Posts Categorized: Novel Reviews

Review: Wild At Heart – Barry Gifford

Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford is a slim novel that revels in dialogue.  At times, it’s hard to read because everything is spoken in a trashy Southern colloquial way.  The scenes are broken out with their own titles, and some of them could almost stand on their own.  It took me a little while to get into, to become familiar with the language, and the style, but once I did, I really enjoyed the book.

The story follows two young lovers who go on the run across the South.  Sailor Ripley has just gotten out of prison for manslaughter, and Lula Pace Fortune has hooked  up with him again against her mother’s wishes.  What follows is a meandering road trip as the two try to evade the law and their own instincts.  Sailor and Lula will jump off the page and leave you gasping to catch up.

2666 on Pause

I’ve read the first section (The Critics) of Robert Bolaño‘s novel 2666  and enjoyed it.  That part of the novel revolves around four scholars who focus on a German writer named Benno von Archimboldi.  Beyond being friends and scholars of the same area, a complex relationship develops between the three men and the one woman.  All of the men are in love with the woman, and in some kind affair.  Now that I’ve finished this section, I’m at the section focused on a character named Amalfitano.  While the writing is good, I’m less captured by the narrative at this point.  2666 may linger for a while as a result, somewhere on a bookshelf in the sunroom, waiting for me to return.

Review: Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart – The Condensed Version

Sometimes, I write brief book reviews for the library’s magazine, Off the Shelf.  Here’s my last post condensed down to something which can be used.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is an over-the-top satire that seizes on consumerism, digital dependence, sexuality, politics and privacy. Set in a dystopian near future United States governed by a single Bipartisan party and corporate interests like LandOLakesGMFordCredit, Lenny Abramov, an out of touch salesrep of eternal life falls in love with a young woman, Eunice Park, who is a product of this post-literate generation. Patched together from diary and email entries, the novel follows Lenny and Eunice’s super-sad attempt at love as the country and culture slide into decay and bankruptcy. Dark, humorous, and imaginative, Super Sad True Love Story offers a glimpse of our future as cast in a funhouse mirror.
New York : Random House, c2010.

Review: Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart

First off, if you have any interest in reading Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, do not read Lenny Hearts Eunice from the New Yorker.  Unlike most excerpts, Lenny Hearts Eunice is compiled from chunks of prose cut from the first 120 pages of the novel.  It works, and it’s okay, but it makes reading the novel a little frustrating.  I began to think, do I even need to read these parts, he’s condensed 120 pages into 10?  Of course, the novel is far richer and provides more context for Lenny’s life and the United States.  Stick to the novel.  Skip the story/excerpt.

That said, Super Sad True Love Story is a cutting satire on American culture and youth.  Shteyngart takes on our growing obsession with technology (think iPhones, iPads, and GlobalTeens) and the distance that has sprung up between people as they remain digitally connected at all times.  People rarely talk face to face.  Verballing makes them uncomfortable.  Instead, they’re focused on their äppärät, streaming their life, scanning data, reducing everything to bits of information and commerce.  Not only do äppäräti allow the user to scan data, but the devices also transmit data.  Privacy is further reduced in this version of the United States by credit poles, streetlamp type structures which broadcast your credit score and thus societal ranking to everyone.

In Shteyngart’s world the explicit is made mundane.  Women wear sheer, skintight jeans called Onion Skins that are translucent, underwear with a release button called Total Surrender, and nipple-less bras.  People also shop at stores with names like AssLuxury and JuicyPussy.  In this total consumer oriented culture, the only things that are taboo tend to be things like emotions and books.  Everything is on the surface, and nothing is really noticed.  People work in Media, Credit, or Retail and rank their fuckability and personality scores against those of the strangers around them.

It’s in this world we find Lenny, a man who loves books, is about to turn forty, and works for the Post-Human Services Division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation with the expressed purpose of living forever.  Lenny meets and falls in love with Eunice, who is 15 years younger than him and a total product of her generation.  As the government of the United States under the direction of the fascist Bipartisan party (Democrats and Republicans finally admit they have no differences) begins to crumble and the country sinks into devaluation, Lenny and Eunice try to survive.  Funny, dark, and imaginative Super Sad True Love Story is not to be missed.

Review: The Same River Twice – Ted Mooney

The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney begs you to put it down.  It’s a convoluted plot that relies on the reader not really questioning how interconnected all of these people and events are, but to merely accept them and trust as the main characters Odile and Max trust in each other.  What spurs the reader to continue are the characters, even though they are clunky fixtures banging around Paris who never truly become believable.  It’s hard to take a character named Groot very seriously, especially when it brings to mind a certain slow-witted barbarian.

The characters:
Max: Husband to Odile, and small, but successful film maker, American expat.
Odile: Wife to Max, small scale fashion designer.
Groot: Transient Dutchman who lives on a houseboat with his trust fund Californian girlfriend.
Rachel: Groot’s trust fund girlfriend, and sort of star of Max’s film.
Turner: Shady art dealer.
Thierry Collins: Odile’s partner in a smuggling operation from Russia.  English professor in debt.
Gabriella: Turner’s assistant.
Kukushkin: Shady Russian banker / crime boss.

A few minor characters are left out, but the basic premise is that Odile and Collins smuggle some artwork out of Russia for Turner, and that the border crossing was expedited by Kukushkin.  Something goes wrong, and suddenly Russian criminals start harassing Turner and Odile in search of Collins whom disappeared.  Meanwhile, Max is going through an artistic transformation and begins to shoot a movie focused on Rachel, Groot, and their houseboat the Nachtvlinder.  While all these various elements eventually overlap, it feels forced and disingenuous.

Also, the language dragged at the pacing of the novel.  Exposition fills the pages, telling the reader how characters feel, without showing us anything.  If that were changed, this would be a more captivating read.

The last part that keeps the reader interested is the quasi-mystery.  This isn’t a true mystery, because it all seems so obvious, but still it pulls at the reader to see how Max will piece it together.  Perhaps, the real mystery is how his film will unfold.  For me, that was the real driving force of the novel.  The sections about Max shooting film and thinking and talking about film were intriguing.  The rest came across a little too wooden.  At times, this novel felt more like a translation because there is something just off about the language.

Another disappointment is how some elements are dropped and seem to have no importance, such as all of the scenes with Odile having her portrait painted.  The painter can “see” the true Odile, while no one else can.  But this finishes up and nothing comes of it.  Finally, the characters actions seem to have little or no consequences.  Mooney writes off major developments and actions with phrases like, they didn’t need to talk about it because they would never mention it again.  Or, her hand moved the gun with no thought, and he didn’t question her motives.  It’s uninspired, sloppy writing.

I kept reading this story, because it was like watching a malfunctioning car racing down a speedway.  The finish line is in sight, but you have no idea if it will make it there in one piece.

Review: The House on Salt Hay Road – Carin Clevidence

The House on Salt Hay Road by Carin Clevidence was another novel I just couldn’t get interested in.  Part of it has to do with the time period.  The novel is set in the late 1930’s and opens from the perspective of a small boy.  Those are two strikes against it.  Maybe I should have given this one more time, but I’m impatient and nothing grabbed me immediately.

Review: Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles – Kira Henehan

One great benefit of working in a library is that you can be exposed to a wide range of books without having to spend much time or money on them.  In the case, of Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles, that’s a good thing.

I’d like to hear from anyone who has read the novel, because I couldn’t get past the first twenty pages.  “Beautifully, madly, electrically alive,” claims one of the blurbs over on the cover, however, it seemed manic and over the top.  Mainly, it was the narrator’s voice that grated on me.  Overall, this seems like one to skip.

Read some Q&A with Kira Henehan if you’re interested in the novel.

Review: American Rust – Philipp Meyer

Philipp Meyer’s short story “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone” was a fantastic piece of fiction, and it motivated me to read his novel American Rust.  While the novel started out strong, it began to slow down and stumble around fairly early.  It has the makings of a captivating narrative, but Meyer never lets it go.  He controls the pace to such an extent that the chapters become meaningless as nothing happens.

The novel is set in a failing mining/industrial town in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  Meyer does a great job capturing and describing the town of Buell.  Hulking shells of factories dominate the landscape, interspersed with boarded up shops, and cash for checks strip malls.  The characters are a mix of down on their luck types who never break out of the the area, and either through love or inertia remain in Buell.

The main action in the novel is that Issac English has murdered a homeless man while running away from home with his friend Poe.  Poe is a fading high school football star who is aggressive and can be out of control.  On more than one occasion he’s fought and severely hurt people.  Issac on the other hand is described as a genius, but so smart that sometimes the simple things throw him off.  He’s stayed behind to take care of his father with whom he has a terrible relationship filled with emotional abuse and distance.  The flight from home and the murder happen within in the first thirty pages.  What follows is 330 pages of not much.

The other main characters are Harris (the sheriff), Lee (Issac’s smart sister who escaped to Yale and married), Grace (Poe’s semi-failure of a mother), and Henry English (Issac and Lee’s father).  The chapters are titled with one of the characters name and are written in third person limited from that character’s point of view.  As the murder comes to light, Poe is arrested, and Issac runs away again.  Due to an on again off again relationship with Grace, Harris tries to help Poe and protect him. 

The chapters can be generalized in the following.

Issac’s chapters:  I’m going to show them.  I’m running away.  I’m “the Kid,” who’s tough and resourceful.  Issac meanders through the landscape getting routinely beat up and taken advantage of before returning home.

Poe’s chapters:  What’s going on?  How did I get here?  Why am I taking the fall for Issac’s crime?  My life is full of bad decisions, and I don’t care.

Lee’s chapters:  Coming home is horrible.  I don’t know if I should believe Poe about Issac killing that man?  I’m confused.  It would all be easier if I went back to New York or Connecticut.

Harris’s chapters:  I shouldn’t protect Poe, but I do.  Sometimes you have to bend the law.  Do I love Grace?

Grace’s chapters:  I should have done more for my son.  I’m a bad mother.  Do I love Harris?

Henry’s chapters:  What I’ve done to that boy is wrong.  I’m not a great father.

It may seem flippant, but not much happens in this novel.  The crime does not weigh on Issac like the Raskolnikov’s killing of the old woman in Crime and Punishment, instead Issac seems full of angst and impotence.  The sections where Poe is in prison are the most interesting, but once you’ve read or seen any narrative with characters in prison, they do not feel very original.

American Rust accurately describes the depressed nature of the rust belt, but beyond that it is a novel that could work best compressed into a short story or a novella.

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

By now you’ve all read, are reading, or planning to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  If you haven’t heard of Stieg Larsson, you can follow his success in the afterlife through a series of articles and reviews at the New York Times.

Anyway, the premise is pretty simple.  Old rich guy close to death is obsessed with the disappearance of his favorite niece thirty plus years ago.  In a last ditch attempt, he hires an investigative journalist who has lost all credibility in a libel suit and needs the work.  Add in computer hacking girl with a photogenic memory, tattoos, and social disorders, and you’ve got an international best seller!

It’s hard to describe some of these books without sounding sarcastic, however, it’s an entertaining read and more thoughtful than your average mystery/thriller.  It takes a while to get into, because the pace doesn’t take off until Blomkvist (journalist) and Salander (computer hacker) get together about a third of the way into the novel.

Anyway, it’s good, quick reading, although the ending is strange as it shifts toward another focus of the novel for sixty or so pages after the mystery has been solved.