Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Good German by Joseph Kanon

I wrote a couple paragraphs, summarizing this book, but scrapped them when I realized that they made The German Sound sound interesting. This is the first book that I have read this year that I truly disliked. It was such a waste of my time. Kanon relied much too heavily on sub-par dialogue to progress the plot. His characters were either stiff or incredibly clichéd...some managed to be both.

When I was about halfway through I realized that I didn't care at all what happened in the rest of the book. I just wanted it to be over. When I finally did get to the ending, it was extremely predictable and boring. There is no reason that you should ever read this book. And I heard the movie based on the book was also awful.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Barrel Fever by David Sedaris

I have had a few people tell me that of Sedaris' books, this is their least favorite. Some described it as "not nearly as good as his other books," or stated that it "mostly sucks." That is very likely the reason that I waited so long to read it. After completing Barrel Fever, I can now say two things: 1.) I have read all of Sedaris' books, and 2.) the people who told me that this book was not good were just wrong.

Barrel Fever is split up into two parts. Short stories make up the first section, which is about three fourths of the book. The last fourth is essays, what have now become the standard fair of Sedaris. While the essays were good, I particularly enjoyed the short stories, especially "Glen's Homophobia Newletter Vol. 3, No. 2," "Don's Story," and "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!"

Published in 1994, Barrel Fever was Sedaris' first book. Naked was the follow-up, and it contained no short stories. Since these stories were obviously completely fictional, they allowed Sedaris to create some interesting characters and situations that he isn't normally able to deal with. I would be interested in why he stopped including short stories in his books.

Barrel Fever did not disappoint in the slightest.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Mission Song by John le Carré

I wasn't going to count this book because I didn't actually read it. I listened to part of it while driving home from New Orleans, and the rest while driving home from Atlanta. But Brent made a convincing argument for my counting it.

I must confess that the name John le Carré meant nothing to me prior to this book. I have since been informed that he was written quite a few well-known spy novels, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Constant Gardener, The Tailor of Panama, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The Mission Song is told in first person past tense, by Bruno Salvo, a top-class interpreter who works for the British Secret Service. Born in the Congo, he now resides in London and is married -- although not happily -- to a prominent tabloid journalist. As the son of an Irish Catholic priest and a Congolese woman, Salvo is somewhat of an outcast. He knows many Congolese languages, as well as French and Enlgish., making him a valuable asset to the secret service.

The story that Salvo recounts is one of political machinations. An unknown entity -- it is hinted that it is some American corporation -- has arranged talks between the various ethnic groups within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the stated purpose of brokering peace that would be economically beneficial to all involved parties. But as the summit progresses, Salvo begins to suspect that instead of peace, the goal is really to spark a civil war in the Congo. He realizes that he must do what he can to stop this from happening.

I don't particularly like audiobooks. I think the medium only works well in a small number of cases. Books of essays, such as the works of David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell, work well. Memoirs too. However, the novels that I have listened to have lost something in the translation. John le Carré is a good writer, but I found it harder to appreciate his writing when it was read to me. I plan on actually reading one of his other books.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Every Boy by Dana Adam Shapiro

"For his fifth birthday Henry got two presents that would come to shape his soul. From Dad, a bean-stuffed cow that went moo when squeezed. Henry called it Moo. From Mom he got an inner voice, a grand and booming yes man for each of his stooped shoulders. Gift-wrapped in silver, Great Ovations was a forty-five-minute record filled with nothing but applause from "major moments" of the twentieth century. There was no context for the claps—it could have been a Puccini encore, Willie Mays on the fly in center field, hails for the Führer in Berlin. What difference did it make? The message never muddled, and while Dad thought it was coddling and hollow and bad for a growing boy’s spine, Henry fell asleep to it every night for three years. He even carried a dubbed cassette in his knapsack just in case he needed exaltation on the go."

I'm sorry for being MIA. After not being able to sit through more than twenty pages of the last several books I tried to read (John Crow's Devil, The Edible Woman, While I Was Gone, ect.) I finally found one that grabbed me.

Our main character, Henry Every, is dead. Left behind is his ledger, all entries color coded by category for their subject matter. He’s fifteen, spunkier than even the Holdens of the literary world could hope to be, and maybe a little crazy. Mostly endearing, though, I’d say. Since he grew up listening to the Great Ovations tape during all of his minor moments of triumph it's no wonder that he brings so much drama and self reflection to the plate. We’re guided through the story by Henry’s father Harlan, a man plagued by loneliness with a strange affinity for jellyfish who is both trying to cope with the death of his son and smooth out some major character flaws.

I think what resonated with me the most is how Henry captured the way one experiences being in a constant state of observation with others and the world but not being able to really connect with those people/things that one is observing. Henry articulated those feelings of detachment and longing in a way that seemed very real and very wise for a boy so young. It seems that no matter where he is, he feels displaced. Who doesn’t feel that way at fifteen? Who doesn’t sometimes feel that way now? While I was mostly drawn to Henry's story as he was much more likeable than Harlan, I got rather tangled up in the subplot with what happened with his parents, as well.

I don’t want to give anything away because I think that you should read it yourself. However, I will say this... It has Santeria, teenage death, breaking and entering, a Bulimic dad, family secrets, a girl with one hand, young love, an adventure to New York, and some pretty crazy schemes. Also, Amy Sedaris was a fan, and if you won’t take my word for it you’ll probably take hers. Right? (Speaking of which, I need to to write up I Like You: Hospitality Under The Influence, but I'm not sure her kind of cookbook/rambling counts.)

The author is the filmmaker responsible for bringing us Murderball. He’s currently working on a film adaptation of The Every Boy due out two years from now.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Identify the Book

"So, you boys want to help me on another case?" Fenton Hardy, internationally known detective, smiled at his teenage sons.

"Dad, you said you're working on a very mysterious case right now," Frank spoke up. "Isn't there some angle of it that Joe and I could tackle?"

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie

The A.B.C Murders was recommended to me by a friend, and it did not disappoint. It was my introduction to Hercule Poirot. For some reason it took me a very long time to get through this relatively short novel. I don't think that is a reflection on the book as much as it a reflection on my mental state at the time. I hit a little bit of a reading lull for a week or two. I think I am through it now. But please keep me in your thoughts.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

When I read Nabokov's books, I can't help but feel that the whole thing is a big joke somehow and I'm at the butt of it. I said that to someone the other day and they sort of twisted up their face like the thought of reading such a book was disgusting, but I don't really mean it in a bad way; in fact, to the contrary, I love the way Nabokov plays games with his reader's minds.

Pale Fire might be, at its heart, a colossal bait-and-switch, but that doesn't make it any less awesome: The heart of the book is a 999-pp. poem supposedly written by one John Shade, poet and professor at Wordsmith College in a town called New Wye. The commentary, which takes up the bulk of the book, is by his friend and colleague Charles Kinbote, who, instead of providing any meaningful commentary on the poem (which is a solid but unspectacular autobiographical treatise focusing on death and loss), finds any slight excuse to go off on tangents about the story of exiled Zemblan king Charles Xavier, a story which he claims provided the inspiration for the poem. King Charles Xavier, we come to understand quite quicky, is actually Kinbote, and the recent death of John Shade has occurred at the hands of the king's would-be assassin.

Schools of thought have cropped up about the novel; Shadeans believe that Kinbote is a creation of Shade, and Kinboteans vice versa. Some believe that the whole thing is made up by a minor character in the book, a Professor Botkin (whose name anagrams nearly to Kinbote), a theory that Nabokov himself has supported. But of course, this is the bait and the switch: Shade and Kinbote aren't creations of each other; they're fictitious--they are creations of Nabokov. The whole argument is the perpetuation of Nabokov's joke, because at no meaningful level can one claim that either character is more "real" than the other.

Pale Fire has been called Nabokov's masterpiece. While it certainly provided some excellent mental calisthenics, it's hard to speak of it in the same breath as Lolita when it lacks so much of that book's haunting beauty. There's a lot of depth in Shade's work and in his depiction as a character in the commentary, but--true to the book's central questions concerning surface realities--it is difficult to extricate Shade's wisdom from the kind of academic pretension that pervades his relationship with Kinbote. Pale Fire may be one of a kind, but Lolita is the better book.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

There are some truly remarkable things about Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, a novel about a young Nebraska man named Mark Schluter who is in a horrible car crash and develops a rare psychological condition known as Capgras syndrome, which causes him to believe his sister has been replaced by a high-quality duplicate. Upon this background Powers has free license to wonder aloud about the nature of the self, its messiness, its unity, its mere existence. And his description of the Nebraska marsh even makes it seem mildly pleasant.

But there's a lot of flaws to The Echo Maker I simply couldn't get over: It's long, ponderous beginning, Mark's clumsy blue-collar gratingness, the completely unsatisfying solution to the big mysteries that surround Mark's accident. The Echo Maker seems much better in concept than solution, and while it has a heap of interesting things to say, Powers' attempts at spicing up the plot with intrigue fall surprisingly flat.