Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Hope, Glen Duncan
Read: 18 February to 23 March 2009
4.5 / 5 stars

God, so. What to say about a novel that left me emotionally exhausted every time I picked it up and desperately wanting to read just a few more paragraphs every time I reluctantly put it down?

It's a love story, but not in the traditional sense. Love of another. Love of the self. Love of vices (namely pornography, prostitutes and booze, with some drugs and masturbation thrown in for the Yatzee). Love of one's own misery. Love of the past. Love of what could have been. Love of hope that hasn't been seen in years. Love without a home.

It's about how time changes everything and nothing at all, even the memory of the dark and dirty girl down the street who was a blip in time but a turning point in life.

It's an exercise in modern stream-of-consciousness writing. One minute you're wallowing in the protagonist's misery in the present, the next you're yanked back to the past where the only good thing is Gabriel's first love. A Portrait of the Artist as a Floundering Individual? Oh, God yes. And, like James Joyce so masterfully did so many years ago, you feel all the closer to the protagonist for it because you're forced to learn everything about him when you're forced that deeply into his head.

It's an exploration of regret and the necessity of an end, which is an issue Gabriel is fated to grapple with for eons beyond the book's final line.

The exploration of a first love is almost guaranteed to evoke near-tangible images of the reader's own experiences -- and those fondly recalled ghosts of past romances that were the right thing at the wrong time are almost gut-wrenching in how Hope gradually raises them to heartbreaking palpability. You learn about the psychological damage one faces by living in the past, and it's terrifying.

The supporting cast is almost as screwed up as Gabriel, and they're all just as compelling. His best friend (and most immediate foil) is one of the most tragic characters I've ever encountered in literature.

What's most remarkable about Hope is (aside from Glen Duncan's brilliant prose that leaves all aspiring writers trembling with the knowledge that they will never be able to pen a phrase with Mr. Duncan's profound beauty -- and being completely at peace with that realization) how deftly it makes the reader feel every range of emotion the characters experience. I lived and died with everything Gabriel felt, right until the crashing climax. He's such a vividly depicted character that it's almost tragic to imagine a world where he's just a fictional player. He's far from perfect, which makes him brilliantly human.

An absolutely shattering, beautiful read. Like everything else of Mr. Duncan's I've devoured (and loved), this is one of those novels I just want to shove in someone's face and order them to read it. Immediately.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Mother Night

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
Read: 6 July to 12 July 2013
5 / 5 stars

As much as I enjoyed reading Kurt Vonnegut expound upon Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country not that long ago, it didn't quite satisfy the craving I've had for his fiction. Sure, there is something to be said for watching a favorite author turn his fine-tuned gallows humor on himself and the society in which he both lives and has lived but sometimes I just want to be told a story, damnit.

Before launching into the novel proper, Vonnegut introduces Mother Night as the only story of his with a moral he knows: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." He then spends 269 pages proving what a haunting, damning and dangerous moral it is, with enough self-awareness and dark jocularity to keep this tale -- the fictional memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American-born German playwright who hides in plain sight as a propagandist for WWII-era Nazis while all too convincingly infiltrating their ranks to aid the American government that employs him as a spy -- from getting too distastefully morbid.

It is, at first glance, a moral that stands in direct, fundamental conflict with what I believe to be true. Nothing galls me quite like the lazy assumption that a thing goes no deeper than its surface, that what it looks like is what it is and nothing more. To look no further than appearances subscribes to a flagrant disregard for motivation, circumstances, and any one thing's or person's capacity for multidimensional existence and purpose. To ignore the fact that there is almost always something working in the hidden recesses of the unspoken and unseen realms is, to me, the ultimate display of egotism, a perilous assumption that the observer knows more about a situation in which he plays no part and can't be arsed to offer it the courtesy of deeper contemplation or understanding by way of delving beyond the easy veneer.

But because this is Vonnegut, a message that seems to be an idealogical slap in the face of my own personal philosophy is, at its core, a confirmation that I'm not wrong. (And, really, what's the point of reading literature if not to find validation at the hands of greater minds?) If the Faustian origin of this novel's title heralds the eventual hellward saunter of one's bargaining-chip soul, the tale following such an exchange (that is, safety from the Nazis within their ranks as they believe him to be their loyal, hate-spewing voice) shows exactly why the road paved with good intentions leads to where it does. This isn't fake-it-'til-you-make-it terrain: This is a disturbing account of why hiding one's true goodness beneath layers of protective and necessary deceit without leaving a breadcrumb trail for others to find the way back to your honest intentions will always backfire, often with tragic consequences.

The story's moral shapes every character in this tale. Starting with the hero himself, who has an entire world convinced that his broadcasts of deliberately ludicrous anti-Semitic vitriol are spoken in earnest rather than in code, he comes to find that everyone who holds a more-than-fleeting place in his life after he is secreted away to anonymous but tenuous safety in a New York City apartment is hiding their true identities, too. From his doctor neighbor who refuses to acknowledge that his childhood detoured through a concentration camp to the woman he believes (and who has deceived herself into believing) to be his long-presumed-dead wife, from the friend who is really a spy who obliterates Campbell's incognito existence to the white supremacist whose retinue includes a black man and a Catholic who would otherwise be his sworn enemies if he hadn't become selectively blind to their egregious differences by converting them to his cause, absolutely no one is who they really are by virtue of self-denial.

There is a love story desperately trying to proclaim itself as a last bastion of hope in Campbell's apathetic post-war existence. While his beloved wife and muse, Helga, the actress for whom he wrote some of his finest plays as vehicles to showcase the essence of the adored and adoring woman who comprises the other half of his Nation of Two, is declared dead, it is clear that a part of the widower died with her. I don't feel like I'm spoiling anything by revealing that the woman who later finds Campbell in New York and claims to be his Helga isn't for two reasons: One, the truth, which is foreshadowed quite obviously though adeptly, is revealed fairly quickly; and two, it illustrates how desperately Campbell wants his wife to be alive and, when that is proven to be impossible beyond all rational thought, he then desperately wants to pretend this woman is his wife, if not a more-than-adeqaute stand-in for one person who has ever given his life meaning.

The dangers of such doggedly perpetuated tunnel vision that thrives by casting off all ties to reality is a theme that drives home the novel's moral. Leave it to our humanist friend to sum up the problems of both this novel of his and the world at large: "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile."

Campbell knew what he was doing all along. Along his journey to the Israeli jail cell from which he spins his autobiographical tale, he collides with those who have no reason to doubt that he's their brother in arms against the lesser races, a mouthpiece whose convictions are evident in the words he reveals only to three other men and his memoir's audience to be nothing more than caricature on the surface and cipher in their meaning: These run-ins with his in-appearance-only compatriots provide crushing proof that they have warped their own perspectives to allow for the atrocities they've committed while Campbell had his wits about him all along. Rather than making the former apologetic victims of circumstance and the latter a heinous, calculating monster, Vonnegut accomplishes quite the opposite.

Stylistically, subtlety and understatement are the driving forces of a narration that relies more on a preference for telling rather than showing, a cardinal sin that anyone who's ever enrolled in a even one creative-writing class should recognize immediately; however, as any writer worth his ink will tell you, such rules exist to be broken for those who can break them with aplomb. While Campbell does allow images to speak for themselves, he is writing a memoir that is filled with his own observations, thoughts, conclusions and dot-connecting. What makes his propensity for telling successful is his succinctness: He doesn't dwell on a moment until its emotional resonance has been beaten into even the densest of reader, which is so often the unfortunate result of not trusting the audience to draw its own conclusions and extrapolating the significance of a scene to maximize the devastating impact. It's an an effect that not only showcases Vonnegut's talent but also hints at Campbell's own prowess as a man of words.

Vonnegut may have showed his hand early in terms of the overriding moral of Mother Night, though he peppers his novel with less emphasized though equally important truths that make the human condition a flawed but beautiful thing. The dangers of hate -- "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting... but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive" -- are all but impossible to address in a novel that traverses so deeply and unflinchingly into one of the darkest stains on humanity's historical conscience. But as I've stated (probably ad nauseam) in other reviews, one of my other dearest personal beliefs is that one extreme cannot exist without a contrasting opposite to offer a counterbalance, which is another truth Vonnegut seems to agree with by the equalizing, comforting force his message of love delivers in these same pages: "Make love when you can. It's good for you."

Monday, July 15, 2013

Broken Piano for President

(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Many, many thanks to Lori for providing me both the PDF version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.)

Broken Piano for President, Patrick Wensink
Read: 5 July to 11 July 2013
3.5 / 5 stars

Hunker down, friends and goobers, and let us explore this tale of hero-worship, espionage, and warring fast-food franchises built on the sturdy foundation that is good ol' American greed and gluttony.

If you only know of Patrick Wensink's Broken Piano for President for its legal kerfuffle with Jack Daniel's (which the internet universally reports as involving the nicest cease-and-desist letter ever -- and you know how hard it is for anyone on the internet to agree on anything), then you are doing yourself a great disservice and ought to remedy such an unfortunate truth by getting lost in this light-bizarro joy ride. If nothing else, you may find that your problems pale in comparison to those faced by some of these characters.

Like any satisfying slab of bizarro-flavored fare, Broken Piano for President features an antihero who would be an unlikable loser if he weren't such a sympathetic everyman whose dilemmas -- the guilt of unexorcized childhood demons, an unsuccessful love life, a job that he thoroughly despises -- are relatable to anyone old enough to know that a blackout-drunk dependency on alcohol is the only way to deal with such staggering hopelessness. That is, until you wake up in a strange but totally awesome car one morning with no recollection of how you got there, whose car you've purloined, or who the corpselike lady in the passenger seat with the gaping head wound is and whether or not you're responsible for such a gory morning greeting.

Such is the life of and our introduction to Deshler Dean (presumably named for the author's town of origin). And things don't necessarily get any better for our self-brutalized protagonist, nor does he acquire any immediate clarity regarding either this or any of his multitudinous memory lapses brought on by drunken stupors. What he does gain, however, is an avalanche of opportunity for flexing his liar muscles by way of his alcoholic's amnesia and his improvised double- (and triple-) agent status for two fast-food giants (Winters Olde-Tyme Hamburgers and the subtly named Bust-a-Gut Hamburgers) who are locked in a game of perpetual one-upmanship with absolutely no conscience about offing the competition's (or their own) employees and clogging their consumers' arteries in pursuit of the almighty dollar. While Deshler stumbles through his jobs as an inebriated wunderkind of sorts who dreams up shamefully, sadistically delicious foodstuffs for his employers' menus that he never remembers once the hammer of sobriety thwacks him between the eyes, it is that same dollar-beer haze that allows him to write word-salad songs and serve as a frontman for his true love: his Butthole Surfers-inspired, art-house nightmare of a band, Lothario Speedwagon.

It is satire that deserves its comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Moore, for sure. The dirty underbelly of the two fictitious hamburger heavy-hitters grows worryingly less and less outlandish as the violence escalates and the calorie counts of Deshler's brainchildren reach meteoric heights. It takes no mental gymnastics to imagine real-life corporations planting spies in the corporate offices of their biggest competitors to ensure that they come out on top for just one fiscal quarter, as it's also no surprise that one of the chain's founders has been iconified and deified at the hands of the American public. The dangers of greed, blind consumerism, scare-tactic TV news, and sacrificing job satisfaction for job security are all on parade as the story catapults to its frenzied climax.

While bizarro is definitely not for everyone, this is hovering more on the Regular Guy Thrown into Extraordinary Circumstances with Some Violence on the Side spectrum of the genre rather than its Batshit! Insanity! at Every! Corner! counterpoint, which might make it a little more palatable for someone looking to introduce themselves to what can be a scary little literary niche that often requires a more willing suspension of disbelief that some readers may be comfortable extending. Broken Piano does, however, weigh in at a veritable novel-sized length, making it the first non-novella bizarro I've had the pleasure of reading. And it does, for the most part, successfully carry a plot (aided by dozens of subplots, lists, asides, montages and lessons in fictional histories) for its substantial duration. There are a few lags where characters wax a little too self-indulgent, where the story seems to meander, where the violence seems a little gratuitous in its detail but, hey, sometimes life errs on that side, too. Besides, I've seen examples of the genre commit far more literarily heinous crimes.

Bizarro is at its most successful when there's something significant to be found for those who are willing to dig below the violent, exaggerated-for-shock-factor surface that gives it its charm. Broken Piano is fueled by enough cautionary tales (never sacrifice corporate comfort for the art one was meant to create, even if it means being a valet for a little longer), life lessons (how the best-laid plans can be blown asunder by life's pesky unpredictabilities, like falling in love) and allegories (there are far more options than the two public favorites -- which I couldn't help but compare to the stranglehold of America's two-party system, even though there was nary a cue pointing me in that direction within these pages) to lend thematic support to its off-the-wall goings-on. It is an entertaining romp through some sick shit for those who just want to be told a story and a modern-day morality play of sorts for those who aren't satisfied with simply taking a novel at face value.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
Read: 18 June to 21 June 2012
5 / 5 stars

Your recent tango with a David Mitchell novel reminds you that he wrote Cloud Atlas under the influence of "If on a winter's night a traveler," a book you've been meaning to read since gleaning this information. You're anticipating a slow week at work so you'll need something to stave off the excruciating boredom you expect from the days to come: You grab the book on your way out.

You arrive at your job and are, indeed, greeted by a dearth of things to do. It looks like your day is going to demand even less of your time and attention than you thought. Excellent. You get as comfortable as you can in your office and crack open your first taste of Italo Calvino.

A few pages in, you read: You are at your desk, you have set the book among your business papers... you seem to be concentrating on an examination of the papers and instead you are exploring the first pages of the novel. Gradually you settle back in the chair, you raise the book to the level of your nose, you tilt the chair, you pull out a side drawer of the desk to prop your feet on it....

The part of you that appreciates tongue-in-cheek narcissism -- a rather large part of you, really (which is probably why you'd enjoy a book written in the second person) -- snickers and would deadpan a "How does a dead man know I'm reading his novel, published five years before I was born, at work?" if you weren't certain that your coworkers already harbor doubts about your sanity that would only be exacerbated by overhearing you pose questions to yourself or, worse yet, to a book from which you're clearly expecting an equally audible answer.

You settle for keeping your chuckles to yourself and read on: But doesn't this show a lack of respect? Of respect, that is, not for your job... but for the book.

This gives you pause. You wonder, with less self-congratulatory irony coating your thoughts now: "Mr. Calvino, are you judging me beyond the grave?"

You consider this. Ghostly criticism of your reading environment is a fate better than seven hours and fifty-four minutes of tedious inactivity, you decide.

You happily forge ahead.

As you are drawn deeper into the tale that Calvino spins, you realize that you've had an intermittent reading companion. Not an Other Reader and most assuredly not a specter nearly made solid by his own judgments, but your own dreamily intoxicated grin. The kind of unselfconsciously foolish smile often found in the throes of puppy love, the kind you reserve for the books that transport you somewhere magical.

You find this book to be a celebration of reading, writing and creative pursuits, all of which are things that you appreciate. It helps that you're the kind of person who seeks a certain kinship with fictional characters, especially those who steal your thoughts nearly verbatim from your brain. You find many of them in this book, highlighting passages and phrases and epiphanies that you recognize as your own.

As you near the end of the novel, you identify the connection linking each chapter. The dopey grin that nearly breaks your face grows wider as you read the final word, flip back through the pages in reverse and notice that your own handwriting and added notations are nearly crowding out Calvino's words.

You find this fitting.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Help! a Bear Is Eating Me!

Help! A Bear Is Eating Me!, Mykle Hansen
Read: 22 December to 25 December 2012
4 / 5 stars

I have a longstanding marital bias in favor of bears. What started out as affectionate joshing -- that my outwardly imposing and initially intimidating husband is really just a big teddy bear (which I’m sure is exactly the kind of private commentary he wants me spreading around the internets) -- has, over the years, spiraled out of control to the extent that swapping "bear" for any even remotely similar sounds (e.g.: bearriage, libeary, husbearnd, et cetera ad nauseam) is the overriding hallmark of our spousal language. So I have a certain fondness for all things ursine, which made me initially wonder how objectively I could read about some self-entitled scumbag raging against a bear whose only sin is curious hunger.

This is an unconventional little book, even by bizarro standards (and it's not even all that bizarre, really, in the sense that William Shatner doesn't make a single appearance, let alone as a dozen simultaneous incarnations). Let’s talk about it.

Its narrator, Marv Pushkin, is a designer-drug-addicted yuppie asshole (possibly an ass hole, even) who’s trapped under his luxury vehicle. Its antagonists are everyone who isn’t Marv, except for maybe Marcia from Product Dialogue, the coworker with whom Marv’s carrying on an extramarital affair; chief among those who are making life undeservedly insufferable for Marv is the titular beast (referred to as "Mister Bear" in I’m assuming a decidedly unaffectionate tone) who’s intermittently snacking on Our Hero’s lower extremities.

That’s the entire plot.

And it works. By God, does it work.

As Marv prattles on and on and on and on and on and on and on about all those who are responsible for his arrival at these most unenviable circumstances –- his mind is clearly a Rolodex of all those who have shown him just a fraction less than the full respect and awe his general mastery of the world commands –- it becomes obvious that this is a man whose identity is built upon the unshakable belief that he is better, smarter, craftier and more deserving of all the best that can have a price tag slapped on it than positively everyone else ever. The world lives to serve Marv and it should smile and wipe his ass for the privilege of playing even a minute role in his existence.

But what also emerges is a backstory that renders Marv sympathetic in a way that made me hate myself a little, first for feeling badly on behalf of such a raging douchenozzle and then for totally writing him off as a terminal jerk without stopping to consider that people like him usually are hiding oceans of personal damage beneath their vile facades. What starts out as a finger-pointing marathon necessitating an entire army of hands slowly yields to the discovery that this guy really had no other choice but to be in love with himself for survival's sake: Marv is his own biggest fan because he'd be crushed under the weight of allowing himself to become his own worst enemy.

It's a pretty neat take on Man vs. Nature, with layers of Man vs. Self slowly peeling away to a surprisingly connected, successful result.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Optimist's Daughter

The Optimist's Daughter, Eudora Welty 
Read: 19 April to 23 April 2013
5 / 5 stars

While I do tend to take my sweet time moseying toward a review after finishing a book, stewing both over and in my thoughts for often days at a time before taking the perfectionist's route to laboring over my words (or slapping some observations together to see what sticks and hoping that no one points out the crooked seams or varicolored threads), trying to sort and figure out what I want to say about The Optimist's Daughter was an especially difficult task. It wasn't until a friend (who is often exactly what I need to pry a sticky thought loose from the place where things elude elucidation) left a comment on the in-progress version of this review that I saw where the difficulties lie. The problem was not, as I mistakenly believed at first, the unfortunate truth that it is mighty hard talking about a much-loved book beyond HOLY MOTHER OF BACONATOR, THIS BOOK ROCKED MY FACE OFF: It's that I've been trying to use my head to approach a book that I felt almost entirely in my heart. (And also that I suffer from a paralyzing fear of sounding corny in a public forum, which made the immediately preceding confession hard to even consider typing.)

So let me try to establish where I was emotionally during most of my time reading The Optimist's Daughter: I spent an evening with my little brother, his girlfriend and some other fine folks in celebration of my future sister-in-law turning 21 (as I spent my 21st birthday starting and finishing a 20-page final paper and then moving out of my dorm room for the summer, I embraced the opportunity to properly observe a milestone event that I never thought I'd help a loved one usher in again). My brother and I have a significant amount of beef with our parents, which invariably leads us to vent about our deplorable origins whenever we're together, though this being a happy occasion called for minimal mutual griping.

Later, since hubs and I live tantalizingly close to a bar, we made a midnight sojourn to the local watering hole on our way home because, hey, why not go all the way and keep drinking? As I've demonstrated many times before, I'm at a point where I'm pretty comfortable talking about life as a self-appointed orphan; my husband knows this better than anyone else but is still reluctant to broach the topic unless I lead the way (or, you know, we receive another letter from a collection agency about my mother's mounting debt). But, even in the wake of listening to my brother and me swap abbreviated grievances about our progenitors, it wasn't 'til after a few lips-loosening rounds that hubs asked if the wound of severing all ties with my family still hurts. But, really, you can't miss what you never had and you can't hurt where there's no feeling left. I didn't grow up with a fraction of the love I now feel when I spend the holidays or a just-because afternoon with my husband's family, nuclear and extended. I have, however, been blessed with a second chance at finding out what a close-knit family feels like, to have in-laws who regard me as the daughter they've always wanted and with a parental warmth I've never known.

So it was with that mindset that I approached a considerable chunk of Eudora Welty's Pulitzer Prize-winning gem of a novel. Laurel, the 40-some-year-old widow who watched her mother die years before and now stands helplessly aside as her beloved father gives himself up to his age, is left with her caustic young stepmother, hometown friends and neighbors, and a house filled with memories as she grapples with making sense of life without the safety net of unconditional love that all good parents offer their children.

Please do not misunderstand: This is not one of those novels that is eking by on bland mawkishness alone. The writing is sublime. I have spent so much time entrenched in the long-held belief that anyone who opted for five words when twice as many could be deployed just as easily is guilty of not trying hard enough. Discovering Raymond Carver has been instrumental in changing my tune, though the impact of this book alone would have been enough to silence the mulishly stubborn biases of my youth. Welty rivals Carver when it comes to packing a brutalizing force in just enough detail to act as a guiding light through the narrative but leaving so much unsaid that the reader is left to contemplate the implications while affixing his or her own personal relevancies to deliver the intended blow of dawning clarity. There is an awesome power in Welty's words but it's her silent symbols that convey the most involuble truths. The sadness and loss bursting from both the spoken and un- very nearly had this novel thrumming with compounded grief that needed an outlet before the pages themselves imploded with unexpressed emotions.

That outlet is Laurel's histrionic, selfish and utterly unlikeable stepmother, Fay, who reminded me so much of my mother that I couldn't help but pound this book that I loved against whatever surface was closest to me in achingly frustrated empathy for Laurel. While Laurel is reacquainting herself with her parents as individuals whose context is purely historical and complete now, understanding their place in her life and their significance to each other, coming to the kind of epiphany that is the only preface to closure, Fay runs off with her equally insufferable family as if the death of a spouse is the kind of thing one gets over with a carelessly impoverishing shopping binge and a pedicure. The final run-in between these two women who are unsettlingly close-in-age (but light years apart in maturity, ye gods) does make for a clunky delivery of the message that Welty implied so well that she certainty didn't need her main character to verbalize it. But their confrontation is so satisfying on a primal level. It worked for me because grief and loss are not tidy processes. And it also served as long-awaited proof that I can be positively smitten with a book despite a fist-clenchingly hateful character's prominent role in it.

Even with an ending that seems to mar an otherwise flawless reading experience for so many others, The Optimist's Daughter is beautiful and human and sings of what great writing can do when a great writer is firing on all cylinders. But it is a book that I just could not approach academically. It deserves to be savored and marveled at and its sharp edges absolutely should leave a few cuts and reopened old wounds in its aftermath. It is a book that should, above all, be felt to be fully appreciated.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

One Hundred Years Of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
Read: 22 June to 10 July 2012
5 / 5 stars

What does it look like when a country starts to fall? What causes a formidable family line to trickle down to nothing? And, most importantly, what is the point of creating something if you won't accept the responsibility of its inevitable destruction?

My first attempt to read this book happened sometime during the first half of college. At the time, I spent a few hours of most weekends navigating NJ Transit's trains, buses and newly hatched light-rail system to see my then-boyfriend. iPods hadn't been invented yet and I was wary of bringing a Discman through such savory locales as Camden and Trenton, so I opted to pass those interminable hours with books (besides, any good English major pounces upon all opportunities for recreational reading because they are a rare and wonderful treat for those four years). When I finally returned to this previously abandoned novel, the last dog-eared page was 264, making it a more-than-passable metaphor for the relationship I was in at the time of my initial attempt: After exerting quite a bit of effort without fully appreciating what a little gem I had in my hands, I gave up on the whole shebang.

Fortunately, tossing a book aside doesn't come with years of mounting guilt or understandably brusque plays for overdue apologies. In fact, One Hundred Years of Solitude eagerly welcomed me back after being boxed up and moved from shelf to shelf across a parade of living spaces for years, as the tome's magic and perfection that I'd totally missed years ago revealed themselves almost immediately. I couldn't believe the book that had me risking sleep-deprivation migraines was the same one I'd trudged halfway through because it was marginally better than watching the awesome splendor of South Jersey's landscape fly by a dingy window.

Even the Buendias who weren't overtly likable (sorry, Fernanda, but you were kind of a bitch, even if I begrudgingly understood your motives) were compelling and so very human. Gabo's writing has a lot going for it but it's his ability to endow all of his characters with unique personalities and wholly identifying quirks that I love best. I saw the pig's tail coming from a mile away, sure, but knowing that there has to be a final blow just made it harder to watch all these characters, most of whom I'd gotten to know over the course of their entire lives, fall victim to an array of tragedies.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Smuggler's Bible

A Smuggler's Bible, Joseph McElroy
Read: 23 June to 5 July 2013
5 / 5 stars

Ho. Lee. Shitsnacks, I am in love.

I initially decided to read this book for two reasons: The first, to see if I like McElroy enough to warrant dropping a hearty lump of money on one of those few exorbitantly priced copies of Women and Men floating around the internet; the second, to justify preordering Cannonball. When I realized that a three-digit price tag is a bargain for the pleasure of feeding both my library and my brainmeats more than a thousand pages of McElroy's words and heady but human observations, and when I ordered his newest novel within a few dozen pages of being enthusiastically enchanted by his debut one (and then danced with joy when I found out its release date had advanced by a week), I knew I had found something special. To say nothing of the fact that I eschewed all other books (save for 33 pages of Proust) and, truthfully, all other uses of my time while rolling in the myriad readerly pleasures to be found in A Smuggler's Bible. This book consumed me and my desire to do anything that didn't involve reading it.

If pressed, I would insist that this is a book about solipsism. It's about how the effects of which drive the self to seek certainty of others while looking for assurance of the self's existence in examining the lives of others. It's a road map through the pains one takes to accomplish both while really only achieving one and it's a testament to the discoveries that can't avoid materializing into stark clarity during such a journey. It is, strangely, proof that we'll only learn the true nature of our own selves by taking an objective stroll through the daunting terrain of self-assessment via others' perspectives, as we are just as uncertain of everyone's existences as they are of ours.

As a wholly unexpected bonus, the influence McElroy had on DFW is practically dripping from every page: It is so evident, in fact, that I didn't even need the internet to assure me of the former's impact on the writing of the latter (though I do get a thrill from those always-welcome times when facts actually validate my suspicions). There are so many moments when the main character, David Brooke, sounds eerily like Hal Incandenza that it delivered a swift kick of déjà vu right to the heart, from David's attempts to be of the same world as those around him while knowing that he's just going through the motions to his tendency to be in a moment merely in the physical sense while existing everywhere but the immediate now. Another character, who also bears a striking resemblance to Himself's youngest son in the way they both devour and retain dictionary entries with a prodigious recall, makes the following observation:

... he verbalizes easily. Yet David doesn't really know how to talk to you. Either he butts in and speaks for ten minutes straight--intense and blind and using phrases like "Of course, ultimately," "complex awareness," "in fact in my opinion." Or he doesn't come back to you at all, just gives you "um-hum, um-hum" after each of your sentences and sometimes in the middle.

There is, indeed, a Wallace-colored thread binding together the characters and voices that comprise A Smuggler's Bible, and it is Hal's thirty-years-prior doppelgänger. David unites the key figures from various points in his existence first by assembling a slice-of-life biography in eight parts about a number of them -- some told from the person's perspective, some with him assuming the second-person voice to narrate the story of another, some expressed in a choir of commingling voices (which results in pages of unattributed text that is conveyed flawlessly, thanks to how distinctly McElroy draws all of his characters and shapes their voices in the context of their roles -- which I can only guess is a taste of the Women and Men to come), all assuming that he knows enough about them (and, with a total recall that alienates him from them, he actually does) to get into their heads well enough to speak for them. He then takes it one step further: Not content to let their voices join in such a passive manner as dictated by his pen alone, he creates a chain letter of sorts to force them all into awareness of each other, forcing each link in his epistolary string to acknowledge those before and after themselves with a letter of their own (and in one deliciously hateful character's case, some religious tracts).

David, for all of his laborious efforts in cataloging the memories of those who have unknowingly provided the fodder for his eight manuscripts, is, indeed, completely unsure of himself. While each of his eight ostensibly non-autobiographical stories blossom and influence each other in ways that I couldn't help but compare to the later works of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and also, of course, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the narratives wedged between each longer reflection reflect how David can't even find cohesion in his own mind. He speaks of himself in a wholly schizophrenic manner, almost violently chastising himself as a voice outside his primary consciousness for allowing his wife to look at his eight memoirs before he's even allowed himself to give them one last editorial perusal of approval -- he, in fact, seems to hate his wife when he speaks of her as this voice that exists separately from but still inside himself.

There are so many roads to take to self-discovery -- say, like half-faking amnesia to see what the get-well letters from others will reveal about the times you've spent together or being allowed otherwise off-limits peeks into acquaintances' and family members' honest impressions of you (though these letters will persistently, disappointingly, though perhaps unintentionally betray more about the writers and their concerns about the parts of their own existences that don't pertain to their relationship with you) or half-listening to everyone to whom you speak, knowing full well that you'll retain every word they speak and every non-verbal cue they issue regardless of how insincere or distracted or downright cold you appear to them.

Writing eight installments of memories ranging from one's own parents and wife to the single-voiced crescendo of a boardinghouse's tenants and staff may seem like an attempt to see the world from other pairs of eye but inserting oneself into each story to varying degrees of importance and purity of intention eventually becomes obvious as another tool of self-examination, proof that one can reach certainty of one's own existence by proving one's significance or prominence, however fleeting, in the Venn diagram of shared personal experience. Each narrative is, indeed, a different way of expressing uncertainty of others on a large-scale and how such doubt is mirrored on the smaller, intensely personal level. Can you trust your own past, both the one you've lived and the one you've inherited from your progenitors? Is the group opinion more valid than the individual's, bearing in mind that the group is objective but the individual knows the difference between how it looks and what it is? Is a person really two different people when you consider their supporting role in your life but their leading on in their own?

This book is one of the few times I read the introduction before diving headfirst into the novel proper, and it was enough to encourage me to continue with that trend. Or it may leave me woefully unfulfilled from the high expectations with which it has burdened me, as I landed on the TOC page already breathless with a cramp in my scrawling hand and having crammed miles of annotations choking the margins of the Roman-numeraled pages. This is the kind of book that encourages long-winded discussions about absolutely everything because it has that broad of a scope and that imperative of a message. This is what required reading for humanity looks like.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Gravity's Rainbow

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Read: 13 November 2011 to 7 January 2012
4 / 5 stars

Holy crap, y'all. This book. This book! Thomas Pynchon's brain is a national treasure (albeit a kooky one), as it takes some mad skill to combine a smorgasbord of seemingly unrelated components -- among them: a giant adenoid, a metric butt-ton of intersecting conspiracies, applied physics (complete with equations that made me feel like a dimwit!), cannibalism, World War II, entropy, Plasticman, the occult, Pavlovian experiments, Mickey Rooney, light-bulb legacies, obscure '40s cultural references, disgusting English candies (is that redundant?), characters breaking into goofy songs with a frequency befitting musical theatre -- and throw them all together with a staggeringly cohesive and coherent result that's also a language-lover's dream.

My previous encounters with Pynchon are limited to one of his shortest works (The Crying of Lot 49), his newest offering (Inherent Vice), and a handful of short stories from a long-ago college lit class. I'll admit, while I've always enjoyed hanging out with the brainchildren of literature's most enigmatic figure, I was motivated to conquer Gravity's Rainbow for purely egotistical reasons: Many tackle the daunting tome but few reach the finish line, and I wanted to rank among the few who can count this post-modern insanity among their bookish conquests. I owe the Pynchon Wiki a great many thanks for deciphering some of the more arcane allusions tossed into the mix, otherwise I wouldn't've known what the hell was going on in more than a few instances and would have most likely abandoned the effort.

The two months I spent wading through Gravity's Rainbow were, indeed, punctuated by bouts of confusion and frustration. I can't remember the last time I did this much research on a book that wasn't required reading for a class. Nor can I recall a time when a work of fiction had me rereading passages and pages two or three times to make sure I knew which way was up. If not for perusing reviews by veteran Pynchon enthusiasts who offered assurances that one is not supposed to understand every nuance of this book the first time around, I probably would have thrown the novel across many rooms at various points. I came into this adventure thinking that it couldn't be that difficult and was thoroughly humbled within 20 pages.

But damn if this didn't return every drop of my hard work with a truly rewarding reading experience. Sure, I was consulting a dictionary or some kind of encyclopedia every couple pages, and the breakneck discursiveness of the narrative did have me running in circles every so often. But! The inherent difficulty of this reading experience forced me to pay attention to every single word in the almost-800-page book. Demanding that kind of effort and focus absolutely made it easier for me to appreciate the kind of unusual talent that birthed this terrible and unconventional beauty. And you know what? I felt brilliant every time I understood an off-the-cuff historical reference (why, yes, I DO know why Prince Edward abdicated!) or genuinely laughed hysterically over one of the countless clever turns of phrase that made every "Just what the hell is going on here!?" moment worth the headdesking.

Pynchon's wordsmithing prowess is on full-force here (and is why I feel a little dirty giving this a paltry three stars), which is what kept me hurdling headfirst through the more-than-sometimes murky depths of his magnum opus. His penchant for veering completely off the topic did mean that I've forgotten more details than I've retained, but Pynchon's ability to polish a sentence to the point of making it seem effortlessly constructed more than compensated for that. Besides, I don't feel too badly about my inability to retain every excruciatingly minute detail because, from what I understand, half the joy of this book comes from the reread, which is partly why I couldn't justify slapping four stars on it after our first tango, especially when so much escaped my notice. Anyway. Any book that can be chock-full of made-up songs, hidden poetry and some of the most laboriously set up puns ever written appeases my inner language nerd enough to forgive any (fleetingly, in this case) less-than-enthusiastic feelings that cropped up during our long-term acquaintance. The exhaustive scope of the vocabulary Pynchon has at his command is on par with that of both his general knowledge and this book's terrain. Hell, even the nature of my readerly reactions -- outright laughter, near tears, gagging fits -- ran the gamut of physical responses.

While the stream-of-consciousness approach definitely got a little burdensome at points, it really did add so much to the story. Watching where some of these characters' minds wandered to made them seem so human and believable, which kept me caring about what was going on even when I didn't know what was going on. Pynchon does tell the story from lots of vantage points, often allowing one character to draw conclusions about another, but he also lets the reader in on what's really happening with the hundreds of people populating the story. The way that the choir of voices weaves dozens of individual plot threads into a rich tapestry of intersecting madness justifies every instance of wandering narrative.

Finally (because I'm getting tired of writing and want to go back to reading), the humor with which Pynchon writes is an absolute treat. I've never seen a writer get so much comical mileage from a well-placed "Really?" There are some flat-out ridiculous directions that the plot takes but it's really the writing itself that tickled my deranged sense of humor the hardest. I did get a serious kick out of Pynchon's preoccupation with kazoos, harmonicas and bananas, too. It made me want to start a marching kazoo band of my own, mostly because I've got a soft spot for making my own magically obscure allusions. (I'll settle for an adequate photo of the MST3K cereal novel, though.)

Saturday, July 6, 2013


Shatnerquest, Jeff Burk
Read: 12 April to 17 April 2013
3.5 / 5 stars

So it's kind of like the movie Fanboys: A group of friends makes their way west with an altruistic but thoroughly nerdy goal. Only where Fanboys was about sneaking onto Skywalker Ranch so a terminally ill pal could watch the The Phantom Menace before dying, Shatnerquest begins with plans to rescue William Shatner from the apocalypse and is punctuated by the group's ongoing struggle to survive in the face of celestially wrought terrors and the heedless violence that a few bands of survivors always seem to embrace in every end-times scenario.

Which is to say that this tale's pit stop in Riverside, IA (the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk, obviously), still ends in chaos -- but of a much more dire, violent and cannibalistic sort.

The only other work of Jeff Burk's I've read is Cripple Wolf, which means I'm not terribly familiar with this story's more notorious predecessor, Shatnerquake. But I have seen an awful lot of Star Trek and plenty of cult classics, and have either dabbled in or otherwise gained a basic grasp on other mainstays of geekery: The gleeful mash-up of allusions to "Magic: The Gathering" tournaments, Star Wars, Back to the Future, comic stores, Kevin Smith flicks, the road trip as a movie genre, gamer culture, zombies, Daleks and tribbles were more than enough to delight my inner nerd.

Alas, much like Cripple Wolf, Burk's newest offering could have benefited from just one more round of careful editing. I can't turn my proofreading powers off even for lighter fare, so things like "in between" being rendered as one word, "Twitter" being capitalized inconsistently, "wares" being replaced by its homonym and at least one instance of an erroneous "and" supplanting "an" just pulled me out of the story and made me remember that I was reading this at work while wearing my Bitchy Grammarian hat.

But I know I'm a snob about certain things, just like I know that this is simply good, bizarro fun that shouldn't be taken too seriously, given the gratuitous bloodshed and things like a dude slicing his way out of horror-movie monster's belly. For all my hang-ups over flaws in the mechanics, the little bit of exposure that I've had to Burk's older stuff makes me feel pretty confident in saying that his writing seems to be on a steady upward trajectory: The action flows well, the narrative is mighty tight and even the excessive bits are comedic rather than tedious.

I find that the bizarro genre is at its best when there's some heart at the.... well, heart of the story, and Shatnerquest has it, surprisingly, in spades. Each of the main characters gets a chapter of back story (yes, even William Shatner, which explains how he turns into a rampaging giant stomping the ever-loving piss out of LaLa Land -- and you're goddamn right that Squishy the pleasantly plump cat's origin story got me all misty-eyed because nothing affects me as deeply as sad-animal stories) and the road-trip-story standards of friendship, a blossoming romance and the redemptive journey are all undercurrents driving and elements softening the more overtly wacky and downright savage elements of the plot.

And Shatnerquest does society a great service by answering the age-old question of who would win in the battle between Klingons and steampunks. Also: It's got zombie Borg. Motherfucking zombie Borg, guys.

The berries mean it's healthy

Under the whipped cream -- the crepes!
(Takeout from Amy's Omelette House, Burlington, NJ)

Friday, July 5, 2013


Orlando, Virginia Woolf
Read: 11 September to 2 October 2012
4 / 5 stars

A mere 10-minute drive has separated me from my college best friend since March. Even with my knack for getting hopelessly lost in the wilds of Central Jersey, it’s the shortest distance between us since our days as roomies; unsurprisingly, however, life since we graduated six years ago has been filled with things like work and conflicting schedules and living with significant others whose company we actively enjoy, which means that we don't get to see each other as frequently as we would in a perfect world.

When she got engaged last month, I was among the first to know. And when she announced her happy news, it was in nearly the same breath that she asked me to be her matron of honor. It’s not like I've been writing my MOH speech since college or anything, which is rather fitting: Though our friendship didn’t blossom until we found each other through mutual friends in the final days of our sophomore year, she and I first crossed paths in a freshman oratory class wherein our final project -- a toast of some nature -- was called off when our professor had a family emergency that semester.

The way we became fast friends underscored the dawning realization that she was the first girl friend who I let bring out the unabashedly, endlessly silly THIS IS MY BESTIE FOR ALWAYS AND I LUUUURVE HER SO MUCH behavior that has punctuated our friendship for nearly a decade. Until we glommed onto each other in the wake of another friend's tragedy early in our junior year, I'd thought of myself as someone who'd always have peripheral female friends and much closer guy friends. Not to say that my high-school gal pals weren't an awesome bunch -- they were then and they still are now -- but I didn't know how to appreciate who they were until much later. It took meeting my twin-to-be in some friends’ dorm room as our sophomore year was drawing to a rapid close to realize that I'd spent years looking for this sister figure right in front of me. When I hesitantly friended her after a truly neurotic internal dialogue that summer on LiveJournal ("Is this stalkery?"; "Was she only humoring me and secretly wishing I'd shut the hell up?"; "Will she think I'm trying too hard to be her friend?"; etc.) only to discover that her username referenced Tristan and Iseult, I had a nagging suspicion that I had discovered a kindred spirit after a lifetime of right-person-wrong-time that neatly summarizes my self-inflicted messy track record with people until that point.

I was proven more right than I could've optimistically imagined when another mutual friend later christened us as twins, which is still how we squealingly address each other. She and I do have a staggering many things in common, save for her ability to, like, actually plan things (an area in which I fail with joyful abandon). So when we recently found ourselves with simultaneously out-of-state mates, she and I had every intention of cramming a whole lot of wedding stuff into an uncharacteristically sans-SO weekend. Actually, I had every intention of catching up on the reading that stupid work kept interrupting but if there's one thing that trumps solitary bookworming, it's a two-day romp through the tri-state area with my beloved and sorely missed twin.

Our university days were a blur of turning the college radio station (her territory) and college newspaper office (mine, and also her then-boyfriend's) into The Place to Be at Next-Morning-o'-Clock, nursing one cup of coffee after another in flagrant abuse of her Starbucks employee discount, trips to New Hope or Princeton for the hell of it or wherever our friends' makeshift bands were playing that weekend, scenic everythings for mutual shutterbugging, harassing the same roadies over and over again for set lists after seeing our favorite bands, and geeking the hell out over our shared affinities for things like British lit, British musical outfits and British spellings. So when she turned to me during our recent drive through Bucks County and said something along the lines of "Screw the bridal show, wanna go to New Hope?" and later "Oh damn, looks like we'll be spending tomorrow in New York" while ogling dresses from her living room couch, it was like we were carefree co-eds with time to kill together all over again.

So maybe I did do the content of my first non-required taste of Virginia Woolf a great disservice by tackling it in tiny pieces over the course of a month. But having Orlando on the brain while clumsily prancing around in pretty dresses in NYC boutiques, while examining tiny treasures together in New Hope shops, while making a mad dash through the Met in the hour before it closed as she played tour guide (where I discovered a love of art I didn't know she possessed) more than made up for that by reminding me of what it means to experience a feminine love to the point where you want to write pages and pages detailing all the things that make this woman uniquely magical so other people can come to love this quirk and that idiosyncrasy, too. And I think that, more than anything else, drove home the spirit of the novel better than an uninterrupted reading experience may have. My twin and I might not have shared the physical intimacy that Virginia and Vita did, but she's certainly someone who gets me in a way few others do.

There was so much of Orlando him/herself that had the part of me that needs to find myself in every artwork, song, film and book frantically underlining passage after passage in a story that, like my twin, I first encountered as a college freshman but didn't completely recognize the wonder of until much later. Thanks to my first big-girl's film-appreciation class, I was introduced to the whimsy of Orlando via its cinematic incarnation during the same semester I read A Room of One's Own, which should have been enough to make me a fan of Ginny Woolf had being an English major not left me with such an incongruous lack of reading time (speaking of things that never change....). Anyway. The things I foggily recall from the film -- frozen bodies underwater, positively scrumptious costumes, blocking choreographed down to an inch -- came screaming back and actually started adding to the sweeping narrative of this gorgeous novel.

But when I saw Orlando almost a decade ago, I had no idea that the novel itself was dedicated to Vita, nor did I know that Woolf's lady lover inspired the titular gender-bending character. Knowing that, plus having a better understanding of the historical guideposts that pop up throughout Orlando's centuries-long existence, turned this novel into the best kind of brain candy. I'm a sucker for literary allusions by the armful and lush symbolism (I'd rave about my late-to-the-party realization that Orlando is the oak tree she'd been immortalizing in verse for 300-some pages but hasn't this so-called review gone on long enough?) and pages soaked in true-to-life humanity, so it's only natural that I'd enjoy Virginia's ode to a woman for whom her passionate love most definitely stands the test of time. Way to throw down the gauntlet for the rest of us, Woolf. And challenge accepted.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Moby Dick

Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Read: 2 October to 4 December 2012
4 / 5 stars

I am terrified of large aquatic bodies. Just.... scared shitless. Remember that inspired-by-true-events flick a few years ago about the couple on a cruise who resurfaced from their scuba adventure only to find that their ship had chugged right along its merry course without them aboard? Yeah, I saw a trailer for it in the movie theater and almost caused a public scene because it's not every day a person has a whole new worst fear forced upon their consciousness for obsessive, terrified consideration. The idea of looking around and seeing nothing but water and sky disturbs me me almost as deeply as the possibility of drowning does (you should probably know that my own wildly vacillating attitudes toward death reach panic levels when I dwell too long on what it would be like to drown).

So, no. I am rapidly approaching my third decade of existing and have never once even considered reading Moby-Dick. I always figured any sort of cultural or literary touchstone contained within Herman Melville's whale of a tale could be gleaned from the bevy of succeeding works that have doffed their caps to it in affectionate allusion. I mean, I was positively sick about The X-Files as a wee, impressionable lass, and in what contemporary bit of entertainment has a major character's backstory been more flecked with the flung spume of the Pequod's final voyage than that of Special Agent Dana Scully? I was certain that I absorbed all of this book's important messages without having to slog through what I figured had to be a most assuredly dry novel of high-seas antics.

Except that once I finally started reading Moby-Dick, I had to keep reminding myself that this story is 161 years old because it is the textbook definition of a timeless tale. The themes Melville tackled as the human constants he knew them to be just surprised the hell out of me from such an aged classic.

Any narrator who can step back from the action to act as a faithful recorder -- an unbiased camera zooming in on all the intersecting threads that weave a tragic tapestry, driven to commit his experiences to immortal inscription not by ego but rather a need to ensure that the cautionary tale and its key players live on -- wins me over every time. Ishmael, whose desire for knowledge and feelings of being apart from human society only further endeared him to me in a fit of kinship I so often feel with fictional characters, imposed so little of himself and his point of view on the story that I would occasionally forget both he and his intent to counter some deep soul-aching absence with oceanic travels were among the Pequod's crew. His willingness to abandon his own under-informed prejudices once he began to understand Queequeg's alien ways and the ensuing fraternal bond they share is a lesson for the ages, a promise that moving beyond exhausted tolerance toward exuberant acceptance is more than worth the necessary shift in perspective. It is that very open-minded curiosity Ishmael embodies before he even gets a chance to show off his sea legs that solidifies his merit as the trusty lens through which the goings-on of Moby-Dick can be viewed.

As for the civil savage himself, I think my husband's summation of the harpooneer works better than anything I could conjure on my own: "Queequeg is the shit."

And all the whale biology stuffed between accounts of life in search of Ahab's White Whale? I. Was. Enthralled. Marine-mammal biology isn't really something that I've been all that interested in unless there was a grade on the line but, damn it, learning about every inch of the whale from tail to tip and inside out just fascinated me. I'll never look at Shamu or his brethren with the same cooing regard ever again: Them fishy bitches be scary, yo. There's something to be said for knowing the enemy and, good Lord, did Melville ever demystify the whale's inner and outer workings while proving that this is one giant beast who deserves awed respect.

I can't believe how many beautiful, perfectly wrought metaphors and symbols Melville shorehorned into a book that is only superficially about whaling. I can't believe how this is a revenge tale that can actually rival the Shakespearean canon in its scope and fervency and misinterpretations and nihilistic body count. Most of all, I can't believe how much I enjoyed the face off a book that ended by forcing me to witness one of my deepest-rooted, longest-running fears. Kudos to you, Melville. And kudos again.

(The obligatory dick joke is how I blew my load about halfway through this review. Just in case you're wondering.)

American Psycho

American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
Read: 18 July to 11 August 2011
3 / 5 stars

Is Patrick Bateman a murderous sociopath? Or just some narcissistic Wall Street yuppie whose delusions of grandeur nearly had me puking all over the book? I have no bloody clue because the only way I could get through this novel was reading it as an allegory for the evil of capitalism. That's not the point, I'm sure, but it did make things interesting, if not bearable.

The only real answer I can offer is to the question of whether Brett Easton Ellis is a writer with whom I'd voluntarily spend 15 minutes alone (which is a resounding 'hell no'). As much as I'd like to pick his brain, I'm afraid of what would ultimately happen to mine -- microwaved? stapled to the floor? fed to a chow?

I will say, for its more gruesome moments (and there are many, all of which are infinitely more visceral than anything I've read before -- and I've read a lot of King, which means I've mostly unflinchingly encountered a dude's manhood unceremoniously shoved into his mouth and left to rot), the quality of the writing was damn good. Ellis does whirlwind narratives well, and he's a mighty fine wordsmith.

Unfortunately, Ellis also has a knack for creating some deeply disturbed and deeply disturbing characters. Yes, the main character is horrifying for his realism, which is a testament to Ellis's skills as a writer. The violence could have turned into a self-parodying bloodbath. Bateman could have dissolved into a prattling cliche. But.... hey, I've got a vivid imagination, too, and a selectively weak stomach to go along with it, so picturing some of the scenes was a bit much for me at times. As much as I'm inclined to believe that this book is an eerily accurate depiction of what goes on in a sociopath's mind, I enjoyed being trapped in Bateman's head very little. He is probably the least reliable narrator in modern literature and.... okay, that part of it WAS entirely too entertaining. Every thought spilling from Bateman's unstable mind was as plausible as getting reservations for eight-o'-clock tonight at Dorsia, and that knowledge had me snickering over certain passages far more than any sane person should.

In short: It's a good book, yes, but I'll be damned if I'm ever reading it again.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Deeper Meaning of Liff

The Deeper Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams
Read: 17 February to 19 February 2012
4 / 5 stars

I've been reading and loving Douglas Adams's works since I was in middle school. While it's possible to translate this as my sense of humor not evolving much in 15 years, I'd rather embrace the notion that I was saddled with a funny bone (among other things) that would have served me much better had I been born on the other side of the Atlantic. Either way, the real point is that diving into anything penned by one of my all-time favorite writers always feels a little bit like coming home or slipping into a pair of lovingly wrecked Chucks. Especially since I've had a hankering for something delightfully British and wryly executed, which is pretty much a combination that exemplifies Adams perfectly.

This goofy little book starts out with the only instances of me both being positively tickled by a phonetic guide and finding an alphabetical sequence of maps to be decidedly hilarious (my usual inability to accept skewed images of familiar land masses -- like an upside map projection, which just freaks me out -- was deftly avoided by the masterminds' execution). I wasn't really sure what the point of such things was until I deigned to read the book jacket and discovered that the whole premise of this publication is reimagining funny-sounding place names (the easy target of Gobbler's Knob is woefully absent but Wetwang picks up that slack) as simpler ways of naming those hard-to-summarize nouns, verbs and social gaffes that no one wants to acknowledge as common experiences or ever thought to wrap up in easy-to-express packaging for mass usage.

The breakdown of these definitions is equal parts polite renaming of slightly less polite realities (Moisie: the condition of one's face after performing cunnilingus), identifying those small annoyances that comprise a lousy day when you've encountered just the right frequency and parade of them (Salween: a faint taste of dishwashing liquid in a cup of tea; Fladderbister: the part of a raincoat that trails out of a car after you've closed the door on it), recognizing those awkward inevitabilities that come with maintaining the illusion of ours being a civilized society (Shifnal: an awkward shuffling walk caused by two or more people in a hurry accidentally getting into the same segment of a revolving door) and addressing those annoying habits that result in an individual's repulsion being the only universally and implicitly agreed-upon reaction (Dinsdale: one who always plays Chopsticks on the piano), with some uncategorized silliness thrown in for variety.

A celebration of humanity's finer points, it's not -- because where's the humor in THAT? But it is an entertaining and quick little read that offers the unexpected bonus of a warm, tingly assurance that someone, somewhere, appreciated the need for words to describe all the uncomfortable phenomena that one wonders if anyone else has ever experienced. Like that three-week-old unidentifiable lump in the fridge or the feeling one gets when cornered by the least agreeable person at a party, only to have a moment of ecstatic relief to realize that that person isn't you.

Monday, July 1, 2013

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III: The Guermantes Way

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III: The Guermantes Way, Marcel Proust
Read: 29 April to 6 June 2013
4 / 5 stars

No longer confined to orbiting his parents and living for the freedom of a solitary walk, no longer living in thrall of adolescent hormones and grappling with the strange new worlds blossoming both within and without himself, The Guermantes Way finds our Narrator thrust ever forward into adulthood and the disappointing discovery that grown-ups rarely behave like adults, especially when the pride of ancestral inheritance is on the line and there are duplicitous societal niceties to abide by, while the utterly insignificance and inanity of it all are underscored to devastating though understated effect by the first real taste of loss that this age usually carries with it. This third volume of In Search of Lost Time captures the period when our window to early 20th-century Parisian society is finding his place in it, though, true to his nervous, writer persona, he seems content to observe (now with the emergence of a sly humor) rather than engage with these exalted figures whose human forms slowly pale in comparison to the larger-than-life names he has aggrandized in youth.

It is, I imagine, intentional that battlefield philosophy receives generous attention early in this volume, as everything that follows is revealed to rest upon a framework of military-caliber tactics, from love (or what passes as love within the confines of Proust's created world -- ye gods, do any of these characters know what a healthy relationship actually looks like?) to facing the Grim Reaper as he counts down the minutes to one's predestined departure from this mortal coil to the carefully plotted choreography of maintaining superficial acquaintances to simply navigating daily life among even second-rate society when each moment brings a new potential for detonating reputationally ruinous land mines. If my piecemeal knowledge of foreign-language pronunciations isn't too far off the mark, I'd go so far as to suggest that the first syllable of the titular name is tellingly reminiscent of the French word "guerre."

I am so grateful that the (still somewhat and charmingly naive) Narrator is beginning to see through the shiny veneer of the socialites with whom he spends so much time and is slowly discovering, through both his own astute observations and whatever decidedly reliable tidbits are churned out by the rumor mill, what dirty secrets are hidden just below the surface and who has a limitless number of faces he or she presents according to present company and circumstance -- not to mention the public knowledge that is simply not spoken of unless it's being rehashed in hushed voices. If these vast stretches of recounting one gathering after another weren't full of the Narrator's observations about who's lying to whom, marital fissures slowly widening right before the public's eye, the double-talk that flatters one while slandering another (or are simply backhanded compliments cruelly served to one unlucky individual) and other betrayals of the his unwillingness to swallow the facade presented at these salons, I would have been bored to tears, page after page of gorgeous language or not, because I just don't care about such petty triflings in real life. A moment of the Narrator's blunt honesty echoed my own sentiments while handing them back to me in a beautifully rewrapped package while also illustrating that he was just as bored as I was in danger of becoming if not for his wit, beautiful prose and keen insights making it all worth the effort:

I scarcely listened to those anecdotes, something like the ones M. de Norpois used to tell my father; they afforded no food for my preferred patterns of thought; and, besides, even had they possessed the elements they lacked, they would have needed to be of a highly exciting nature for my inner life to be aroused during those hours spent in society when I lived on the surface, my hair well groomed, my shirtfront starched--that is to say, hours in which I could feel nothing of what I personally regarded as pleasure.

He does offer such a poetic presentation of these long hours listening to others' witticisms grow stale with every retelling, of gossip masquerading as current events, of current events being reduced to small talk (thanks for the Dreyfus affair primer, V.!) that it was easy for me to forget that the Narrator just wants to lose himself in his hosts' collection of Elstirs (which he does with abandon when finally given the opportunity, like the awkward animal lover who spends most of a party in the corner drunk on liquid courage and cooing not to an attractive stranger but to the party-giver's cat -- not that I have any personal experience there), catch a play and maybe finally start tapping into the creative juices that just won't let the words flow smoothly from his mind to the page. Society is no place for a sensitive man with an artist's soul, as even the most celebrated wit at the salon will eventually turn him into a plaything or a vehicle of immortality, as great painters are demonstrably reduced to mundane portraiture that will only be nitpicked by unappreciative minds for failing to capture the subject's outer beauty and inner glow adequately enough to pacify an aging ego that is fighting the nullification of death with the frivolity of social escapades.

As a sobering reminder of such an inevitability, this volume also sees the loss of the Narrator's beloved grandmother (it's not really a spoiler if the book in question is nearly a century old, right?), whose stroke and rapid decline allow her one last gesture of undying love, as she suffers in valiant silence so as to not upset her family and amends her few voiced complaints to meaningless utterances should they be overheard, lest she further worry those she's about to leave behind. The visible wreckage gathering in the Narrator's mother as she watches her own mother's life ebb away is heartache set to words and makes for one of the most sorrowful sequences I've ever observed as a reader, but also serves as a testament to the humanity with which Proust animates his already estimable writing. The Narrator's own first taste of loss that runs deeper than simple interruption of a mother's nightly affections is the natural foil to the artificial high-society world he so often finds himself in, which emphasizes the skewed perspective of the latter and permanent void of the former.

It seems that a book about recapturing lost times through recollections of the past is bound to memorialize the dead as well as serve as the predictable offspring of a society that is so obsessed with itself that it gleefully, and often maliciously, recounts its own clever turns of phrase when it's not reliving a favorite adversary's shameful misstep. Because if that's not the epitome of living in a moment before it hurries into the fading past, what is?