauty. It's miserable.

So as I am sitting here in my office typing this, the heat is not working and my entire floor is bundled up in our heavy coats and gloves trying to get some work done (not to mention last night was our office party and not too many people are in any condition to enjoy work right now, but that's not my point) and this weekend, we are threatened with our first snow storm of the season. With winter weather looming, I fully plan to go into hibernation mode until it's time to wake up for work on Monday.

There is one good thing about winter (besides skiing, which ironically I love and don't do often enough!)—it's perfect for curling up under the covers with a good book, and that is exactly what I plan on doing this weekend and for many weekends until the temperature breaks 60. On my list for this weekend:
  • Finish reading Jill McCorkle's Ferris Beach, which has taken me entirely too long to read for some reason (busy).
  • Watch Lost in Austen instantly on Netflix as my last title in the Everything Austen Challenge.
  • Other books to read/begin: Joshua Ferris' The Unnamed, New Stories from the South
  • Other movies on my instant queue: Steel Magnolias (which I have never seen in full—shame!), 2 Days in Paris, Phoebe in Wonderland, Torn Curtain
I'm stocked with food and the only thing I must leave for is a brief Christmas party on Saturday afternoon. My cats will enjoy the company; it's just too bad that my Manhattan apartment doesn't have a fireplace.

Do you love winter or do you hibernate like me? How do you like to stay warm and happy when it's cold outside? What's on your winter reading list?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review: Art of a sleepwalker

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Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem follows the story of Chase Insteadman, a once famous (child) actor who now is famous only because he's dating this astronaut in space who can't come home, who finds out that she has cancer on her foot, who writes letters to him that become public so that everyone knows what's going on. As this predicament is happening circling around the planet, Chase is befriending paranoia Criterion Collection essayist Perkus Tooth, who takes an extreme interest in chaldrons, who types out New Yorker articles so that he can read them in 'unfriendly' Courier font so as not to 'trust himself' (as the New Yorker font apparently makes you trust yourself), who is informing Chase about the importance of the Messianic (and perhaps not quite dead, at least in Perkus's eyes) Marlon Brando.

Meanwhile there's something going on in the air as Manhattan smells like chocolate, making people wonder if they're drinking espresso or mocha. Eagles have taken over Richard Abneg's apartment window-ledges, Abneg being a hero of a riot in the East Village and currently the billionaire mayor's aid. Abneg falls in love with a Hawai'ian woman, Georgina Hawkmanaji, who he refers to as Hawkman, and who both desire to win a chaldron on eBay - one of the best scenes written in the novel, and one of the most memorable I've read in a long while.

All that, and a tiger is on the loose, roaming the streets of New York, creating tiger-neighbourhood-watch groups and suspicions that the tiger doesn't really exist or that the tiger is just code for the Second Avenue subway line that has been in the works for more years anyone cares to remember.

Chronic City is a paean to the Upper East Side; to city meandering, a meandering that can only happen in New York City; to the hysteria that Pynchon captures in LA and Dickens captures in London. It's a novel that allows you to enjoy the ridiculous ramblings of a narrator who enjoys tripping out and having conversations under said influence. It's a novel that delights in the chaos, in the concept that 'the city is a maze', exemplified in Perkus Tooth's own discussion of said eponymous 'film':
As Leonard Cohen tells us, "there is a war between the ones who say there is a
war and the ones who say there isn't." Equally, according to Iris Murdoch, "the
bereaved have no language for speaking to the unbereaved." For denizens of this
country of Noir, such protests delineate the incommensurable rift or gulf
between those doomed to patrol the night country and those moored in daylight, a
co-existence of realms, one laid upon the other as veneer. . . .

It goes on. Chronic City is full of incessant ruminations on life and culture and politics - all of which really boils down to a search for truth. The chaldron that these insane characters are searching for may be a stand-in for the holy grail. Chase's sometime lover and ghostwriter of bestselling memoirs, Oona, may be an updated version of Una, the one-true church of Spenser's Faerie Queene. A work so replete with real and false references, with parallel realities and THC-aided descriptions, Chronic City is a masterwork that if you're in the right kind of mood will be ridiculously well worth it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Movie Review: The Jane Austen Book Club

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I wasn't really expecting much from The Jane Austen Book Club. And by that I mean I didn't really have any expectations, good or bad. I went into it without having read the book and only knowing two of the zillion person cast. One was Emily Blunt, because I remember her from the poster. The other was Marc Blucas, because I have a long-standing game with a friend in which we call each other immediately when we spot him in a movie or show since our friendship developed from a mutual crush back in his days as Riley Finn on Buffy. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised with this movie of which I had no expectations.

The story is this: two women—Jocelyn (Maria Bello) and Bernadette (Kathy Baker)—decide to form a book club centered around Jane Austen to distract their friend Sylvia (Amy Brennemen) whose husband has just left her. They recruit Sylvia's daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), and two outsiders: Prudie (Emily Blunt), a high school French teacher that feels trapped in her marriage, and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the only male of the group and an Austen virgin. They decide to read each of Austen's six novels and each member has to lead discussion on one specific title. Working through the novels, they begin to see how their own lives resemble a modern-day Jane Austen novel as they grapple with their own relationships or their lack thereof. 

The ensemble cast really worked in this movie. The dialogue seemed a little weak at first, but then it got into a flow and the characters had a chance to shine, both together and individually. That was the great thing about it—I knew them as a group and I knew them as individuals, because the script spent a little bit of time developing each character's own story. And it was just enough time, not too much that it took away from the group dynamic and not too little that these scenes focusing on one character seemed choppy and unnecessary. 

I really enjoyed this movie. I wish I knew Austen's works well enough to recognize which of the characters in the movie represented which of her characters, but that's a project for another time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The 2010 Chunkster Challenge

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I read about the Chunkster Challenge recently and was completely bummed I missed out on it. Fortunately, it's a yearly thing, so I can participate this time around. I enjoy reading the occasional uber-long novel. Something about dedicating 700 pages of time to one story just gives me a thrill [given that it's a good story and I'm engrossed in it; if I wasn't, I sure wouldn't stick around for all 700 pages].

A chunkster is defined as a piece of adult literature more than 450 pages. I would personally define a minimum as more like 700 pages. It needs to be something I pick up and say, "Ok, I'm really going to do this, and I will feel accomplished when I finish." I've technically read three chunksters this year: The Help, The Poisonwood Bible, and Dreamland, but none of these were a challenge to me. I didn't start them with the mindset that I was about to embark on a long adventure; they were just the next book on my list. With a real chunkster, I'm going to schedule and prepare for it.

I am opting for Level 3 of this challenge: The Mor-book-ly Obese, which is defined by reading either at least 6 chunksters or 3 chunksters of at least 750 pages. This works out well, because there are two definites that have been on my to-read list for a while, and I already have many more options for the third.
  1. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher
  2. New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
Other technical chunkster options:
  • My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times by Harold Evans
  • True Compass by Edward M. Kennedy
  • When Everything Changed by Gail Collins
  • The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (also on my Back to School list)
  • Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (attempted to read since season 1 of Gilmore Girls)
I'm hoping 2010 will bring me a perfect third option. This challenge runs from February 1, 2010, to January 31, 2011, but I may cheat and start early depending on what's coming up in my reading queue. 

GIVEAWAY Winner: Totally Killer

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And the winner of Greg Olear's Totally Killer is......

Sasha!

Congrats, Sasha! I've sent you an email and you have 24 hours to respond with your mailing address. Thanks to all who entered, and thanks to the author for offering a copy for our readers!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: Are you who you say you are?

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Who knew that you could create a literary work based on Internet identity theft? And that it would be taken seriously? Yes, even with one of those classic email stories where there's a woman in Africa who is looking for someone to share her $43 million inheritance after a wealthy family member kicks the bucket, but she needs to put it into your bank account in order for it all to work out...etc, etc.

Dan Chaon's new novel, Await Your Reply, quietly tackles the issues of identity in the 21st century world in an interesting, fragmented - or perhaps the better word is shattered - kind of way. It takes to heart the epigraph from the second part, which is from Vladimir Nabokov's underrated gem, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (which is also interested in these ideas): 'Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is but a manner of being--not a constant state--that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations. The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them unconscious of their interchangeable burden.' Await Your Reply is slow and methodical as it pieces together (or tears apart) the characters it creates, making the reader always doubt who is in the scene, why they are there, and what they really are. It sounds more intimidating than it actually is.

It's a trio of stories that work as point/counterpoints to one another. Story one: Ryan Schuyler just found out who his real biological father is when said father calls him up one day and delivers the bombshell. In order to make up for lost time, Ryan drops out of Northwestern and accompanies his father on his business deals, which we learn are quite shady, requiring false names, false addresses, and false histories.

Story two: orphaned Lucy Lattimore is sick and tired of her small no-name town life and decides to run away with her high school history teacher George Orson in his hotrod Maserati. They arrive at this middle of nowhere Lighthouse Motel, where George claims is just a jumping off point. But they stay here longer than Lucy anticipates, making her suspicious of what George is really doing in this new no-name town.

Story three: Miles Cheshire is on the hunt for his twin brother, Hayden, who was always troublesome. Maybe he was a genius or maybe he was just autistic - no one can say. Hayden is the probable reason their parents died, writes paranoid letters claiming that the government is watching what he says, and keeps changing persons and histories in order to keep out of harm's way. Miles feels he is hot on his brother's trail, but in all honesty, Hayden could be anywhere. He's just guessing that he's up in the middle of the Canadian Northwest Territories, where his imagined fantasy castle he always thought of - based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - is located.

The nice thing about this book is that though you probably know where it's going, it's about the journey and seeing the 'truths' slowly uncover themselves, see how the puzzle is attempted to be put together. Though it's quite a pageturner while reading, it kind of sours during the aftertaste; its cleverness while you peruse the text becomes somewhat hackneyed when you think back to it. Probably because there's more melancholy and thrills than lines of poetic prose. It still is more interested in a 'gotcha' sense:
"Fugue state." Maybe it was the combination of the discordant arpeggios from the conservatory and the leaves in the street. "Fugue." A dissociative psychological state marked by sudden, unexpected travel away from home or one's customary place of work, with inability to recall one's past, confusion about personal identity, or the assumption of a new identity, or significant distress or impairment.
It's still an ambitious project, and one that certainly works and resonates, even with the wonderful melodrama. How could a work like this not, as it begins with a severed hand beside Ryan and his father crying, saying it'll be all right?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ruminations: The importance of being earnest

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On this Lazy Friday, I've decided to take a look at two works - residual from the Back to School challenge - that have not too much in common with one another other than they a) take Gothic literature to either the tragic or comic extremes, b) experiment with literary style, and c) have rather amusing videos that accompany them. Plus, in times of economic crises, publishing houses go back to the classics - giving them a new jacket or introduction - in order to sustain business. Vintage Classics has repackaged 19th century (aka public domain, aka without copyright) works, as has Penguin in its new gorgeous deluxe hardback editions:


I read Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights because being someone who kind of despises 80s music I wanted to understand the power ballad. The king of said genre, Jim Steinman, wrote such epics as most of the Meat Loaf music, 'Total Eclipse of the Heart', and 'It's All Coming Back to Me Now' based on this novel, apparently. The latter was written with the a scene in mind - one that actually doesn't exist in the book - where Heathcliff digs up his long lost love's body and dances with it in the moonlight. About two-thirds of that statement is right: Heathcliff digs up Catherine's coffin in the moonlight, but he doesn't dance with it (which probably would have made the scene much more fascinating; but hey, it was 1847 when Brontë wrote it, and I have a feeling that that wouldn't have been kosher with her publisher, even though the Victorians enjoyed their grave digging).

Still it's one of the most rough, vicious, and brutal novels I've read in my lifetime. Talk about people who can't let anything go. Every single character lives to destroy the next. It's a novel where characters are trying to outlive their neighbours solely for spite in order for property to remain in their family name, so that their children don't fall in love with the 'wrong' one, so that paternalism can take itself to its logical end. Which of course lends itself to a wonderful rendition from Monty Python (the Wuthering Heights bit starts about 1.04 mins in), where they capture most of what you need to know about the book, in semaphore too!:


The other book that I read recently was Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which I had to read in high school but hadn't revisited since. At that point I was more intrigued by the evil and darkness that the novel depicted; I had just read Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and the concept of selling your soul for education (in Faustus's world) or for eternal beauty (in Dorian Gray's case) I found fascinating. However, this reading time around I focused on the humour, the absurdity, and the cleverness of wit that Wilde is absolutely and justifiably known for: The clingyness of the portrait painter Basil, the terrible acting of Dorian's female love interest Sibyl Vane, the brilliant and Gawker-style snarky one-liners of Lord Henry Wotton.

The ostentation in this book is just out of control. In high school, my friends and I - whenever we came across such unnecessary purple prose in other novels - would jokingly refer to such passages as being like 'Dorian Gray's tapestries', for there is a chapter in this book that just describes the absurd and decadent tastes that Dorian picks up after reading a vicious book, described:
'I am so sorry, Harry' [Dorian] cried, 'but it is entirely your fault. That book you sent me so fascinated me that I forgot how the time was going.'
'Yes: I thought you would like it,' replied his host, rising from his chair.
'I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.'
'Ah, you have discovered that?' murmured Lord Henry. And they passed into the dining room.
That's just a wonderful quote about the 'poisons of literature'; for they show that, as Lord Henry earlier states, 'Sin is the only real colour-element left in modern life'. And of course this story - sans the homoeroticism - is a perfect novel that the film industry would want to get its hands on, with all the wild colours and temptations and soul selling that encompasses this wonderful work. And below is the somewhat ridiculous trailer for the film that apparently came out in the UK and has no release date in the States, probably for good reason. It just looks like it missed the humour and focused on the 'drama'. And really, that's not decadent at all...I doubt Wilde would have approved.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

NEW BOOK! Review: Put a cleaver through my head, please.

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Julie Powell is an engaging writer. But Julie Powell should never again write about herself.

Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame has written the second installment in her culinary journey, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession. Despite the success of her first novel, Julie is still having a crisis of self, this time one that involves an affair with a long-time acquaintance, a person we know only as 'D'. Rather than using food as a means to self-discovery, this time Julie uses food as an escape as she takes on an apprenticeship at a butcher in upstate New York, followed by a meat tour (traveled solo, of course) of Argentina, Ukraine, and Tanzania.

Where do I start with the reasons I wanted to throw this book across the room every 20 or so pages? I'll start with a more literary analysis:

This book had no arc. In Julie & Julia, we knew why she was embarking on the project—bored with dead-end jobs and stuck in a rut, she's trying to spice up her life with a project. In the introduction of Cleaving, Julie tells us she has no idea why she is doing this. What is driving her to become a butcher? She doesn't know, so the reader doesn't know, and we still don't know by the end. The premise seems forced by an editor or publisher as a follow-up to a wildly successful first novel. 

That's all I've got in terms of "literary criticism." Now it's just going to get personal. I don't like Julie Powell. My general rule of life is to not compare an author's works to each other, but I am taking exception to my own rule. I enjoyed Powell's voice in Julie & Julia. She was snarky, sarcastic, and though a bit self-involved, I tended to look past that because I understand the manic emotions that come with a quarter-life crisis. Well now she has taken self-involved to a whole new level. In both books, she goes on and on about her wonderful husband, Eric. They're soulmates, they understand each other, they're practically the same person, yada yada. But she's having an affair with an old friend they both know...for over two years...and Eric knows about it...and she knows he knows but keeps doing it...and he stays with her! Grow some balls, dude! When the affair is finally over and 'D' ignores Julie, she becomes that girl. You know the one—clingy, needy, and whiny as she obsessively stalks him. And I mean literally stalks, sending him emails, texts, and gifts for months after they've ceased reciprocal communication. Everything she sees or hears or experiences somehow reminds her of D, and even a year later, she sends him a letters alongside the ones to Eric as she's traveling across the world. It's been a year! Get over it, because I'm sick of hearing about it. I could care less about cooking, but unlike her last book, I preferred the passages about food this time around.

Julie is brutally honest, and while I usually appreciate that in a memoir, in this case, that may be where I find fault. The most disgusting part of it, to me, is how she is revealing this intimate situation in graphic detail at the expense of the people she supposedly loves...all for a paycheck. These people are real. Everyone that Eric meets in the future can read the gruesome details of his marriage and judge him for his wife's words. He's going to look like a chump because she wanted a book deal. There's honest and then there's just plain cruel. Get over yourself, Julie Powell. Think about how something like this is going to affect other people. You have skill but start writing commentary for something, because I don't care about your train wreck of a life anymore. She does a good job weaving together the different aspects of the story, and some may be able to look past her personality to find the story "real" and entertaining, but the best part of this book to me was the cover art.

And for the love of god, stop with the Buffy quotes and references! As a Buffy aficionado, I am taking offense to the excessive reiteration that you're a fan of a cult show.


Cleaving was released December 1st by Little, Brown and Company.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review: Doubling the point

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A Happy Man by Hansjörg Schertenleib seems to pull from a variety of influences: Albert Camus's The Fall and a similarly titled work A Happy Death and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. The premise is simple: a Swiss man, a jazz trumpet player who goes by the name This Studer (probably a pseudonym), is embarking to Amsterdam in order to be reunited with a friend who also has made a career out of music. Nothing major: they're just going to play a gig at a place and This was called in when the former trumpeter was unable.

The work is unassuming. It starts: 'The night train rolled purposefully northward toward its destination. That's how mundanely our story begins.' And when we think back to the plot of A Happy Man, in many ways it can be referred to as mundane: there isn't much excitement, the tension remains somewhat level - though whether it is engaged in humour or drama is another question. The narrator is just interested in showing the structure of someone's life, much like the structure of the Amsterdam city layout: how defined a life can be, how rigid certain barriers can become, and how sometimes the impossible - like building a city below sea level - is actually possible.

A Happy Man is really an experiment in narrative structure and style. The first part of the book showcases a more external look at This and his colleagues, his wife, and his daughter. We get to see the playful aspects of his romantic life, as he and his wife cook up schemes on what they're new assumed names will be in Amsterdam, which makes us think that this is something that they do frequently. The second part shows a flip side of his life, the drama and anger that these characters have, how This's daughter isn't the most loving and appreciative offspring (though perhaps this is because of This), how This's friend and his wife don't have the best marriage going, how This somewhat brushes off a fan who was also someone on the train with him, with whom he had spent hours together, talking about this and that. In that way, it really works like Dostoevsky's great work, showing two sides to a coin, creating expectations and then denying them, forming perceptions and then qualifying them. This doubling and duality of position works well with a background of Amsterdam, where several languages are spoken at one another and no one voice rules supremely.

Finishing A Happy Man (Glücklische in its original German, which suggests more of 'the lucky one') I wondered why this author, who seems quite well respected in the German-language world - at least according to his German Wikipedia site - isn't as translated into English as perhaps he should. For this novella was well worth the trip, a subtle and fantastic experiment into writing, and seriously puts him into dialogue with some of our foremost stylists.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Our 100th Review!: Under the Boardwalk

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Sallie Day's debut novel The Palace of Strange Girls has just the kind of physical presence that catches my eye. With 352 pages, it has a nice weight to it, and the cover contains a retro photo, much like Laurie Graham's novels. Fortunately, that vintage photo wasn't only used for artistic appeal; the story takes place in the summer of 1959 during the Singleton family's vacation at the beaches of Blackpool, England.

The Singletons are four: father Jack, a foreman at the local cotton mill; mother Ruth, a strict and somewhat dour housewife with dreams for a bigger, better way of living; daughter Helen, an obedient fifteen-year-old aching to escape her mother's iron fist and live like a real teenage; and daughter Beth, a charismatic and energetic seven-year-old whose illness and recent surgery keeps her under the watchful eye of Ruth. On the surface, the Singletons look like a normal, middle-class family, but we quickly learn that (obviously) the Singletons are not as perfect as they may appear. Beneath the surface, there is a lot of tension, and there are a lot of secrets floating around. And of course, being the 1950s, it's better to keep up the perfect facade than air out your dirty laundry.

The first half of this book felt muddled. It took me a long time to get into the flow of the narrative, between the flashbacks and the alternating focus on each character. By the middle, I was used to the language and perspective, and I could sense a different tone used when describing each character. Jack is very much a man of the times, torn between convention and passion; Ruth tries her best to maintain an outward image while longing for something more; Helen has the fire of a teenage; and Beth possesses that innocent childhood curiosity. But though the characters had very defined personalities, I never got the feeling that I really knew them. To me, they seemed rather flat, without much dimension.

One fun theme running throughout was that of the I-Spy books of 1950s Britain, in which children were given a list of things to hunt down in a variety of environments. Beth's I-Spy book serves as a means to explore the world by dragging her out of the bubble to which Ruth has restricted her. [It eventually leads Beth to The Palace of Strange Girls, a freak show attraction on the pier, but I still don't find it a pivotal enough scene or theme to have inspired the book's title.]

The Palace of Strange Girls entertained me for the second half, but I felt like it had tension that should have been building up towards something. Some novels can successfully serve as a snapshot of a life or time without ever culminating with a climactic scene and conclusion, but something about this one just didn't gently flow and allow that. I wasn't interested enough in any of the characters to care about what happened to any of them after I read the last page. Sallie Day has the skills to write an excellent story, and I bet her next novel will be more polished.


The Palace of Strange Girls was re-published in September by Grand Central Publishing.
Review copy provided by publisher. Thanks, Miriam!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: C'est la vie.

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When I started reading Megan McAndrew's newest novel, Dreaming in French, I thought, "Man, I want this girl's life." It's the late 1970s, and Charlotte Sanders is a fifteen-year-old American living in an upscale Paris neighborhood with her sixteen-year-old sister Lea and their expatriate parents. The publisher blurb describes Charlotte as "precocious," and I can't think of a much better adjective. She is highly aware of her surroundings, the way people react, the way society functions. She's at that in-between age where, say, she wants to experience sex but is not quite ready to give up her virginity; she's nearly independent but still can't sleep if her mother, Astrid, is not yet home for the evening.

Charlotte's belief system severely shifts, however, as she begins to understand the nuances of the adult world. Astrid has an affair with a Polish nationalist, and the family is torn apart. Charlotte leaves her father and sister behind in Paris and follows her mother to the States to start over. In New York, Charlotte is forced to grow up fast as she realizes her mother's flaws and ineptness. Torn between New York and Paris, Charlotte has to guide herself through adolescence to adulthood the changing world of the late-70s and 80s.

Told in Charlotte's first-person perspective, the story has a very straightforward and, at times, almost dismissive voice behind it. As the reader, you can sense Charlotte's confusion, frustration, and...well, restlessness. It's almost as if she's just going through the motions, trying to get through life until the next time she's jerked back to reality by something else dramatic (can't have a novel in France without a little drama, can you?). It's a coming-of-age tale in an appealing setting.

McAndrew writes beautifully—prose that flows and really puts the reader into the scene. I'm pretty sure I disliked each character at some point, but the story wasn't written in a way that led you to decidedly like or dislike its characters. It's kinda like you are stuck with them, as in a family, and you have to take the good with the bad. There was no great tension building throughout, nor a dramatic, culminating scene, but I couldn't put this book down. By the end, you realize you're reading the voice of a person that has experienced so much, she's completely different than she was at the beginning of the story. Ah, c'est la vie.


Dreaming in French was publishing in September by Scribner.
Review copy provided by LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Back to School: A Victorian mockery

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For my final Back to School challenge book, I decided to do somewhat of a culmination with a book that embraces and mocks the Victorian novels that I've focused on as of recent. John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman is an amusing and wild ride in 1860s England. The omniscient, ever-present, and ever-involved narrator watches from a distance of a hundred years and amusingly comments on the characters' decisions, their historical placement, and how things would have been different if they were born later.

Though I haven't read it, I could only feel that Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was alluded to in that by being the French Lieutenant's woman he means whore, not wife. And so as Sarah Woodruff - said 'woman' - wears her melancholy for her lost Frenchman as Hester Prynne wears her scarlet A around town. People gossip (and there's plenty of gossip in this story) about Ms Woodruff and her beginnings, her love affairs, her dark personality. She's a mysterious figure, so much so that she captures the attention of on Charles Smithson, a young fossil collecting scientist quite interested in Darwin's theories. Charles, with his painfully common surname, can't get Ms Woodruff out of his mind, even though he's engaged to the even more common, though quite wealthy, Earnestina ('Earnest', the importance of being!) Freeman ('Free man'!), a woman who is controlled more by hysterics and perhaps by the upbringing by her parents.

Slowly through Charles we discover Ms Woodruff's history, some through other media, mostly through Sarah herself. She talks about why she is so sullen, longing for her lost Varguennes (anyone know where this name could come from?), who as she found out was married to another woman when they had their 'affair de coeur'. And now she is married to her suffering. This makes Charles ever so sympathetic with her plight that his interest becomes more than a fascination.

There are some wild plot twists, and some plot changes of heart - as the narrator tells us that this is the way that things could have happened if the characters so chose to do one thing instead of the other. So in essence there is no ending but a serious of simultaneous ones, neither of which should technically win out, even though the narrator is fearful that 'The only way I can take no part in the fight is to show two versions of it. That leaves me with only one problem: I cannot give both versions at once, yet whichever is second will seem, so strong is the tyranny of the last chapter, the final, the "real" version. ...I extract a florin, I rest it on my right thumbnail, I flick it, spinning, two feet into the air and catch it in my left hand.' And that is how it is determined the order in which the stories are told. To chance, to randomness, to god's willfulness.

It's a trick like this that makes The French Lieutenant's Woman a beloved work of literature; for the narrator is one of the most self-aware narrators I have ever read, one that is more like a character than a person relating a story. For instance:

The French! Varguennes!

...[Charles] wondered where she was; and a vision of her running sodden through the lightning and rain momentarily distracted him from his own acute and self-directed anxiety. But it was too much! After such as day!

I am overdoing the exclamation marks.


This self-effacing, humorous last remark just reveals one of the moments that the narrator understands how narratives work, what readers are expecting and what they need. As Charles and Sarah begin something romantic, the narrator writes: '[Charles] stood like a man beneath a breaking damn, instead of a man above a weeping woman...Their eyes remained on each other's, as if they were both hypnotized. She seemed to him - or those wide, those drowning eyes seemed - the most ravishingly beautiful he had ever seen. What lay behind them did not matter. The moment overcame the age.'

I'll leave you with this pondering (and the amusing Simpsons reference to the film version): 'Death is not in the nature of things; it is the nature of things. But what dies is the form. The matter is immortal.' What follows in that paragraph seems quite an interesting take on Darwinism and storytelling in general.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Guest Post: Pieces of Lost New York

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Today we welcome author Greg Olear whose debut novel, Totally Killer, I reviewed yesterday. This was fun for me to read, since I lived in the East Village during college, the area in which Totally Killer is set. Believe me when I say that no city moves real estate and business quite as fast as New York. During my nine-month stint at a dorm on East 7th St, the restaurant on the corner of 7th and 2nd had no fewer than three name and cuisine changes. Some storefronts are occupied by the same business for decades, some for mere days. Thanks, Greg, for a look at an East Village I have never seen.

New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.

Harper’s Monthly, 1856

My novel, Totally Killer, is set in New York in 1991. Often in the book, I have the characters go to places that no longer exist. I lived in New York for the first time in 1993, moving there for a ten-year stretch two years later.

When I return these days, a different city—a new New York—greets me. Here are some of my favorite places (and things) that are no longer:

Dojo on St. Mark’s Place

Dirt-cheap Japanese place on the block of that vaunted street between Second and Third Avenues. How cheap was it? So cheap you could buy a tuna salad wrap (one part tuna, eighteen parts mayonnaise) for less than two bucks. So cheap you could gorge on a salmon dinner for less than ten. So cheap the bathrooms were kept under lock and key, with said key shackled to a sawed-off plunger handle. So cheap the cheapest Happy Hour specials in town could not entice you to linger by the bar.

The Dojo on Wavery is still there, I think, but that one is more sanitized. Totally different vibe. The St. Mark’s Dojo was pure East Village. Todd and Taylor go there in Totally Killer, and she sees a mouse scurrying into the kitchen. One of the few moments in the book based on actual events.

Nell’s

Dearly departed nightclub on West 14th Street, housed in what used to be an electronics store. Presided over by “Little Nell” Campbell, best known for her supporting role in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Was the spot to be for most of its early life. Fell out of style for awhile, then was reinvented as a hip hop heaven. Tupac Shakur once enjoyed a bee-jay on the downstairs dance floor.

It was during the hip hop phase that I used to go to the club, only because a friend of ours worked there so we could get in and drink for free. A loud nightclub where gorgeous gals cavorted with black luminaries like Prince and Charles Barkley was maybe not the best setting for a short, waddling white dork to pick up women. As I told my friend at the time, when explaining why I didn’t want to go to a party there one night: “It’s not a place where I can shine.”

Payphones

They all worked, once upon a time. And if you were lost, or couldn’t find the place you were supposed to meet your friends, what you’d do is, you’d stride right up to a payphone like you were Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, pick up the receiver, dial 411 (free of charge), and ask for an address. This way, you projected a James Bond air even when you felt more like George W. Bush reading My Pet Goat.

Holiday Cocktail Lounge

With the Virgin Megastore, one of the city’s most egregious misnomers. The dive bar to end all dive bars. Owned and operated by Stefan, once a soccer star in his native Ukraine, whose mood swings were legend. He could give you beers on the house or snap your head off, depending on the time of day. But mostly he was charming, in a dirty-old-man sort of way.

Spent one memorable New Year’s Eve here. At 5pm, a guy in one booth was passed out, alseep in his own drool. By the time he came to and found his cowboy hat and his wife, it was after ten, and we were all three sheets to the wind. He wound up buying delivery pizza for the house. At midnight, his not-in-any-way-pulchritudinous wife, who had materialized, kissed me on the lips and slipped me tongue. He didn’t give a shit. On the way out, Stefan muttered something under his breath in his native language. My friend Roman, who happened coincidentally to speak fluent Ukrainian, burst out laughing. “It’s an old slang word,” he explained (the rough English equivalent rhymes with runt and will not be printed in this space).

The Speakeasy on Sixth Avenue

Right at the corner of Waverly, in the apartment above the Indian restaurant. There was no password or anything; you just rang the buzzer and went on up. The apartment was decorated in a sort of Deco style, and the drinks were a dollar or two more than what you paid in a legal bar. But there’s nothing that impresses your friends from out of town more than a speakeasy. Its run didn’t last long, unfortunately, which isn’t surprising when you consider that I was turned on to the place from a colleague who worked with me at Kaplan. What the geeks are on to your hipster hideaway, the end is near.

Marylou’s

In the basement level of a townhouse on West 9th Street, half a block from the PATH entrance. It’s a Mexican place now, I think. The bar was up front, and it was quiet, with clientele that skewed older (which was appealing to me at age twenty-five, when I was on the prowl for what are now called cougars…a prowl that was never, alas, successful). The bartender was of the Old School variety. He was in his sixties, he read Raymond Chandler, he told funny stories. Jack Nicholson, he said, came to the bar once or twice, and told him this story:

When Nicholson was doing research for his role as a mobster in Prizzi’s Honor, he hung out with the real McCoys, one of them a wiseguy we’ll call Frankie. Frankie brought Jack to some dump out in Jersey, where, in a back room, a group of grizzled old Italian men were playing cards at a table. Frankie walked in with his celebrity guest in tow. No one even looked up. “Hey,” said Frankie. “You see who I got with me?” The leader of the bunch looked over, eyed Jack, then looked at Frankie and said, in a Paulie Walnuts voice, “Unless he’s a horse, we don’t know him.”


Visit Greg's website at www.gregolear.com.
You can also visit the official Totally Killer site at www.totallykiller.com.

Thank you, Greg!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Review & GIVEAWAY: Totally killer, dude

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If you've graduated from college in the past couple of years and are living in New York City, there's a very good chance that life sucks for you right now. Why? The economy. Kinda seems like a cliché reason, but it's true. Huge numbers of recent grads are unemployed or holding a part-time job that pays minimum wage and has nothing to do with that degree they just spent thousands of dollars on. But guess what? You're not the first group this has happened to! Back in 1991, things were just as bad—back when a Bush was in office, the US was involved in another war in the Middle East, and NYC was just a little seedier.

This is the historical setting for Greg Olear's debut novel, Totally Killer. The story focuses on Taylor, a 23-year-old single and jobless graduate from Missouri. We hear the story, however, from Taylor's roommate Todd, who tells us in the very beginning that Taylor is dead and we're going to learn why. Taylor comes to the Big Apple with glitter in her eyes, and she's anxious to live the New York City dream. After months of searching for a job and nothing to show for it, Taylor is understandably frustrated. When an invitation for a mysterious employment agency called Quid Pro shows up in her mailbox, Taylor figures it can't hurt to give them a call. Quid Pro Quo proves to be quite different from any other employment agency Taylor has visited—a nice building, expensive decor. She easily lands a perfect job and, even better, a perfect boyfriend, but [as the publisher blurb states, and I have to steal its dramatic teaser] "perfection has its price."

Totally Killer is essentially a piece of historical fiction, just using a history that isn't too remote. The author does a fabulous job of setting the scene as New York in 1991. I didn't live here then [I was six years old], and neither did Olear, but I certainly got a feel of the setting from his descriptions—sentences that reiterate how there was no email or internet or cell phones, and how employment agencies and classifieds were the main ways to find a job. It reminds you that not only has technology changed, it has certainly hugely changed the way we function as a society.

This is book is one part thriller (who killed Taylor??), one part satire built around the following idea: recent grads can't find a job because baby-boomers are still in the workforce. So what's the easiest way to fix that? Kill them off, of course. Olear creates a story in which the outlandish becomes almost justifiable, and it's peppered with lots of themes and pop culture references that make this book almost as relatable today, though it's set almost two decades ago.

I enjoyed the perspective from which the story was told. While I got to know the characters, I never felt I had the time to decide if I liked them or not. It's one of those stories that just carried me along as one event flowed into another. Olear did an excellent job of simultaneously working through the setting and characters and plot, and I had a hard time putting this one down.

Greg has generously given me ONE copy of his debut novel to share with one of our readers. This contest is open internationally. For one entry each:

  1. Comment on this post with your email address.
  2. Tweet about this giveaway (Totally Killer giveaway from @booknerds! http://tinyurl.com/yzj5ttn).

Deadline is Monday, December 14th at 11:59PM EST. The winner will be announced the following day. Good luck!

Tune in tomorrow for a guest post by author Greg Olear.

Totally Killer was released in October by Harper Paperbacks.
Review copy provided by the author.