Sunday, October 05, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Joshua Ferris impressed everyone with his debut novel Then We Came to The End - an astonishing book told in first person plural about a group of people that work in an office in Chicago.  I LOVED it.  His second book, I must admit, I forgot I read until I found, ahem, my own review. Looks like I liked it...

I just finished To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and I have mixed feelings.  While I thought the writing was superb and exciting and innovative, I must admit I skipped many a page in the second half because the plot moved so slowly.  There used to be a time in my life where beautiful prose was really all I was looking for, but, I have to say I'm pretty plot-motivated these days.  This book actually reminded me a LOT (in tone) of David Foster Wallace and John Kennedy Toole (Confederacy of Dunces) but not in a good way.... Those two writers initially blew me off my feet but also I quickly tired of them after about 50 pages.  It's like their superlative, effusive prose can't sustain a novel.  With each of these three writers I always start out like, "This is the greatest thing I've ever read!" and 50 pages later, I'm like, "Jesus Christ, give it a fucking rest!"  Causing me to look deep inside myself:  Can I not "handle" a massive prose machine or is it really too much?

The main character in To Rise Again is a fairly successful dentist in Manhattan, Paul O'Rourke.  He's from a poor family in the Midwest - in fact, his father was mentally ill and committed suicide - details of which eek out slowly in unexpected moments.  He has two ex-girlfriends that he's kind of fixated on - one was a Catholic girl from college and another is his Jewish dental hygienist, Connie.  What he loved perhaps the most about each girl was her extended family, but, as an atheist, he was never really able to allow himself to be part of their clan - he felt separated from them as if by an impenetrable barrier, and often put his foot in his mouth when trying to ingratiate himself.  I should mention that the book is really hilarious, and make me laugh out loud a lot.  He's just such an idiot.
Poet are a ponderous bunch. (Connie's a poet.) They're hypocrites, too. They'd never step foot in a church in America, but fly them to Europe and they rush from tarmac to transept as if the real God, the God of Dante and chiaroscuro, of flying buttresses and Bach, had been awaiting their arrival for centuries.  What thrall, what sabbath longing, will overcome a poet in the churches of Europe. And Connie was Jewish!
Anyway, eventually what happens is someone claims that Paul is part of this long line of peoples that have been persecuted since time immemorial and the book becomes this sort of mediation on how a person might practice or be a part of a religion without belief and whether and how couples can or should share the same belief system.  It's ambitious and messy but really admirable.  I love that he tackled this huge theme, even though it got pretty slippery.  I'm not the only one - it was short-listed for the Man Booker this year and was a National Book Award Finalist.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

You all know I'm a big Dave Eggers fan, so you know I loved Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?  I thought he really brilliantly captured this sort of zeitgeist, as he often does, of our time - particularly regarding responsibility of the person and the state.  Told entirely in dialogue, but without traditional quotation marks or indicators of who is speaking, a young man speaks to these people that he has kidnapped and is holding in a former military base on the California coast.

At first it's kind of amusing - he has kidnapped an astronaut, and he asks him a series of questions about why the space program doesn't go to the moon anymore and how it's disappointed him in terms of giving him and basically all of humanity something to be inspired and motivated by.  And then when he kidnaps another person, that's pretty funny too.  Without giving away too much of the story, which is quite short and better experienced without knowing too much of the story, what he's trying to do is find out some answers and come to terms with this thing that happened in his life.  What's interesting, however, is the more he seems to blame various agencies for this sort of terrible thing that happened, the more you realize he's completely unwilling to take any responsibility for himself and his own actions.  So, just as you're coming around to the side of this obviously troubled young man, the pendulum swings and changes your mind.  Then it swings again.
- So when I got back I tried to talk some sense into anyone who thought going into some country on the other end of the world to exert our will would be a cute idea, and the main problem with a cute idea like that is that these plans are carried out by groups of nineteen-year-olds who can't tie their shoes and who think it's great fun to run around goofing with grenades poorly secured to their uniforms. Wars put young men  in close proximity to grenades and guns and a hundred other things they will find a way to fuck up. These days men in war get themselves killed far more often than they get killed by someone else.
For me, eventually, the young man and his kidnap-ees become less and less character and more symbols of what they represent - which I thought was rather elegant.  I'm not sure if others will have experienced it the same way so I'd be curious what you think if you've read the book - please comment!   The title really slays me too because it's a bit mysterious - like, is the young man asking this question, or are these the questions that arise from the book, which is not particularly about religion in any way but arguably about absent fathers.  So it makes me think... Dave Eggers, Is It About Absent Fathers? And the Title, How Important Is It?  I Have to Think Pretty Important, Right?  But the only place I didn't think the book worked in general was when the dialogue was a bit more Socratic and less natural - just a few times I felt like I was being held too tightly by the hand, despite the fact that I think I have quite similar political leanings as Eggers.  In any event, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is yet another astonishing book by my literary hero and I encourage you to check it out!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Basic Eight

Most people know Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket but his non-Lemony books are pretty great.  I would suggest Watch Your Mouth to just about anybody (less than 50).  Adverbs?  Great.  Basic Eight (2012) has been on my shelves for a while and I finally got around to reading it this year.  It's a dark YA novel about a young woman who is in prison for murder.  She's responding to all this press and a book that's been written about her and she's trying to set the record straight.

It's quite funny and really spot on - Handler writes teenagers, and women, very well.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that The Basic Eight (1999) is one of the first YA novels to come in with a twist.  Seems like every other book has a twist these days.  I just finished Meg Wolitzer's YA novel, and guess what it's got:  a twist.  Unscientifically, I'd say your top YA novels are going to have either: Vampires, Dystopia, or a wicked Twist.  (Idea for YA novel:  A dystopian world populated with vampires with a twist at the end.  Guaranteed blockbuster.)

Handler breaks up the story in interesting ways, like, he ends chapters as if they're part of a school lesson, with vocabulary lists and questions.  But the questions are like, "4. You have undoubtedly seen photographs of Flannery Culp in newspapers and magazines.  Is she fat? Be honest."  Also there are faux excerpts from TMZ-ish media about Flannery which are quite funny.

Handler can write a wicked sex scene (see Watch your Mouth) and he also manages to write about sex with teenagers that is neither creepy nor milquetoast, somehow (see Why We Broke Up).

Somehow Adam and I were talking about something: theater, I think. The line between audience and actor. I felt something warm on my neck, thrilling me. I kept talking about whether Halloween was a form of theater, if parties were a form of theater, if Adam kissing me meant I should get up and leave but it felt so nice, kissing me over and over on the same spot on my neck. It burned delicious like being branded, but as he ran his hand down my dress it turned out I wasn't such a cow at all. That's what turned me on, as much as him kissing me: feeling my own body, thin and gorgeous against him like a celebrity. Thin, even.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Garnethill is the first in a series by Scottish writer Denise Mina - and I think her first book.  It's about this woman, Maureen, who wakes up and finds her therapist/boyfriend dead in her living room.  Then she ends up solving the case because the police think she did it.

The interesting thing is that Maureen was formerly quite mentally ill/disturbed.  She was abused as a child and she was institutionalized for a while.  She's mostly totally in control of her faculties now, but she still sees a therapist (or did, until he died) regularly.  She feels this sort of tenuous relationship to her own sanity, particularly when this murder happens.  The way people react to her varies depending on their relationship and whether they knew her during her psychotic period.  I really liked the bits with her family, who are mostly terrible people -there aren't many of those moments and a lot of mystery hangs over that, which I assume is explored in the other books in the series.

Too bad for poor Maureen that there are more books in the series, I guess more people get murdered around her?

It's a quite good first novel and first mystery - it won the John Creasey Memorial Award for Best First Crime Novel award in 1998 when it came out.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dead Yellow Women

I picked up this Dashiell Hammett book called Dead Yellow Women, despite it's terrible title because it had a map of San Francisco on the back and I was feeling a bit homesick.  Also I was hoping the title was ironic or something?  It's not, it's just straight up racist.  I hate reading racist stuff, particularly from writers I like.  It's like watching an old movie you liked as a kid and realizing it's full of casual racism.  Like, Oh great, that Asian kid from Goonies is just a terrible, terrible stereotype and now I hate myself because I didn't notice it before.

I wouldn't recommend it - it's a convoluted mystery that mostly takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown and is really, really dated.