Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars (by John Green)

This was my "reward" book for getting through five of my booklist books in January. I knew that I'd love it, that it would be great, that I would tear through it, all of which was true. I also knew the premise: two kids meet at a cancer support group, and they fall in love.

I didn't know the Netherlands would play such a significant role, which I deeply enjoyed. I also didn't know the narrator would be female, a nice shift from Green's other books. (His female characters have a certain similarity, and it was nice to experience that from the inside, as it were.)

It's not a perfect book, by any means. The biggest drawback for me was (spoiler alert) that Peter Van Houten never quite rang true, and we didn't need so many separate crisis points and denouements with that character. But man, was Amsterdam ever described well. It also had a pretty predictable ending (you know it's going to end in one of two ways, and that Green is going to pick the one that's more interesting).

But the characters overall are great, especially Gus and Hazel, and very much in the John Green mold. The book isn't overly depressing, even for a book about cancer. It's just... good. And thought-provoking. And worth reading.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Casanova's Chinese Restaurant: Book Five of A Dance to the Music of Time (by Anthony Powell)

Love the title of this one. (They do indeed go to the eponymous restaurant at the beginning of the novel and have a discussion about professional seducers that was really rather funny.)

Continuing to work my way through this series. I really enjoyed this installment. The backdrop is the Spanish Civil War as well as rumblings heading towards World War II, but the focus is still on high society. The main character has married into a large family of ten children, and we get to know a little bit more about them. (The eldest son is an eccentric named Erridge, and he apparently was based in part on George Orwell.)

It's an interesting mix of explicit and implied--there's a discussion about the terms "abortion" and "miscarriage" (characters in this series have had both) and there are a lot of gay and lesbian characters, some of whom are shown living together. There's even a guy who is totally this one lady's gay BFF--he even does her interior decorating! But the main character's marriage and the character of his wife remain misty because the narrator says almost nothing about them. There are still seven volumes to go, so perhaps we'll find out more!

This volume jumps back in time a little to introduce a new character named Moreland and a bunch of his compatriots(this series has a ton of characters, y'all) but it's worth it just for the setpiece of this big party after the debut of one of Moreland's symphonies, a tragicomedy where the alcoholic Charles Stringham shows up and where Lord Huntercombe spends the evening breaking into cabinets to examine the hostess's fine china. But there's also this air of foreshadowy gloom hanging over everything--it's no accident that one character commits suicide by "gassing himself," and the novel ends with a metaphor about a "Ghost Railway" ride hurtling towards an unknown, dark destination.

"The notable thing about professional seducers," said Maclintick... "is the rot they talk when they are doing their seducing. There is not a single cliche they leave unsaid."

"Although by definition the most egotistical of men," said Moreland, "they naturally have to develop a certain anonymity of style to make themselves acceptable to all women. It is the case of the lowest common factor - or is it the highest common denominator? If you hope to rise to the top class in seducing, you must appeal to the majority. As the majority are not very intelligent, you must conceal your own intelligence - if you have the misfortune to possess such a thing - in order not to frighten the girls off."

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Year End Book Wrap-Up '11

Here is last year's book wrapup. And this year we have much less to talk about, since I only read 21 books. Only six are on the Time 100 list (and three of those are parts of a 12-novel cycle), which means I still have 22 (I think, I keep mis-counting) of the Time 100 books to go. Eight of the books I read this year were by women, 13 were by men.

Obviously I read much less because I had a baby (though the early middle-of-the-night feedings were pretty good for reading on the Kindle). I feel like I'm getting back into the swing of it now, though. Anyway, here is my very abbreviated list of the best and worst books of the year.

Top three books:

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
I loved both this one and The Marriage Plot, but I'm going to give this one the edge for its larger scope and for the way the characters stuck in my head. I am always torn when making these lists, because I love to re-read things and I'm sure if I re-read Goon Squad and Marriage Plot, I could be far more definitive. (I never blog re-reads. It would just be endless entries all "I just finished In This House of Brede for the seven millionth time.") Maybe after I'm done with all my reading lists, I can make a re-reading list. I just got Cloud Atlas back and I'm going to re-read that one immediately. Then Brideshead Revisited again. Then Catch-22 again. Wait, what was I saying? Egan's book. Not perfect, but I liked it! And I want to re-read it, I think is where I was going.

2. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
This sticks in my mind like The Corrections does: as a meaty, intelligent, entertaining work of lit fic. A lot of the classics that I slog through aren't really what I'd call "entertaining" (my recent read of Money notwithstanding) so I appreciate that this was a page turner, that I enjoyed the characters, and that the milieu of this world was recognizable. I liked it.

3. One of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde
I have to give this one the edge just because I love Fforde and he always entertains me. This was fast-paced, fun, and funny. But it could just as easily be swapped out with any of the runners up, if only because it wasn't quite as good, for me, as First Among Sequels.

Runners up: An Object of Beauty, Persepolis, The Namesake, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, The Wave, A Question of Upbringing... I didn't read much this year, but I liked almost everything I read!

The worst:

1. Herzog
AKA Herzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzog. Speaking of boring-ass classics that are torture to get through. It was so endlessly dull. I know it supposedly is saying important things about the Jewish Experience. I know people love Saul Bellow and owe him a debt or whatever. But yawn. I'm even bored of trying to write this paragraph.

And that's it! I read some disposable stuff this year, but nothing that I actively disliked, other than Herzog. And next year this will be expanded once more, as I will no doubt read more than 21 books. Man.


The Assistant (Bernard Malamud)

That's right, another book list book! Woo! Of course this is one of the shortest, and it was a really fast read, but still. Making progress.

The back cover says something about the book reading like a prose poem, and it really does. It's spare, heavily symbolic, with shifts in perspective sometimes within one paragraph. Without giving too much away, I'll say it's mostly about one character named Frank and his efforts to become a good person, under the influence of a Jewish grocer named Morris, who is both very good and very poor. There's also Morris's daughter Helen, who's a pretty great character, and who also influences Frank.

I want to talk in a slightly spoilery way about the Helen/Frank subplot, because I had some issues from a feminist point of view. I really liked the fact that this subplot evolved in a non-cliche way, that Helen had self-discipline and didn't just cave in to Frank, that she was not a virgin and didn't get punished for that in the usual "get pregnant, this ruins your life somehow" plot that has been the fate of female characters in literature forever. I also really liked that Frank didn't succeed in his plan to put her through college, that she valued education and was pursuing college of her own accord, albeit with his indirect help.

HOWEVER. It really really bothers me that this is framed as a redemption story and that the text privileges Frank's perspective at the end, after he RAPES HER IN THE PARK. We're supposed to let it go because 1) he is really really sorry, 2) he changes after that to be a genuinely good, self-sacrificing person who essentially saves the family from starving, and 3) Helen is a very strong character who rationalizes the rape to herself all, "well, I was going to sleep with him anyway" (!!!!) but still doesn't forgive him. But... dude, he's a RAPIST.

I'm interested to know what you guys think. We (the readers) are able to forgive Frank for being a thief. But I don't want to forgive him for being a rapist--perhaps because I'm uncomfortable with Malamud's choices here. At one point, Frank muses on the difficulty of being redeemed from one horrible act, but--and this is key--the rape is not presented as that one horrible act. It's presented as a little bit of backsliding on the road to redemption. When, in fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's the worst thing that Frank does.
Phew! Long spoiler bar.

If the author clearly wants us to forgive a character, what happens when we have a hard time doing so? (This is all especially weird contrasted with Money, the last book I read, wherein John Self is a total antihero, way worse than Frank in many ways. He just 1) doesn't cross that line and 2) isn't portrayed quite the same way Frank is, in the end. Plus, the tone of the book is satirical, which makes a huge difference.

Anyway, I really liked reading this, and I was up for a while last night, thinking about it. If you don't mind spoilers or don't plan to ever read this, or have read it already, chime in and let me know how you felt about all of this.

"Whatever she read, he crept into her thoughts; in every book he haunted the words, a character in a plot somebody else had invented, as if all associations had only one end. He was, to begin with, everywhere. So, without speaking of it, they met again in the library. That they were meeting among books relieved her doubt, as if she believed, what possible wrong can I do among books, what possible harm can come to me here?" (p. 131)


Monday, January 23, 2012

Money (by Martin Amis)

Y'all know how I feel about the unreliable narrator, right? Can't get enough of him! This unreliable narrator, John Self, is basically drunk through the entirety of this novel, which makes the narration hilarious, but also leaves holes in the text. He objectifies women to a horrifying degree, is slightly racist, is monstrously self-centered, and yet somehow is still funny and somehow sympathetic? In a weird way?

The novel has a lot going on, with super symbolic names (like "John Self") and with the author, Martin Amis, showing up as a character in the novel and apologizing for tormenting his characters (of course, while John Self is in the middle of being tormented by various events) and then not to give too much away, but at the end, as often happens with unreliable narrators, the reader finds out what's been going on between the lines of the book all along.

This book is laugh-out-loud funny, pretty dirty, brilliantly written, with some terrific observations about our consumer culture. And I bookmarked so many quotes I don't even know where to start. If you don't mind super-penisy novels (and I think you know where you fall on the penisy novel spectrum) this one really, really works.

Now the way I figured it I had six realistic options. I could sack out right away, with some scotch and a few Serafim. I could go back to the Happy Isles and see what little Moby was up to. I could call Doris Arthur. I could catch a live sex show around the corner, in bleeding Seventh Avenue. I could go out and get drunk. I could stay in and get drunk.

In the end I stayed in and got drunk. The trouble was, I did all the other things first. Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It's passing, yet I'm the one who is doing all the moving. I'm not the station, I'm not the stop: I'm the train. I'm the train.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

At Lady Molly’s: Book Four of A Dance to the Music of Time (by Anthony Powell)

I often go to check out Amazon reviews after I finish a book. There's one lone guy reviewing all of the books in this series, but I'm enjoying his thoughts on them. There's also a "popular highlights" feature for the Kindle edition, where you can see what other people highlighted on their Kindles. It's a little creepy that Amazon is tracking my highlights, but I do enjoy seeing what people decide to highlight. It's never the same stuff that I do. (Except this quote, for obvious reasons: "Women may show some discrimination about whom they sleep with, but they’ll marry anybody.")

I liked At Lady Molly's quite a bit. The beginning is slow, since yet more characters are introduced, but the narrator's observations of life continue to be witty and the characters are interesting (if perhaps somewhat too numerous and slightly difficult to keep track of at times). Strangely, in this book the narrator gets engaged, but there's almost nothing in there about the woman he's engaged to, or anything about their courtship at all. It's strange because in the previous book, there's a lot of detail about his love affair with another character. But maybe we'll get to spend more time with her in the next volume.

The other quibble I have is that it's getting to be way too coincidental for the narrator to happen to show up at almost every significant event or bump into all the main characters continuously or have seemingly every character divulge deep dark secrets to him. It's really the secrets thing that's the most glaring, since in a couple of cases towards the end of this book (Jeavons and Conyers) there's really no reason for them to have these explicit conversations with Nick, of all people. But the conversations themselves are interesting, so there you go.

"Would it be too explicit, too exaggerated, to say that when I set eyes on Isobel Tolland, I knew at once that I should marry her? Something like that is the truth; certainly nearer the truth than merely to record those vague, inchoate sentiments of interest which I was so immediately conscious. It was as if I had known her for many years already; enjoyed happiness with her and suffered sadness. I was conscious of that, as of another life, nostalgically remembered."

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Monday, January 09, 2012

Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust (by Nathanael West)

I just realized I never did my year-end book post! I'll have to put that up soon. (It was not a busy reading year, I'll say that much.) In the meantime, The Day of the Locust is on the Time 100 list, and it came in a volume with two short novellas, that one and Miss Lonelyhearts.

Lonelyhearts is a series of bleak vignettes about a man who answers an advice column in the paper and basically becomes a sponge for all the world's despair. It's pretty poetic. But Locust is the one I really want to talk about (especially since it's the Time 100 pick.)

Locust is about people on the fringes of the movie industry in Hollywood, set during the Great Depression. It reminded me of Breakfast at Tiffany's, only it's set in L.A. instead of New York, and the "Fred" of the story isn't a vanilla narrator who is most probably gay, but instead is a screenwriter named Tod who likes to fantasize about raping Holly Golightly. Plus, it's super satirical. So maybe not that similar at all?

Not only is it satire, it's specific-to-Los-Angeles satire. Each one of the characters is a type (including the pathetic everyman "Homer Simpson"--the name might not be a coincidence). For example, it's hard not to read the clash between a cowboy and a Mexican guy over the sexual favors of the desirable aspiring starlet Faye as anything but a metaphor for the settling of California. (Plus, Faye, who represents the specifically Californian American dream, descends into prostitution at one point. Come on, that is so totally the film industry!) West reportedly admired Hemingway--it's very The Sun Also Rises in terms of the sexual metaphor. But it ends with a full-on riot and descent into madness at, of course, a film premiere.

If you like satire, or the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, where the line between actress and prostitute is wafer-thin and where dreams go to die--this is the novella for you!

"Throwing away his cigarette, he went through the swinging doors of the saloon. There was no back to the building and he found himself in a Paris street. He followed it to its end, coming out in a Romanesque courtyard... on a lawn of fiber, a group of men and women in riding costume were picnicking. They were eating cardboard food in front of a cellophane waterfall."