Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Boy Detective Fails

I finally finished Boy Detective Fails, by Chicago writer Joe Meno. I write "finally" because it seemed to take a long time for a book that occasionally has one sentence chapters. It begins with Chapter 31, letting you know right from the get-go that you're in for some po-mo lit (that's if you didn't notice the "note to the astute reader" on the copywrite page: It may be of interest to you to note, for purposes of decoding the hidden story placed within these pages, that A=N.)

I love the heavily footnoted and hidden-notes-in-the-copywrite pages of, for example, Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work of Incredible Genius, or, as the "astute reader" knows, the po-mo stylins' of Pessl's 2006 Special Topics in Calamity Physics, so it was with a bounce in my step that I set off for Boy Detective Fails, which comes complete with a decoder ring in the back, for solving mysteries.

An absolute exercise in the definition of postmodern literature, the short novel deals with existential issues of our times - you know, that things make little sense, that often there are no reasons for the things that happen, that bad things happen to good people (see In the Image, by Dara Horn, for a more in depth analysis), that there really are no easy answers. This is literally spelled out several times throughout the book - for example, in a conversation with a therapist, the doctor says, "The facts. The truth. Life has very little to do with either."

As a boy, the Boy Detective (as he is referred to throughout the book) solved mysteries with his sister and a friend, and, tableau-style, the reader is introduced to this past in the beginning of the book. The Boy Detective and his friends solve cases, accompanied by titles like "Boy Detective Solves Fatal Orphanage Arson." Like the Scooby Doo gang, they follow the clues to their logical conclusion. Later on, the Boy Detective's sister kills herself, and the boy detective attempts to understand what led her to that deed. Naturally, that mystery is less easy to comprehend. The Boy Detective, no longer either boy or detective, is unable to find peace and proceed to the next stage of his life until he embraces mystery and chaos.

I found the distance of the main character quite difficult to deal with, despite his pains and his emotional state, he's difficult to relate to, and frequently I found myself wondering if he was even an actual character at all. Shape poetry, variation in font, text, and style are capably managed and really exciting and interesting, but personally I hope for more emotional resonance, which is frequently lacking in the postmodern expression.

Here's an excerpt.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Best of 2006?

Salon is doing a week of the best books of 2006 - starting today with blurbs from a bunch of writers. I haven't heard of most of the books listed, and, frankly, it reads like a laundry list of authors trying to impress each other with their obscure references. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is mentioned several times. Jennifer Weiner of In Her Shoes writes the following:

For me, 2006 marked the lamentable triumph of style over substance. Designated PYT Marisha Pessl's much-hyped debut came tap-dancing in, all bells and whistles (and footnotes, and illustrations). There may have been a strong brew underneath, but I couldn't get through the froth. [...]

I'll pick two winners: Ken Kalfus' "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," in which a pair of narcissistic New Yorkers have their divorce interrupted by 9/11. Hilarity ensues. And for those who crave a big, sprawling, old-fashioned, romantic tale over the too-cool-for-school po-mo tricks of perspective or punctuation, Stephen King's "Lisey's Story" was a completely ravishing meditation on the thin skin between reality and nightmare, and the mysteries of writing, and of marriage.

Ooo - SNAP! So, she didn't like Special Topics in Calamity Physics! I thought that was rather rich, considering that the best thing about In Her Shoes were the poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Actually, I thank her for the introduction, but I really felt that Weiner was holding back in that book. Parts were quite beautiful, but it was like she was determined to a write a "light" book, it felt groomed for mass-appeal. Possibly this Disorder Peculiar to the Country is worth reading, but I really find it hard to believe that Stephen King's book is (although it surely is big, sprawling and old-fashioned - that's a good thing?) I happen to like too-cool-for-school po-mo "tricks", which is why I'm now reading Boy Detective Fails by Chicago author Joe Meno. It comes with a decoder ring - neat trick!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Childhood reading habits

Please copy and paste this into comments and supply your answers! Mine are below.

1. Did you own any books as a child or rent from the library? What were they?
2. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?
3. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest?
4. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?

1. Did you own any books as a child or rent from the library? What were they?

I had a lot of books, and I also wore out my library card. The books I'm most remember from childhood are all the Dr. Suess books, which my dad used to read to us before we went to bed. Also, I loved this book called A is for Annabelle and Where the Wild Things Are.

2. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?

Oh yes, I read them all over and over again. I think that must be why I remember my childhood books so well, and today, even books that I remember loving, I sometimes can't really remember what they're about, because I don't have time to read them again and again.

3. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest?
Oh, how embarrassing, I think it must be those V.C. Andrews books, and I must have been... I don't know... 7th grade, maybe. And my mom forbid me to read them, because I was having nightmares, but I couldn't resist them (just as Corrine couldn't resist the incestuous love of her brother!) and read them under cover of night.

4. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?
I still love reading "children's" books today - there's Harry Potter, of course, which is great, and I recently read the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials books. And sometimes I read books to my little one year old friend, who's got some very charming infant books, like Goodnight, Gorilla, Goodnight Moon, and one, which I read for the first time just the other night, Jamberry, by Bruce Degan.

Monday, December 04, 2006


LibraryThing has a new feature called the "Unsuggester" - you type in a book you love and it gives you a list of books you're sure to hate. What purpose this might serve I don't really know, but it's kind of interesting. I typed in Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which I'm re-reading right now, and, sure enough, it gave me a list of titles I don't want anything to do with, like books on Jesus and Christianity, a bunch of sci-fi by Herbert and Heinlein, and bad chicklit from Jennifer Crusie.

I also tested out the "Suggester" - or "good" books, according to LibraryThing. Using the same title, I got a list of books including some of my faves, like, Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Frazen's The Corrections, and also books by author's I really enjoy like Arundhati Roy, Ian McEwan and Phillip Roth. It recommends The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I'm crazy about Atwood but I couldn't even finish The Blind Assassin. Surprises were The Accidental by Ali Smith, which looks like teen fiction (one of my fave genres), something called Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and The line of beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, a book I've always been vaguely interested in.

Friday, December 01, 2006

In the Image

I was so captivated by Dara Horn's The World to Come that I ordered her first book, In the Image (2002) the second I finished reading it.

Like The World to Come, In the Image is a thematic book, spanning generations and continents, with each character linked to the other by coincidence, family, or shared experience. One of the characters, Bill Landsmann, an elderly gentleman from Vienna, a Jewish man, "who should be dead" has a vast collection of slides - and the reader is treated to a description of his collection. But more than an art history lesson, Horn focuses on the issue of images - a concept of visual representation that deserves some further thought.

Deep into my own master's program in art history, I was having a discussion with my sister about art, and she interrupted me to say, "Why do you keep calling everything 'images'?" And I laughed and told her it was a snooty technicality - that, for example, if I were in class talking about, say, The Mona Lisa, and there was a slide of the Mona Lisa, what I was referring to was actually an image of the Mona Lisa, not THE Mona Lisa, the work of art. ("Work" of art, by the way, is beset by it's own set of snooty technicalities - ie. what is the "work"? The end product, the art? Or the process of creation?) Furthermore, even the actual Mona Lisa, the one hanging in the Louvre, is itself an image of an actual woman (well, you know, supposedly. Ok, say I'm talking about C├ęzanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire...).

Horn rather brilliantly returns to the inherent questions regarding the definition of the "image" and also inserts another aspect of the image's misleading qualities - that it presents a moment, and what comes before and what comes after may or may not be available. Her characters are stuck in images, or rather, images are stuck in her characters. Bill Landsmann is practically ruled by his collection of images, his stake in their cataloguing and controlled viewing is tied to his own carefully constructed memory of events. Other characters are also haunted by the image of moments that have changed or altered their lives, but to the point that they loose sight of the complexity of events that lead to these single moments. Therefore the falsified simplicity of the image occasionally leads characters to remain "stuck" in the image, unable to emotionally move beyond that moment.

Another theme of In the Image is the story of Job, from the Hebrew Bible. As Horn says in an interview in the back of the paperback:
What intrigued me most, though, was what I saw as the ultimate question of the book of Job. The book asks the question that so many people ask themselves: Why do bad things happen to good people? But as I read the book again and again, I decided that this question was mis-leading. To me, the central question of the Book of Job isn't that common questions - which, after all, can't really be answered and isn't answered at all in the book of Job - but rather: Are people "good" to begin with, or are they shaped by their experiences? What makes "bad things" important isn't whether they happen to you or to someone else because that's not your decision. What makes them important is the part that's your decision: what you do with them once they've happened.

Horn easily moves her narrative between time and space - some characters exist in the turn of the century in Manhattan, others in pre-WWII Amsterdam, others in WWI in the trenches, still others in today's New York and New Jersey. But Horn also allows her characters to live in dreams and fantasies; she's an innovative writer that even alters her narrative style to recall ancient Jewish texts:
19. And the father of William Landsmann also heeded not the cry of his wife, and he allowed her to perish, 20. and thus did William Landsmann's mother perish when William Landsmann was a young boy, 21. but William Landsmann did not curse God. 22. And William Landsmann was uprooted from his native land, and uprooted again, 23. And upon reaching the land of New Jersey, William Landsmann's father took his life, leaving William Landsmann alone, with neither mother nor father.

I find Horn's book (alas! There are only two!) so inspiring - she makes me want to pull out my dusty Bible and rethink parables, she makes me want to sign up for a class at a synagog, she makes me, yes... want to be a better person.