Posts Categorized: Books

Review: Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

I've been sitting here trying to think of smart things to say about David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It's not that I can't think of things to say, but it's that I can't narrow it down to one pithy comment that sums up exactly what I want to communicate. Instead, I'll say, Cloud Atlas is:

  • Dreamy
  • Layered
  • Complex
  • Interconnected
  • Creative
  • Risky
  • Beautiful
  • Sad
  • Hopeful
  • Constructive postmodern
  • Introspective
  • Adventure
  • Science Fiction
  • Literary
  • Mystery
  • Genre crossing
  • Futurist
  • Smart

That works better than a blurb. It's a messy novel and deserves a messy description. And yes, I mean that in the best way possible. If Cloud Atlas is all of these things, then what is Cloud Atlas?
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Interactive Novels – Frankenstein from Inkle Studios

I’ve long had a fondness for Choose Your Own Adventure books. As a kid, I’d sit on the floor, mesmerized by the pulpy covers and unknown outcomes. The storylines were simple and similar to Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Unlike a cartoon though, it was me in the story, imagined through a second-person perspective and the endings were often gruesome. Shaggy and Scooby would never be impaled through the chest by a Native American spear, or die of thirst, alone in the desert while vultures spiraled in the sky.

Interactive texts are not new, but the technology with which to create them is changing. Inkle has a service called Inkle Writer, where people can create their own interactive texts. It’s slick. It’s intuitive. You should have some fun with it. How they’re delivering these texts is also new. No more worn covers and marking decisions with multiple fingers. Currently, they’ve taken an interactive story by Dave Morris based on Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, and created a beautiful app, available through iOS. It’s engaging, it’s fun and it is yet another example of how technology is changing writing and publishing. Further, it leads to the following question: is a writer who creates an app for their work a novelist or a developer?

To hear more from Dave Morris and this latest creation that exists among us, check out his interview on Here and Now.

Publishing: William Gass Interview Regarding Abstractions Arrive as an iBook

William Gass’ new book is only available through iBooks.

There’s a wonderful introduction and interview with William H. Gass titled “A Champion of the Book Takes to the iPad” on the NYTimes Bits Blog. The interview focuses on the new book, Abstractions Arrive, which was published by Stephen Schenkenberg who also runs the website Reading William Gass, and the decision to make it an electronic book exclusively through iBooks.

The interview is interesting because of Gass’ past comments and criticisms involving the Internet and the role of the book. His perspective is dead on and humorous, especially his response to readers needing a $500 device. “That’s your problem, not mine!”

Review: Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

Exclamation points, like so many symbols, have a specific function and many unintentional meanings. Technically, an exclamation point is a sudden cry or yell that can be full of emotions ranging from anger to excitement. However, exclamation points are the all-caps-email of punctuation. They often feel out-of-place and come across as unnecessary yelling, like that email from an aged relative that says, HOW IS LIFE IN THE BIG CITY? CAN'T WAIT FOR YOU TO VISIT. THE TURTLES MISS YOU. Of course, there is the ironic exclamation point in names like Yahoo! and Swamplandia!, but really, beyond an exclamation, what is the point?

All this is to say, readers, beware. Take one look at the exclamation point after Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and turn back, because nothing on this trip through the Floridian swamp can save you.
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Review: Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

If you listen to NPR, then interviews with Jonathan Franzen may have wormed their way into your consciousness as he hit every talkshow, selling his book, Freedom. If you don't listen to NPR, Freedom was a book written by Jonathan Franzen, published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux under the Picador imprint. The novel revolves around a Midwestern family, the Berglund's, and chronicles the ways in which they break apart and come together. Imagine the ways lakes thaw and refreeze in the north, that's a good metaphor for the Berglund's. In subject manner, the American Midwestern family under pressure, it's similar to The Corrections.

Obviously, due to the title, it's clear that freedom is explored in the novel. Also, competitiveness is another concept developed in the pages. What does freedom mean? How is freedom given? How does freedom develop? We are a nation that holds freedom as sacred even though we look the other way as freedom is restricted. Freedom taken to the extreme is lawlessness or anarchy. When children are given the freedom to be who they want to be, that doesn't mean they will be the people their parents wish them to be. That is the case for Walter and Patty's son Joey.

Joey grabs for his freedom and challenges his parent's authority from the outset in Freedom. His parents try to stop it, but aren't supportive of one another. On the one hand, they love seeing their child so independent and grown up. On the other hand, they hate being challenged and not needed. To make things worse is the competition, which develops between Patty and Walter.

How do you win in a marriage? Or for that matter, how do you win as a parent? When someone is ultra-competitive and then moves out of that environment, how do they cope? Patty was a star basketball player who sustains a career-ending injury. In order to compete with her sisters and parents back east, she decides to settle into the role of homemaker and mother. It goes against the feminist, high-achieving ideals of her family and one way to win is to compete for a different prize. While Patty is not engaged in the arts, like her sisters, she has a husband, a beautiful home, and two children: things which signify success in many parts of the country. Still, this need for competition evolves as Patty wants to be the parent who is most loved by her children. She doesn't back up Walter. She indulges Joey's misbehavior. Patty gets the kids to laugh at Walter. In that way, she seems similar to Gary's wife in The Corrections.

This competition is what drives the family apart. Joey, realizing his relationship with his mother is not normal, moves out and on with his life. Facing that defeat, the family soon moves to D.C. The signs of Patty's success have all been torn down. Throw in a love triangle with a rockstar friend and things become even more complicated.

Richard Katz, the rockstar, is the other main component in the book. While the novel is about Walter, Patty, and to an extent their children (Jessica is more like an afterthought compared to Joey), it's also about Walter and Patty's relationship with Richard. Walter and Richard love each other and compete with one another. For Richard, women and music come easy. He's handsome, a jerk, and seems to have no problem talking women into bed and then leaving. It drives Walter crazy, but he loves his friend. He also wants to do better than his friend and sees a chance by becoming involved with a billionaire who wants to establish a non-profit, under Walter's leadership, to provide habitat in West Virginia for the Cerulean Warbler. The only catch is that before the nature preserve is established, the coal will be mined. In addition to the close friendship between the two men, Patty also loves Richard and is lusted after by Richard. As things disintegrate, it's unclear if anyone will make it out of the relationship unscathed. This is especially true as Walter becomes obsessed with removing "feral cats" from the environment around his cabin.

Freedom is a wonderfully rich novel. The characters are complex, interesting, and the writing is superb. This book is definitely one to read.

Books Read in 2011

Last year, I set the goal of reading 30 books, and somehow managed to surpass that goal, by reading 40 books. The books are listed, more or less, in chronological order from most recently read.

So, in looking back at the past year of reading, what stands out? How best to categorize or discuss the books? There’s always the easy “best” and “worst” categories, but that may not be very helpful.

Strangest Book: The winner of that prize goes to Kangaroo Notebook by Kōbō Abe. Kangaroo Notebook is a surreal narrative about a man who starts to turn into a radish. It’s creative, bizarre, and sad. I really enjoyed reading it.

Most Overhyped: Hands down this award goes to 1Q84. There was so much buzz around the book and it seemed like people were scared to say aloud that the book(s) wasn’t good. Murakami is repetitive and narrative meanders around for pages upon pages. All around, 1Q84 was a huge disappointment.

Most Unsettling: For this category, Point Omega by Don DeLillo edges out Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam. While Lamb leaves the reader complicit in a dark story, Point Omega stands the reader next to the faceless anonymity of terror. The unknown is more terrible than the known.

Favorite Author: Last year was the first time I read anything by Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections was wonderful and I’m currently reading Freedom and love it.

Least Memorable: The winner is Blackout by Connie Willis. This was the first and last book I’ve read by Willis. Plot holes, generic characters, bad writing, you name it, and Blackout suffered from it. I randomly grabbed this during lunch one day when I was between books. Almost forgot I read it.

Uncategorized: 2666 is one of those books that’s tough to place in a category. It was challenging and made me think. The story went all over the place. At times, the writing was sharp and then it would wander all over the page. Compared to 1Q84, it was wonderful, but again, the novel is so sprawling it’s hard to see how everything relates.

Most Enjoyable: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. The writing was spectacular and it felt like a complete novel.

If you want to look at the other books, which I didn’t mention, scroll down the list and click on the reviews. Other books, which I didn’t spend time on, but were wonderful include: The Sleepwalker at Sea, Blink, and The Windup Girl (this book may especially appeal to readers who liked Margaret Atwood’s novels The Year of the Flood, and Oryx and Crake). Also, if you have any suggestions of books to read in 2012, let me know.

  1. Temperance: Malkasian, Cathy
  2. The Sleepwalker at Sea: Grovier, Kelly
  3. A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5): Martin, George R.R.
  4. Lamb: Nadzam, Bonnie
  5. 1Q84: Murakami, Haruki
  6. The Warsaw Anagrams: Zimler, Richard
  7. Blackout (All Clear, #1): Willis, Connie
  8. The Oregon Experiment: Scribner, Keith
  9. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: McCullers, Carson
  10. Laughing Whitefish: Traver, Robert
  11. The Solitude of Prime Numbers: Giordano, Paolo
  12. Mademoiselle Fifi And Other Stories: Maupassant, Guy de
  13. You are Not a Gadget: Lanier, Jaron
  14. Blink: Gladwell, Malcolm
  15. The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2): Rothfuss, Patrick
  16. The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes: Silber, Joan
  17. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook: Shteyngart, Gary
  18. The Corrections: Franzen, Jonathan
  19. Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: Kenrick, Douglas T.
  20. While the Women Are Sleeping: Marías, Javier
  21. The Haunting of Hill House: Jackson, Shirley
  22. The Book of Bunny Suicides: Riley, Andy
  23. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: Jones, Diana Wynne
  24. The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1): Fforde, Jasper
  25. A Visit from the Goon Squad: Egan, Jennifer
  26. Kitchen: Yoshimoto, Banana
  27. Hardboiled and Hard Luck: Yoshimoto, Banana
  28. Great House: Krauss, Nicole
  29. The Windup Girl: Bacigalupi, Paolo
  30. Unseen Academicals (Discworld, #37): Pratchett, Terry
  31. Kangaroo Notebook: Abe, Kōbō
  32. The Left Bank Gang: Jason
  33. The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye: Revell, Donald
  34. I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld, #38): Pratchett, Terry
  35. 2666: Bolaño, Roberto
  36. The Walking Dead, Book Two: Kirkman, Robert
  37. The Walking Dead, Book Three: Kirkman, Robert
  38. The Walking Dead, Book One: Kirkman, Robert
  39. Point Omega: DeLillo, Don
  40. City of Glass: Auster, Paul