Sunday, August 23, 2015

"The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer

So, I just graduated college. While I’m employed and in a job I actually like, I’m not about to miss a perfectly good opportunity to wallow in the post-college blues. So, like any good English major, I decided to find a book to reaffirm these feelings. One google search and trip to the library later, "The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer found it’s place on my night stand.

And there it sat for almost two months.

While my own summer unfolded, I slowly waded through the intertwining stories of six friends who met at summer camp. The book jumps between the narratives of four different characters and takes place over the span of almost 40 years. As time passes people get sick, people get married, people wallow in post-college blues, but they don’t really change — at least not in any surprising way.

Each character has one or two defining experiences or traits that act as motivators for almost all of their actions. These are labels they can’t seem to shake — and some characters don’t even try to. There’s the ugly but talented boy. The wealthy but kind girl. The troubled but handsome teen. The depressed but big — a baffling trait to place at the center of a character — man. The list goes on. These handful of details form the core of each character in broad, almost rudimentary strokes, defining the course of their lives as they change over the next 40 years. While some go through more extreme changes than others, their future is always foreshadowed long before the reader gets the details of the plot twist. Maybe it’s a rhetorical strategy to keep the reader plodding away, but it also seems to hint at the idea of a type of predestination. The book seems interested in the idea that some people are bound for fame while others for mundane 9 to 5 jobs. The order of this inflexible world is determined by the almost mythical force: “talent.”

Talent, a central part of the art camp that brought the six friends together, is treated differently by each character — sometimes worshiped, sometimes cultivated, sometimes shyly brushed aside. But ultimately, Woltizer seems very cynical about “talent,” especially considering she wrote her first published book as an undergrad. None of the characters find happiness in talent or at least not complete happiness. The characters who find any satisfaction are the ones who are willing to settle for less and compromise on the dreams of their 15-year-old selves. In another words, they discover they are not special, despite what they’ve been told, and nor are they exempt from the disappointments of life.

The book takes a long meandering path to get to this point, however. Along the way, Woltizer asks the reader to spend time with characters that sometimes feel less than dynamic, as if each character is made out of a couple connect-the-dots points but no one actually bothered draw the line between them. The same descriptions of the characters pop up again and again adding little additional information or flesh to the skeletal sketch. I think it would be a safe bet that the reader would remember Cathy’s apparently key traits after the third time she was described as “needy” and large breasted. And after the seventh time, the reader probably has begun to wonder if Cathy is really anything more than a disembodied pair of very demanding boobs.

Mammary glands aside, the book builds an in-depth look into the lives of people who think they’re interesting. Maybe the two-dimensionality of these “interesting” people is a way of damning their own self-importance, but nevertheless it’s hard to spend hours with characters that don’t feel like fully rendered humans. The writing style is clean and plot picks up some of the character’s slack, but, as the title suggests, this is a character driven book and the characters, well, just aren’t that interesting.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

WWW Wednesdays (May 30)

So I don't seem to space out the timing of my posts very well.  Whatever... Time for WWW Wednesdays! (Hosted by Should be Reading)

What are you currently reading?
Right now I'm reading "House of Leaves" by Mark Danielewski  I'm only about 50 pages in and though I have some issues with the frame narrator (Does every book written in the 90s have to have a slacker protagonist?) it's one of the most engaging books I've read for a while and I have a feeling it could take a twist at any point so I'm crossing my fingers that the frame narrator will turn out more interesting than he first appears.

What did you recently finish reading?
"Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino.  The review will be shortly forthcoming but the book was as brilliant as I hoped it would be.

What do you think you'll read next?
Probably "The Crying of Lot 49" by Thomas Pychon.  I've been wanting to read a Pychon book for a while and "The Crying of Lot 49" seems like the most sensible place to get a taste.  After that, I think I'll take a break from the post modern but I haven't decided on a book yet.

"The Setting Sun" by Osamu Dazai

            I like the fantastic, I like the surreal, and lately I’ve found myself drawn towards reading a lot of this type of fiction.  In order to continue enjoying the weird, however, I find I need to occasionally take a break and read something realistic.  Nothing is magical if everything is magical.  This is where “The Setting Sun” by Osamu Dazai comes in.

            Let’s look at some facts surrounding this book:
Osamu Dazai: a cheerful bloke
  1. Written in Japan
  2. In 1947
  3. Two years after the end of WWII
  4. By an author who, to this day, is very popular in his home country
  5. He also successfully committed suicide
  6. In 1948
  7. This was at least his fourth suicide attempt

            Unsurprisingly, this was not a cheerful book.  It was a fascinating look into the decline of individuals, a family, an era.  It’s much more than a simple family drama, however.  It’s a crisis, sometimes subtle lurking just beneath the characters’ words and sometimes overt and existential.  Society is breaking and those who have based their whole lives around its existence are also fracturing. It’s a deeply emotional work yet it fortunately never crosses the boundary into melodramatic.

            The cultural barriers this book poses to a western audience, myself included, cannot go unnoted.  Aside from the first 200 pages of “Battle Royale,” this is the first Japanese novel I’ve read though, even with my limited experience in the world of Japanese literature, it was actually quite accessible.  I was at times rather bothered by the naivety and helplessness the female characters displayed throughout the book, but to make the claim of misogyny would be unfair since the male characters, though in very different ways, were equally as flawed.  As for the translation, I was reading Donald Keene’s version which I believe is the only English translation available.  I found it to be very crisp and clear though there were occasionally some word choices, such as some outdated colloquial phrases, that felt out of place.  Though I imagine the prose was likely better in Japanese, the translation is more than serviceable

            Dazai has written a stunning book that, 60 years later and an ocean and a language away, is still powerful.  The building desperation of the characters is captivating and the novel’s latter half is especially brilliant.  To my knowledge, “The Setting Sun” has never achieved widespread popularity in the English-speaking world which is a shame since it’s truly a great work.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"The Bloody Chamber" by Angela Carter

            When I posted on my Goodreads account that I was reading the short story collection “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter, one of my friends commented, and I quote, “lol you would read something like this (if the title gives any clue).”  I find this comment disturbing.  Very disturbing.  It is, however, with relief tinged regret that I must say she was wrong.  “The Bloody Chamber” wasn’t really for me.

           Don’t think this conclusion is some sort of knee jerk reaction against her comment either.  Truth be told, I really wanted to like this book.  A professor for a class in magical realism I took compiled a massive list at the end of the semester of recommended reading.  I picked up “The Bloody Chamber,” among other books, off of his recommendation.

            And I can see why he recommended it.  The book in many ways is excellent.  It’s an assortment of re-imagined fairy tales from “Beauty and the Beast” to “Little Red Riding Hood.”  These aren’t the Disney, child friendly adaptations either.  It’s graphic, both violently and sexually, though it never feels gratuitous.  Instead, these aspects serve to make these tales more relevant to modern life and values in addition to being an integral part to some of the feminist undertones that pervade the book.  Feminism often gets a bad wrap, but I feel in this collection it’s handled tastefully in the sense that men are not demonized but rather women are empowered.

            The most notable aspect of the book is the breathtaking prose.  At many points I felt like I was reading a raunchier Edgar Allan Poe.  Though it was written in the 1970s the prose feels much older and richer than many books written during that era.  Here’s a sentence taken at random:
“The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain.”
The whole book flows with that type of vivid complexity of description.  Each sentence is beautifully crafted and is very effective in creating a tangle of atmosphere and tension.

            The problem comes in, however, when that tension breaks.  It feels wrong to criticize a book of re-imagined fairy tales for their plot, but the mastery with which Carter handles the build up and climaxes of these stories is absent from most of the resolutions.  Often ending abruptly or with a broad overview of the future for the characters that is jarring after the slow pace of the rest of the story, it left me unsatisfied after an otherwise wonderful story telling experience.

            Otherwise, this collection has everything going for it, which is why it puzzles me that, all in all, I didn’t love this book.  I didn’t hate it either.  I appreciated Carter’s story telling ability but I found myself many times flipping to the back of the book to see how many pages I had left.  Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for a primarily plot driven book.  Perhaps reading a short story collection on a plane ride isn’t a good idea.  Perhaps just coming off the stress of finals I should have picked up a lighter read.  But despite my only mild enjoyment of this collection, I really don’t think it’s deserving of a negative review.  In fact I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants engaging stories woven with fantastic prose.  As for my personal favorite story in this collection, I’ll have to go with “Puss-in-Boots” which, largely due to being told from the point of view of the cat Puss himself, is hilarious.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays "The Bloody Chamber"

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

180px-BloodyChamber.jpgI've been away for a while but now that summer is here I'll be updating regularly once again.  We'll start out with a Teaser Tuesday.  Technically I finished this book, "The Bloody Chamber" by Angela Carter, last night but the prose is so rich it would be a shame to let technicalities prevent me from sharing a quote from it. I'll be posting a full review within the next few days but suffice to say it's the prose that really carries this slim collection of creepy, re-imagined fairy tales.  Regarding wolves:
"They will be like shadows, they will be like wraiths, grey members of a congregation of nightmare; hark! his long, wavering howl . . . an aria of fear made audible.
The wolfsong is the sound of the rending you will suffer, in itself a murdering." ("The Bloody Chamber," 110)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

It's April and You Know What that Means...

A 2011 books read recap!  Am I ridiculously behind? Yes. Is this something I have have time to dwell on? Nope.  So without further ado or explanation I'm going to jump into my top ten favorite books read last year.  In no particular order:

"Survivor" by Chuck Palahnuik
Funny, insightful, horribly crass: this book won my heart for it's shear strangeness and over the top nature.  After having recently read "Fight Club" and really disliking it I wonder if this novel was really as great as I remember but I'm going to go with my gut and say yes.  If you're looking for a weird, interesting, easy read go no further.

"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley
A classic in both science fiction and the broader world of literature, a lot can be taken from Huxley's dystopian vision.  For those who haven't seen it yet, this comic does a nice job relating this book to our current world.  Social messages aside it's an engaging, well written novel that will leave you thinking.

"Light Boxes" by Shane Jones
Rarely do you encounter a novel that is simultaneously as unambitious in scope and as engagingly written as this slim volume.  It's a pretty straightforward allegory for Seasonal Affective Disorder that due to Jones' mastery of language becomes a beautiful little treat even if you've never heard of SAD before (I read it in March cowering inside trying to escape the 90 degree heat.)

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"One Hundred Years of Solitude" is a sprawling masterpiece filled with enough magic to make you feel like a child again even as you read through Marquez's complex and entangling sentences.  The cast of characters, both strong and weak, spiteful and noble, genius and ignorant, are some of the best to ever appear in fiction.  I could go on praising it for quite awhile so I'm going to cut myself off and say if you have any interest in literature this is a must read.

"White Noise" by Don DeLillo
Darkly funny social satire, when done right, is probably my favorite type of writing so it's no wonder I liked this book so much.  Of the four DeLillo books I've read this is definitely the best.  It's cynical, humorous, often a bit ridiculous, and definitely not for everyone, but those who'll enjoy it at all will really love it.

"Point Omega" by Don DeLillo
Drastically different than "White Noise" it's often hard to tell this is written by the same person. "Point Omega" is more than a little pretentious but the core part of the novel, set in the desert and full of musings on the nature of time, had more of an effect of me than 99 percent of the books I read.  Its magic is not something I can really explain but I was completely lost within its scant 100 some pages.

"Ficciones" by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges will bend your mind.  His prose (or at least the translation) leaves something to be desired but his ideas more than make up for any shortcomings.  His philosophical ideas masquerading as short stories are easily the most interesting pieces I read all year.

"Eating the Dinosaur" by Chuck Klosterman
I like pop culture and I like to pretend it's important.  I even like to think that maybe it holds some universal truths.  Klosterman seems to be in the same boat.  His essays are interesting quick reads that embrace the trivial while at the same time never shy away from the big picture.

"By Night in Chile" by Roberto Bolano
Bolano is a master of prose and that shines through even in this translation.  I'm sure a lot of this eerie, morally ambiguous story went over my head but it was nonetheless powerful.  I plan to read more Bolano this year so maybe I'll have some better insights soon.  Regardless, this was a great first taste.

"Autobiography of Red" by Anne Carson
It's a poem, it's a novel, it's fantastic.  Carson has a way with words that drives this unconventional "novel in verse" from mythology to homosexuality to Latin America to volcanoes. There's a lot of disparate pieces that come together both beautifully and seamlessly in this vastly under-appreciated book.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

*Insert Interesting Headline* or Recap Part 1

            So it’s been about a month since I last posted. Miss me? Oh you didn’t notice. Yeah that’s what I figured.  Anyway the last month has been crazy though have been able to do some reading so instead of spending the next few weeks trying to catch up on full length write ups I’ll just patch together a brief overview.

“Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov is better known for his controversial novel “Lolita” which I’ve yet to read.  My Dad gave me “Pnin” because he remembered reading and enjoying it some 30+ years ago and though it took me awhile to get through I’m inclined to agree with him.  The novel, about an inept Russian professor, is equal parts funny and heartbreaking.  Though the writing can be a bit dense at times ultimately it’s what really made this book shine.

“33 1/3: Pavement’s Wowee Zowee” by Bryan Charles
About two months ago I wrote a review professing my love for Bryan Charles’s novel “Grab on to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way.”  “Wowee Zowee” is Charles’s foray into the world on nonfiction.  The book chronicles the making of the album “Wowee Zowee” by Pavement, one of the leading alt-rock band in the 90s.  Prior to reading Charles’s novel (which I first came across about a year ago) I had never heard of Pavement but being interested in reading another one of Charles’s books I decided to try their music which I ended up really enjoying.  For those who haven’t heard of them here’s one of their songs:

As for the book, I found it interesting but not nearly as engaging as his novel.  Charles used a very different writing style, which though more informative did not have the same poetic tilt to it.  This type of style was far more suited to a nonfiction work but a part of me couldn’t help being disappointed.  Some fascinating interviews with the band members and others associated with the making of the album make the book worthwhile for any Pavement fan though some prior knowledge about the band is necessary to get through this slim volume.


So I wrote those last few paragraphs in September (?) and set it aside hoping to add another book or two to the list before I posted it.  Considering it’s now Thanksgiving I’m going to go ahead and say procrastination got the better of me.  Despite my absence I have still been reading though, granted not quite at the same rate as this summer.

“City Life” by Donald Barthelme
I feel pretentious even admitting I read this so I’ll just be completely honest and say that not only did I read this short story collection by the postmodernist writer Barthelme, but I greatly enjoyed it.  Some of the stories definitely went over my head, most notably “Blood Bubbles” (though I think the incomprehensible nature of it was part of the point), but I found some of his more accessible stories to be fascinating.  Barthelme makes use of unconventional story structure and often includes multiple pictures in his pieces.  It is all very surreal and imaginative but if you’re in a mood for some substance free mind altering I highly recommend this collection or any of Barthelme’s stories for that matter.  Highlights include: “Views of my Father Weeping,” “The Glass Mountain,” “Sentence,” and “City Life.”

“Self Help” by Lorrie Moore
I’ve recently discovered that short stories work a lot better with a busy schedule than full fledged novels (why it took me so long I don’t know) so I’ve been picking up more short story collections lately.  Moore’s “Self Help” was one of these collections.  I read and enjoyed (mostly) her novel “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital” this summer but I kept hearing how short stories were really her best medium.  After reading this book I’m inclined to agree.  She writes about rather mundane situations but the elegance and emotional power she harnesses while covering these subjects is remarkable.  I, and lately even more than usual, enjoy reading things that are fantastic or unique.  Moore’s stories are neither, but I still found her stories to be engrossing.  I would recommend the best stories of the collection but in truth I loved almost every single one of them.

“Mao II” by Don DeLillo
I read my first DeLillo book this spring and since then I’ve been a fan.  “Mao II” is my fourth DeLillo book and maybe it’s a case of too much of one author in too little time but I was rather disappointed by this novel.  It’s about an aging reclusive author (read: Don DeLillo’s depiction of himself) and his handful of “friends.”  There are quite a few meditations on crowds, fame, terror, and death.  It’s supposed to be one of his best books but I found it to be painfully slow and I felt no connection with any of the characters who were, to put it in middle school vocabulary, weird and annoying.  Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood but I think I’ll take a break from DeLillo for a few months.

To be continued…