Monday, November 29, 2010

Freedom (by Jonathan Franzen)

Ian gave me some great advice when beginning this book: don't think about all the arguments about whether Franzen is overrated or the Greatest Writer Ever, or whether the book is overpraised or underpraised or whatever. Just enjoy it as a page-turning novel. And I did: I started it yesterday and finished it yesterday, all 500+ pages, and it was a lovely way to spend the day.

(Part of the reason for my book binge is that I haven't read books in a while due to months of constant low-grade nausea making it impossible to concentrate; so now I'm making up for lost time.)

So, as a page-turner, I really enjoyed it. I don't think it's a particularly wondrous writing achievement, and here's one reason: there's a whole section that's supposed to be "written" by one of the characters, but it's the exact same writing style as the third-person narrator who narrates the rest of the novel. I mean, sorry Franzen, but David Mitchell would never! Also, I think he tries a little too hard to hammer the theme of "freedom," having multiple characters go on and on about how they're free or not free or what they think of freedom. Some thought-provoking passages, but on the whole, I think he's better when he's not trying so transparently to be profound.

I am a Corrections fan, and I'm a Franzen fan. It was a really fun read: not a masterpiece.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and People Who Read Them (by Elif Batuman)

A book that's really hard to describe. Ian went to her book reading when she was in town and brought back signed copies for half the people he knows, so I finally decided to pick this up and read it for myself. It's less of a unified book and more of a series of disconnected stories or essays or meditations on various Russian (and Uzbek) writers and their works, as well as stories of, say, attending a conference on Tolstoy, touring the Petersburg ice palace, or spending a summer with a vaguely horrible woman in Uzbekistan.

It's incredibly erudite, well-written and not in the least overwritten, and both thought provoking and entertaining. I mean, it's really funny, and I did laugh out loud a lot while reading it. In spite of the complexity of the ideas (I found the discussion on mimetic theory super interesting) it's very readable; I tore through it in about two days. I wanted more on the novels that I have read--like War and Peace of course--and I wanted to read the novels that she talks about that I haven't gotten to yet--like Eugene Onegin.

I honestly don't know how to describe this book. If you like Russian novels, or even if you just like novels, you should give it a shot. Here's my favorite bit, about names in contemporary American writing:

The premium on conciseness and concreteness made proper names a great value – so they came flying at you as if out of a tennis-ball machine: Julia, Juliet, Viola, Violet, Rusty, Lefty, Carl, Carla, Carleton, Mamie, Sharee, Sharon, Rose of Sharon (a Native American), Hassan. Each name betrayed a secret calculation, a weighing of plausibility against precision: On the one hand, the cat called King Spanky; on the other, the cat called Cat. In either case, the result somehow seemed false, contrived – unlike Tolstoy’s double Alexeis, and unlike Chekhov’s characters, many of whom didn’t have names at all. In ‘Lady With Lapdog,’ Gurov’s wife, Anna’s husband, Gurov’s crony at the club, even the lapdog, are all nameless. No contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Baby Proof (by Emily Giffen)*

I enjoyed Something Borrowed and Something Blue, so I thought this might be a fun chicklit read. Actually, it was kind of irritating.

First is the plot itself. The main character, Claudia, marries her perfect husband, Ben, and they both agree they don't want kids. She has perfectly valid reasons for not wanting them. Then, he suddenly decides he desperately wants a kid. Without much discussion or therapy or anything else that would be reasonable in this situation, they split up. (This happens at the beginning of the book, so it's not a huge spoiler.) I basically hated this guy. I mean, he's not the one who has to give birth to a child, and he's the one who changed his mind after they'd already agreed on no kids.

Yet all the other characters tell Claudia that basically she should change her mind and have a baby to get him back because he's just so awesome. If he was even slightly awesome, he wouldn't have been so quick to run out the door just because he had changed his mind and she didn't want to change hers. You can't "compromise" on parenthood, as it is a lifelong commitment. SO HE IS OBVIOUSLY NOT AWESOME. HE SUCKS.

And apart from that, there's the way the story is told, which is basically in a series of expositiony passeges. At first I thought "oh, she's just giving us the setup, then we'll get into the actual book." But no, it's pretty much "I was sitting at my counter remembering the conversation I had with this other character, where she told me this story about her life. Blah blah exposition." "So-and-so called me and told me what had been going on with her, which was blah blah blah." I don't know how to explain it, except my friend Katie was talking about "narrative distance" and "scene-based writing" today, and I was like YES, this book I am listening to HAS THAT EXACT PROBLEM.

Anyway. Thumbs down.

The Thief (by Megan Whelan Turner)

I forget where I heard this book talked up, but people told me it was amazing and that I should read it. Sorry, people who told me that, whoever you are, but I was completely underwhelmed.

I didn't get invested in the characters or the world. I didn't care about the political intrigues. The ending was good, but not nearly good enough. Mostly, I was just really bored. I definitely will not be reading the rest of the series. Maybe you have to be 12 to really appreciate this one?