Thursday, January 31, 2013

Building Stories (by Chris Ware)

By far the best of the tournament books I've read so far, even though I've enjoyed all of them. But this book, a graphic novel, is incredible, and it's the first one that feels, to me, like a genuine literary achievement.

The hook of Building Stories is that it comes in a large board-game-sized box full of newspapers, comic books, pamphlets, even a game board. The pieces can be read in any order, and they tell the story of the inhabitants of a certain apartment building. (So the reading experience, where you learn some sketchy outlines and then fill in the blanks as you go, means you're building the stories. And it's also stories about a building. Double meaning! I see what you did there, Chris Ware.) This also means your experience of reading it will never quite match up with anyone else's, since whatever you start with informs the rest of your reading experience. After I opened the box, I grabbed one piece and aych grabbed another one, and we both had two totally different entry points. (She wanted to find out about one key event in the protagonist's life; I wanted to find out what happened to the bee.) Once you finish, you will immediately want to start over again from the beginning to catch everything you missed.

The main character is a woman with a disability (handled wonderfully) and body image issues and depression (ditto) who is not quite likeable, but somehow sympathetic in her utter realness. I am actually stunned that Chris Ware is a dude, because this female character is so complex and authentic, and she is definitely the main focus of the book. Well, her and the bee.

I've heard great things about The Round House, but will not be surprised if Building Stories makes it almost to the end of the tournament along with that one. The only downside is that it's expensive, and it doesn't really lend itself to Kindle or library lending. I've already got three people in line to read mine. Five stars!

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Recognitions (by William Gaddis)

I've been reading The Recognitions since at least last August, so I am thrilled to cross it off my list, even if the introduction does have this wisdom to impart: "A few critics confessed they could not reach the novel's conclusion except by skipping. Well, how many have actually arrived at the last page of Proust or completed Finnegans Wake? What does it mean to finish Moby-Dick, anyway? Do not begin this book with any hope of that. This is a book you are meant to befriend. It will be your lifelong companion. You will end only to begin again."

I love that quote but am not sure if The Recognitions is a book that I long to re-read. I'm sure it would be much clearer the second time around, and it is a rich, dense book. But I would put, say, Ulysses, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Infinite Jest, and parts of Finnegans Wake all on my "tomes to re-read" list before this one, I think. But that is just personal preference.

It's a really interesting (and difficult) novel. There are lots of main characters who are often being confused with or mistaken for each other, mostly by the characters, but I think sometimes by the reader (since Gaddis most often does not name people, and expects us to pick up their identities based on speech patterns, context, and other clues.) People also change names, go by different names, assign other people nicknames. This all works perfectly thematically, as many of the characters are forgers or counterfeiters or masters of disguise. In parts, the novel is darkly comic, but overall it's fairly slow going to make sure you understand what's happening, and most of the characters are unsympathetic, a few of them in funny ways (like Otto, who is constantly obsessed with what effect he's having on other people) and most of them in frustrating ways (like Wyatt, who seemingly never manages to finish a sentence). 

There are also tons of allusions (I enjoyed all the ones to "Prufrock" and "The Wasteland" in particular) and reading it is therefore a somewhat Joycean experience. I referred to the annotations constantly, since I really do think they enhance the text. But phew! Not sure if the effort-to-reward calculus was in my favor here. I will have to sit with this one for a bit. 

Since the book is almost 1000 pages, here are two quotes for the price of one. One wise, one melancholy.

"Why do you treat me as they do, as though I were exactly what I want to be. Why do we treat people that way? But we do, everyone treats anyone that way, saying I have had these defeats and disappointments, but you whom I encounter you know what you will say, moving, in accord with your nature which is here in bloom, but I do not yet understand, I, for myself, do not yet understand. Since I my problems are not yours therefore you must have none, but live alone inside yourself, therefore here are my problems and we shall share them."
(p. 758)

"He came back to his room from early Mass, where he had also got a look at the gigantic organ and confirmed his arrangement to play it later in the morning, and also... sought the intervention of that saint still to be rung in that morning on behalf of three souls equally dear, and equally beautiful. And it was those he thought of, and not the work he thought of, as he stood alone in his room and looked at the work, which was all that was left." (p. 955)

Only four books to go!


Monday, January 14, 2013

Sisterhood Everlasting (by Ann Brashares)

The fifth Traveling Pants book! I borrowed a friend's Kindle, and it is a gold mine. (She's the one who had Where'd You Go, Bernadette, along with a bunch of other books I've been wanting to read.) I'd heard this one was "depressing" so I figured someone probably died at the end. I have thoughts about that, but I will spoiler them.

So someone doesn't die at the end, but really towards the beginning, and everyone else is cast into these depths of grief that go on and on and on and on. I had to finish the book in one night because I couldn't stand to close the book when everyone was so sad. And they are sad for the vast majority of the book. So yes, depressing. Everyone in this book needed a therapist. (Carma is an actress, doesn't she have one on speed-dial?)

Other problems: it was very obvious that Tibby had a terminal illness, but none of the characters figure it out until the end of the book. Also apparently she was ravaged by disease, but her body looked normal when they went to identify it? The whole magical farmhouse in Pennsylvania with cottages for all her friends was fairly ridiculous. And I loved Bailey, but there's this weird "motherhood is the answer!" theme by the end of the book that seemed a little one-note.

The men: Eric was a saint for putting up with how Bridget treated him throughout this entire book. I can't believe there was a happy ending there. Carmen's boyfriend Jones has no redeeming qualities at all, so there's no tension there whatsoever. The Lena and Kostos story is of course old hat at this point, but it still totally got me. It was my fave. 

All that being said, it's still a pants book, which made me automatically invested in the characters and their stories. I completely felt for them, and cried at many points. Ultimately I'm glad I read it, "depressing"ness and all.


Where'd You Go, Bernadette? (by Maria Semple)

So I am (informally, because god knows I don't need another reading project) trying to read some of the 2013 Tournament of Books books. Several of them were on my to-read list anyway, because I've been hearing a lot about them.

This is a fun, quirky satire of Seattle's privileged class by one of the writers of Arrested Development. It's actually probably a spoiler to call it fun, since it wouldn't be so fun if Bernadette turned out to be dead, for example. It's somewhat epistolary, in that it's made up of a variety of letters, emails, memos, and whatnot, with some connective material supplied by our quasi-narrator, Bernadette's daughter Bee.

The characters are very well drawn, though I think there are some character shifts towards the end that feel a little implausible. For instance, evil Audrey Griffin's sudden change of heart about everything, or even Bernadette herself. I loved the emails between Bernadette and her virtual personal assistant. I loved all the Portlandia-esque loving satire of Seattle itself, especially in terms of the politics at Galer Street School. I found Bee very sympathetic. Overall this is a fast, fun read that I would recommend.

As a side note, this is the third of the Tournament of Books novels (along with Beautiful Ruins and Gone Girl) that I've found to be more fast and breezy, rather than hefty and "literary." Maybe it's just by comparison with The Recognitions, which is my other current book and is doorstopily, densely literary. This is not to dismiss their merit, because I think they're all good books, but just an observation.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Woman Who Died a Lot (by Jasper Fforde)

As soon as I saw someone on Twitter mention that there was a new Thursday Next book, I immediately clicked "download" on my Kindle. (I almost never am willing to pay the "hardcover" Kindle price, but for Thursday, I will make an exception.) I love this series so much.

I really love the mindworm plotline (which was cleverly done here, as usual--Fforde is always clever) and I love Thursday's kids Friday and Tuesday, and all plotlines involving Friday and time travel, and Tuesday and her genius. I enjoy Thursday's love/hate relationship with Phoebe Smalls and the idea of the Day Players. I think Aornis Hades is a way better antagonist than Jack Schitt, but I guess we get them both here. I love Thursday as a character and she and Landen as a couple, I think it's a really good entry in the series, and I recommend the whole series to any book nerds out there.

This one ends on a semi-cliffhanger involving (character names spoilered) Pickwick and probably Jenny that made me really interested in the next book. I kind of feel like this one is better than the last one, and the next one will be even better. (I still adore First Among Sequels and think it would be hard to top that one.)


(I should get around to finishing Shades of Grey someday, shouldn't I?)

Sunday, January 06, 2013

I’m Dying Up Here (by William Knoedelseder)

Another book that I read in one giant gulp, this one about standup in the 70s. Makes a nice companion piece to Mark Maron's recent interview with Budd Friedman, the owner of the Improv.  (I'm told I should also listen to the Jimmie Walker interview. And the Robin Williams ones, if they're still available.)

The book is fascinating, if a little biased--the author is BFFs with Richard Lewis, and it shows; he also clearly got a lot of help from Tom Dessen, a comic I have never heard of but who plays a big role in this book (and played a very important role in the comics strike). There are a lot of pages dedicated to the strike of the Comedy Store, which is in some ways the least interesting part, and the book ends almost immediately after the strike is settled. I wanted a slightly different focus, a slightly longer epilogue, a little more detail. But overall, a really interesting read for comedy fans!

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (by Stephen Chbosky)

A Christmas gift that I read over the course of an evening, which I always find somehow satisfying.

I definitely understand some of the complaints that I read about this book--that the character of Charlie is too naive, that his friendship with Patrick and Sam is unrealistic, that he's quite popular for someone supposedly unpopular, that his life touches on basically every ABC afterschool special adolescent trauma imaginable. But I really didn't think about any of that as I was reading it.

Instead, I connected Charlie to Sam Weir in Freaks and Geeks, a character that really was naive, rather than the typical uber-sophisticated adolescent. I really enjoyed the character's voice and was invested in his journey and the rest of the novel's characters. And I enjoyed that some of the themes and ideas are sophisticated enough to discuss in an adult book group (I know of one that's discussing it next week).

I don't really have anything profound to add beyond the fact that I liked it and am in a way still digesting it.