this is my space to review the books i'm reading. and basicly to show off my extensive knowlege of literature and elitism founded there on.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What is the What - Dave Eggers

This book was amazing. Now anyone who knows me is not suprissed by this declaration. Mr. Eggers could spit on a piece of notebook paper and I would think it was one of the most stunning thing ever written. With my initial declaration aside I will defend my position (though there are those out there who have already made the inverse opinion of Mr. Eggers and who find him to be pretentious and obnoxious, I don't entirely disagree, I just find that I have a certain appetite for his brand of literary neurosis) so on to the novel it's self.
as you may have read elsewhere this is a fictionalized (though I feel not so much in content as in arrangement and wording of it) account of one of the "lost boys" of Sudan. It follows his sojourn as one of the many unaccompanied boys fleeing Sudan's civil war and his experiences in the various refuge camps. It also, though to a lesser degree, follows his experiences in the US, both positive and negative. I'm going to critique the two elements separately, first and much more briefly the content, and second the style and structure, in an effort to separate the contributions of the subject and the author.
first of the subject Valentino Achak Deng, his story is one that could definitely be called harrowing. His experiences as a victim of the Sudanese civil war are heartbreaking. Both because of the terrible things that happen to him and because of the lack of control he has on his situation. Both sides of the civil war raging around him seam to take things from him and add to his struggles while claiming to be either fighting for him or to be his governmental protector. His and the rest of the boys long trip is filled with starvation, death, and uncertainty and a host of other tortures. But one of the things that make this story even more interesting is the small moments of fun and happiness that Valentino is afforded, it turns this from an overwhelmingly depressing tale to one where even in the face of grulling struggle we can see a few of the familiar joys of childhood, adding a small lining of hope onto what could other whise be a tale of almost complete despair.
as for Mr. Eggers treatment of the story. I think he takes the elements of Vaentino's story and arranges them quite effectively. The majority of the story is told as a silent declaration to the people in Valenitno's life in Atlanta. The initial encounter in the book is of Achak being robbed, and while bound on the floor with a child guarding him, he starts to tell us his story. He tries to absolve the criminals and later the unaware and unhelpful by telling them that they would not add to his suffering if they knew what he had seen. This format really works to combine the two deferent stories, the trials in Sudan and experiences in the US. It weaves together the tragic journey with the struggle to make something of it here, with meeting and committees and phone calls and organizations. Also Mr. Eggers does a great job of hillighting those small moments of Achak's childhood that weren't terrible, he shows us that beneath the awful treatment there were still moments where things were possable, a feeling that makes the struggle less tortures.
I feel like this is the book that he was trying to write when he wrote "You Shall Know Our velocity" but didn't have the plot for. A work to both apologize to the world for being as well of as he is and a way to try and take that liberal guilt and make something of it. But with this book he not only has the desire to but also the story, something that makes this book work as both a great work of fiction and as a vital work of journalism. Rather a nifty post-modern trick.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem

i really enjoyed this book. the writing style is amazing, he uses very creative metaphors and his use of point of view is very skillful. he can bounce from following the main character to a beautify detached and poetic voice following the two fathers in the story or one of the other boys. the story follows a boy named Dylan (yes named after that Dylan) growing up in the 70 in a less then nice section of Brooklyn (one not that far from where i live now, and on that is much more upscale then it was back in the 70s). we also see his relationships with his father and the other kids in his neighborhood most of whom are black or Hispanic, there is also the relationship between him and his father a very emotionally distant artist and his vanished mother. the most important relationship and the one that is the driving force of the book is the relationship with the half-black son of the former soul singer who moves in on his block near the beginning of the novel, Mingus Rude. these two boys have a relationship that transcends the black/white border in a time when that was a real challenge and is Dylan's most important relationship with anyone in his life.
what i like is that the three boys that Dylan interacts with the most are really good symbols for groups of people without becoming stereotypes or caricatures. they also remind me a lot of the people i knew growing up in a mostly minority area. of course it wasn't the 70 so there was a lot more integration and less obvious racism when i was growing up, but many of the same kinds of reactions to race relations were around when i was young. there were a lot of kids who were like Robert the tough kid who is on his way to becoming the bad example of what can happen to kids who are preemptively treated like the criminals they could become. he terrorizes Dylan and corrupts Mingus. there is also the character of Arthur the white kid who starts to fall into black culture to protect himself. kids like these were why my elementary and middle school years were so bad, kids who are tougher then kids should be at that age and feel the need to prove it. guys like Arthur were in some ways worse for me, they felt the need to take out there rage on me and never let me live down the fact that i couldn't blend in like them. but for Dylan there is Mingus who acts as a safety net and protective barrier between the two others. Mingus represents an in between space, an idea that helps tie the novel together.
along with the deft portrayal of youth and race there is an element of fantasy worked into the novel in the form of a super powered ring. an object that as it enters Dylan's life is a sort of emblem of the terrible situation of the Brooklyn in the 1970s. it is originally the possession of a homeless and possibly mentally ill man. the only object the man has left he gives to Dylan who uses it throughout his life to explore and try to effect the world around him especially in relation to race and drugs. it is also the thing that connects him to Mingus, even when time and situation separate them. the ring seams to have powers, early on it allows him to fly (and Mingus as well as Robert) sequences that skim the line between reality and fantasy. incorporating a child like belief in superheros and the ability to overcome your position in life to find or make a better place for yourself.
ultimately this is the central theme of the novel. these places that exist between extremes, the mini glimpses of utopia that pass like the eye of a storm. the idyllic space between poverty and gentrification, the line between R&B and Punk that Dylan dances on. and of course the relationship between white and black boys from Brooklyn.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Trouble - Patrick Somerville

This was by no means the best book I’ve ever read. But it did try very hard, and not in the awful "look at me I’m an awesome postmodernist writer using trippy metaphors and creepy plot devices" it was more like a "ooooh, look at me I can be really good I swear, yea I know the plot of that last story was a little underdeveloped but there was some great imagery in there"
I really wanted to like this book more. I read the first few pages of the advanced reader copy we had at work on my break and thought it was quite good so I brought it home. It took me forever to finish reading it mostly because I started to read Infinite Jest. But I now that I have finished it I’m a little disappointed, but I do think that if he keeps writing he could be a really good writer this book of short stories had a lot of good material in it but I don't think it was polished enough.
Most of these stories involve men and boys of varying ages dealing with changes and problems in their own ways, allot of them are slightly off of reality in that way that is favored by the current literary establishment (and I admit I too like it). But where they are it doesn't work quite as well as some of the more established or talented writers use it. In one story the narrator is visited by an English cousin, whom he has never heard of before and no one is able to sufficiently explain to him. Unfortunately most of the story involves the use of British stereotypes and the narrator's amusing torture of his inexplicable cousin. This was at least amusing and there was some interesting development of the narrator's superiority complex in relation to the cousin and women but I couldn't help feeling that the author was trying to set up some kind of metaphor for something with the international relationship and it just fell flat, or maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention.
The best of these short stories were about the teenage boys trying to cope with adolescence and transition out of child hood. The first story, Puberty, contrasts that with the boy's father struggling with adulthood and his inability to connect with his son. it is a touching and strange story and he really captures the voice of this kid and of his father and successfully conveys that they have more in common then either of them realize and that in their own way this communication barrier is a kind of communication among men at delicate stages in their live. Sort of the idea that silence can say more then words at some times.
All of the stories in this collection are interesting and show a definite level of potential and I look forward to his next offering. I hope he can show off more of his skill and interesting sense of humor without leaving out as much of the substance and flow as he did in this set of stories.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

Ok, first thing's first, the ending sucks. It’s flat out horrible. Not so much because of the content of the ending but because it just sort of stops (though to his credit at least this book doesn't stop in mid sentence like Broom of the System does) you spend over a month reading an amazing, complicated, and intelligent book and it ends with almost negative resolution. My bigger problem wasn't just that the ending was terrible, it was that I knew it was going to be bad. This is the third of Mr. Wallace's books that I have read (two were short stories (though some of those short stories were upwards of 80 or 90 pages) and the third was the afore mentioned novel) so I was painfully aware at his complete lack of endings. So that kind of tainted my experience of the novel but up until the final stretch it doesn’t become a problem its only when you see the pages get closer to the end and get less and less resolution that you start to worry about how the end will turn out, and when you finally get there you are in no way happy by what greets you.
For a book that is half as long as the bible (at least the penguin classic version that I shelved at work the other day) you would expect something more. And you aren’t disappointed in any other part of the book but the ending. There are at least 50 characters in this novel, and entirely original and absurdly intricate alternate history/future, several different locations, and a plot that if you tried to visually represent would look like a Ven diagram on speed and E (which I’m suppressed wasn't a character in the book).
As far as why this book is so amazing.
First there is the incredibly convoluted plot that I can't imagine one person could keep track of let alone actually construct into a cohesive novel. As I’m sure you can read anywhere this book is sold or reviewed it centers on the intermingled lives of the residents of a drug halfway house and the nearby tennis academy. The two main characters (though there are often large stretches where neither of them appear) would be Don G. a former resident and current safer of the halfway house and Hal the son of the recently deceased founder of the tennis academy. As the main focus of this novel is addiction we follow these two lives as they deal with both recovering from and starting to worry about substances and their own personal relationships to them. All while a mysterious organization of wheelchair bound Canadians and US government agents attempt to track down and use a lethally entertaining movie, which shares the title of the novel.
One of my favorite things about this novel is that while these three rather large main plots are developing we get to learn an immense amount about the multitude of supporting characters some of them even becoming their own protagonists of mini-novels within the main story's architecture. Really the biggest strength of this big book is it's ability to take on new stories and give them full and detailed attention while never feeling like you've started a different book. Also each one of these characters has their own voices and interesting history's and complicated issues with addiction and psychological needs. Along with these personal histories there is detailed and amusingly convoluted imagined history of the US and Canadian relations and the implosion of the advertising industry that says more about current political /economic trends then some things that were written yesterday.
There is also some brilliant use of language in this book. Sentences that go on for days that have the comedic timing of a master and could be hung in the louvre. He completely inverts cliché’s and seems to invent not just a complete world with it's own history and citizens but their own language. I’m worried I’m going to start using expressions like Howling Fantods and De-Mapping in conversation and people are going to look at me like I’ve taken too much DMZ. He uses these words which such art that for a while I thought that they were real slang that I had just never heard of before (I’m still not entirely convinced there not). At the same time he can effortlessly defend and explain his characters word choices and particular vocabulary quirks (including a character who is the founder of a Militant Grammarian organization) the only reason I could think of that I shouldn’t have read this book is that I don’t think I have an even distant-outside-shot in the dark-like chance at ever writing like this. But hopefully my endings won’t suck so much.

So other then my issues with the ending there are only a few problems I have with this book. One, I should not have lugged it around the UK with me, originally a good idea. Do some vacation reading, finish reading a book I’ve been wanting to read, Etc. unfortunately it is a difficult book to both carry and read in the haphazard way one must read on a vacation. So that really has very little to do with the book and more to do with my poor planning vis-a-vi vacation and literature. And my second problem which might actually out weigh my less then satisfied with the ending problem is the complete and utter disregard the man has for paragraphs. There would be paragraphs that would just go on and on for pages like a wall of words never ceasing. Part of why it was so difficult to read casually (though there were a multitude of factors on that one) but mostly just really intimidating and exhausting. The story would plow ahead never allowing you to catch your emotional or mental breath. Spiraling around through the different characters and locations and moods and paralyzingly brilliant sentences without a pause to reflect on them for pages at a time. He uses every centimeter of page space and fills it with a waterfall of some of the most brilliant prose I have ever read.

In short if you have a spare two months with nothing to do read this book. But bring some aspirin and a dictionary, and get ready for a sucky ending.