Book Reviews

I mostly review books here, but you may find some short stories along the way.

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

Review: Temperance – Cathy Malkasian

Temperance by Cathy Malkasian is a quirky graphic novel that explores the relationship between the concepts of war and security, and freedom and trust. The narrator is a tree, which has been fashioned into a wooden leg, and then later into a doll/child. The narrator tells the story of Pa, who is this mythical concept that infects people’s minds. The people, spurred by the lies of his foster daughter, live enclosed into a fortress they call BlessedBowl. It’s a ship on a sea of fire, but really it’s a compound.

Pa is no longer there, but the people follow the words and stories of his daughter, Peggy. The story is surreal, and at times, heavy handed. The metaphor comes through fine, but it definitely seems like this is targeted toward a young audience. Maybe a reader between 8-12 would get more out of this work.

With a lighter hand, the artwork is simply wrought and beautiful. A dreamy quality instills the drawings and the lines are sharp and crisp.

Temperance is a graphic novel that tries something different, and for the most part, it succeeds.

Review: The Sleepwalker at Sea – Kelly Grovier

The Sleepwalker at Sea is a wonderful collection of poems by Kelly Grovier. The poems meditate on aging, loss, love, and memory. These concepts spill into the dark passageways of childhood, the echoes from halls long empty. Not only does Grovier tie in a love for language and books, but his deft observations of nature position the poems as part of life.

It’s part of the human condition to experience loss. There are natural cycles involved with aging, forgetting, and dying, as well as in the movements of a “murmuration” as:

It rises in a bright shatter
of wings and lifts like a great
mind over the water’s still
uncreasing canvas,
each feathered filing an end

of thought, a pause –
each dip and wheel a mute
inflection in its organic
grammar: a poem of pure

punctuation, a ballet of full-
stops, lunulae and ellipses
flailing, falling, flicked

by a pointillist’s wrist
against the deep unweaving loom

of sea and sun and sun and sky.

Full of beauty and sadness, The Sleepwalker at Sea is a must read collection, which readers may find themselves returning to again and again.

Review: A Dance with Dragons – George R. R. Martin

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin is the fifth book in the Game of Thrones series. I won’t go into a detailed review, because the book is 900+ pages and builds off a large, large cast of characters and has a complicated continuity. What Martin does well is in juggling so many characters and story lines. The price though is that not much happens in 900 pages. There is so much build up with very little pay off. Action almost happens, then the point of view switches, and we discover the action has taken place off stage. It’s frustrating and detracts at times.

When the next book comes out, I may just read about it on Wikipedia just to see what five things happened. Martin’s epic has become so bloated that it’s weighed down and moves with a stumbling pace.

Review: Lamb – Bonnie Nadzam

With Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam, created a novel full of small wonders and quiet terror in the American West. There is a mythic tone that calls to the reader and I found myself falling for David Lamb’s charm much like Tommie does as she conspires to drive west with him.

Who is Lamb? He’s in his fifties, wealthy, divorced, full of himself, isolated, and has no children. The novel begins with the death of Lamb’s father, which seems to precipitate his string of bad decisions. There’s a terrible edge to Lamb when he meets Tommie and “fake” kidnaps her, in order to teach her friends a lesson. At first, Lamb comes across as a father figure, telling Tommie how to act and seemingly concerned about her home life. This role morphs though as Lamb dotes on Tommie, and he begins to tell her how beautiful she is and buys her expensive gifts. Throughout the novel it’s obvious something bad is going to happen. What’s not clear is what that event will be.

What sets this novel apart from others is the clarity and beauty with which Nadzam writes. It’s a pleasure to read sentences like:

He drove into the night, along a cursive pass etched in granite, above the stands of green-fingered oaks and red-beaded hawthorns and all the aspen, above the trees that listed to the southeast, needled black along one side, twisted and deformed by forbidding glacial wind, and between great planed walls of rock dressed in little aprons of snow and shattered stone sliding down onto the road.

Another wonderful passage follows:

Let’s say there were none of those truss towers of galvanized steel lining the highway this next day. No telephone poles. No wires. Say that Lamb’s truck and the highway were the only relics of the actual world. The road was overcome with native grasses and aromatic flowers, with wild onion and pussytoes. Soft gaping mouths of beardtongue, and mountain lover, and buckbush and drowsy purple heads of virgin’s bower. Say it was like this that they crossed the Midwestern line beyond which the sky spreads itself open—suddenly boundless, suddenly an awful blue.

Nadzam further draws the reader in by making us complicit. She picks moments to speak to the reader, saying, “Our guy picked up her hand. ‘We’re just going to sit here a minute.’ He waited until she stopped crying, then pulled away from the gas pump and parked beside a derelict pay phone.” What makes Lamb “our guy”? Nadzam doesn’t give us a choice, she says Lamb is our guy and so he becomes, bellying in next to us, leaning against the counter. It’s an effective technique to bring the reader along and fill them with uneasiness toward the end.

So much of the novel is driven by Lamb’s voice. His running narrative to Tommie comes straight through to the reader. Is he full of wisdom or just trying to impress? Again, it goes back to that question, who is David Lamb? It’s a question that will probably haunt Tommie for the rest of her life.

Set amidst the desolation of the Midwest and West, the novel amplifies the landscape. Through it we are shown the beauty of the natural world as it closes in on the edges of failed strip malls and gas stations where tallboys go for a buck. Where are the people in this landscape? They’re somewhere in between, patiently following the arcs of their lives. They either can’t move on or will not. Except for Lamb, who seems bent on creating a story all his own.

Review: 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami warps time. Words fill the pages and the reader’s mind as characters wait for things to happen. To fill in this void, the characters cut vegetables, use the bathroom, sentimentalize about rubber plants, consider breasts, and eat various meals. Otherwise, nothing moves the plot forward for hundreds of pages.

In the first book, we are introduced to Tengo Kawana, a former child prodigy and aspiring novelist. His editor friend, Komatsu, convinces him to ghostwrite a novel by a seventeen year old girl, Fuki-Eri, and submit it for a literary prize. This section is the strongest. Murakami pokes fun at the literary establishment and lowers the fourth wall. In alternating chapters we are introduced to the other main character, Aomame, who is an unassuming female assassin specializing in stabbing a sharp needle in men’s necks with no trace. Tengo and Aomame shared one special moment when they were ten years old (they held hands) and it created a loving bond that lasted across twenty years and multiple worlds. The novel is a play toward getting the two together and in the course of 952 pages it finally happens.

Both Tengo and Aomame are caught up in the drama of a cult called Sakigake. The cult started out as radicalized students and faculty members on a commune. When Fuki-Eri was ten the commune’s special goat, which Fuki-Eri was tasked with caring for, died. As a punishment Fuki-Eri was locked in a shed with the dead goat. Out of the dead goat’s mouth sprang the Little People. They sit with Fuki-Eri and teach her how to weave an air chrysalis. The most we are told about the Little People is that they’re powerful and something like gods, but not quite. After this happens is when the commune transforms into the cult, and Fuki-Eri’s father becomes Leader and is imbued with powers.

Tengo is caught up in the drama by ghostwriting Fuki-Eri’s novel, which is about the goat and the Little People. It receives great reviews and is a bestseller, but seen as a strange little fantasy. Aomame’s role is that she must kill Leader because he has been raping young girls. There’s more to the novel, or at least, a wider cast of characters, but it’s not worth going exploring at this point.

1Q84 is full of opaqueness. What’s worse is that it is mistaken as a sign that there is something hidden or wonderful in the books, which only smart people can discern. Instead, it’s sloppy writing with no clear end in sight. After the end of the second book, Murakami steps back in the third book as if he can undo the final actions. This may not seem huge, but when one of the main characters commits suicide and is suddenly alive in the next book, it’s completely jarring. Did Murakami change his mind? Was he interested in more sales or exploring how things would have turned out if the character stayed alive? The reasons are not clear and ultimately do not matter. 1Q84 is a bloated tome that is best avoided.

For a more detailed review, please read Janet Maslin’s review in the Times.

Review: Sun City – Caitlin Horrocks

In “Sun City” by Caitlin Horrocks a young woman goes through her recently deceased grandmother’s belongings and tries to gain a better understanding of her grandmother in the process.  What really caught me with this story was the opening.

“The floated into the afternoon in their little stucco submarine, the blinds shut against the sunlight and the swamp cooler whistling on the roof. Bev sat on the couch, Rose knelt on the matted carpet, and in the artificial air the two women wrapped jewelry in tissue paper and placed it in egg cartons. Rose had had this idea, the egg cartons, on the plane to Arizona, and it had made her feel organized. In the aftermath of her grandmother’s death, at least there were omelettes to be made. When she realized just how much stuff her grandmother, Vera, had owned, and how little of it Bev wanted to keep, Rose should have come up with a new plan. Instead, they just kept eating eggs.”

I enjoy the description of the stucco submarine withe the swamp cooler on top of the roof. It creates a strange image for the desert. Next, there’s Bev and Rose, with Rose kneeling, wrapping the jewelry. It’s a peaceful image that shows some intimacy. Horrocks also gives us some information in a way that’s not condescending. We learn that Rose is unprepared for this role and didn’t visit her grandmother often. In the final sentence of this paragraph, Horrocks displays humor in the amount of eggs the women eat. It’s an odd detail that ties everything together well.

“Sun City” is a story where everything is not as it seems. Were Bev and Vera lovers or just two old women who shared a house? We believe they had a relationship together, partly because the point of view is that of Rose’s. She thinks Bev and Vera were more than roommates, through the joint Christmas cards and pictures the women would send. As the story moves forward, we discover Rose may be projecting onto her grandmother. It turns out that Rose is gay and her grandmother disapproved.

Another revelation is Vera’s past. Vera was estranged from her daughter, Rose’s mom, and besides being a harsh woman, she used to have a drinking problem as well. Rose’s memories of Vera are spending one week a year with her as a child, while Rose’s mom went on vacation by herself. The estrangement carries on as Rose’s mom has no wish to go through Vera’s belongings, which illuminates why Rose is stuck with the job. It’s sad to imagine family not caring, but beneath the charade of occasional letters and phone calls, we realize the truth of what Vera thought of her daughter and granddaughter.

The intimate scene of Bev and Rose breaks down over the days. It is Bev who tells Rose the truth of Vera and that leads to problems between the two. Rose doesn’t know what she’s doing there and Bev feels as though her space is being intruded upon. The two come together again by rebelling against the spirit of Vera. They drink vodka and rum, reminisce, and try to help one another. However, the ending is wrapped in such an obvious metaphor that it becomes a little too neat. Bev is literally in over her head, grasping onto Rose for support in a swimming pool. The story concludes with Bev clinging to the pool wall, drink in hand, while sitting on the edge of the pool Rose raises her drink in the air. “‘Medicine,’ she offered, and they drank, as if it might be some kind of cure.”

“Sun City” was published in the October 24th issue of The New Yorker. For an interview with Horrocks regarding “Sun City” please read the Book Bench.

Review: Oubliette – David Long

I want to be fair. I really do. But, “Oubliette” by David Long struck me as a narrow, pat story meant more for MFA-wielding literati, than for a broader audience.  For those of you not acquainted with the finer points of language, “oubliette” is a dungeon with a small opening at the top.

The characters, while not two-dimensional, are slightly generic.  First, there’s the documentary film director father, who is kind and sympathetic.  Second, there’s the beautiful, off kilter mother.  And third, there is the scarred daughter who takes after her father, but is tormented by her mother.  See them smiling in the Christmas card? Wonderful.

At this point, it may be clear where the story is going.

Is it:

A) Freakish affair between the father and daughter.
B) Mother goes crazy and locks daughter up in an attic.
C) Daughter runs away and father makes documentary about it.
D) Metaphor for dementia.
E) All of the above.


Okay, so now that we have cleared up that point, the story jumps ahead using the rough transition, “flash forward eighteen months: her parents had split up, her father had become ‘the custodial parent,’ life was proceeding.” The rest of the story contains two more scenes.

We learn what happens to Nathalie’s mom and we learn how Nathalie reacts to her mother’s death. It ends with a late night phone call, because people don’t die during the day, there’s “a dry listless snow…falling,” and Nathalie must begin her “never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.” The writing is fine, but like the falling snow “Oubliette” has a listless quality that makes it seem longer than two pages of prose. For Q&A with David Long, please read the Book Bench. For a more thoughtful review, check out the Mookse and the Gripes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Come on, this is a New Yorker story. Of course, there will be freakish affairs, but incest? Wait, you may be on to something.
See:

Sorry, but, you may have noticed “Oubliette” is not on this list. Return to the rest of this cranky review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wow! Not only do you love Flowers in the Attic, but you’re also right.  Return to the rest of this cranky review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Running away is a serious problem.  I’m sure your not a bad person, but if you want to help, learn more at http://www.1800runaway.org/.  Return to the rest of this cranky review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Of course it’s a metaphor, but is that all the story is? It’s not, is it? Oh. I see. Will there be a last line to make sure I know that? Return to the rest of this cranky review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


You’re indecision does not due you credit. Return to the rest of this cranky review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“And when it did, though she couldn’t quite see it yet, Nathalie would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.” Return to the rest of this cranky review.

Review: The Warsaw Anagrams – Richard Zimler

In The Warsaw Anagrams, by Richard Zimler, the narrator, Erik Cohen, searches for the people who killed his nephew and two other children.  He’s a psychiatrist, who was once respected, but now must deal with the hardships of the ghetto and the change in his station.  While still respected, he’s no longer one of the elite as the ghetto has destroyed the social order from the “Before Times.”  The voice of Cohen is rich and unique.  Zimler stays with him throughout the novel and creates a solid character.  Cohen fluctuates between compassion and anger, humor and grave melancholy.  It’s refreshing to read a character who is complex and whose actions cause him remorse.

While, technically a mystery, the novel is more about life in the ghetto than a compelling puzzle to solve.  Part of the confusion stems from the title.  It seems as though there will be coded puzzles throughout the novel and the anagrams do refer to the garbled names of people in order to hide their true identities; however, the anagrams fade below the surface as the novel progresses.  The final anagram/puzzle is so hidden that “only a Jew would know both Polish and German well enough to understand that linka was string and Flor was gauze.”  For the reader it is next to impossible and the narrator doesn’t care to share this information until he’s been told by an accomplice to the crime.

Zimler’s description of the early days of the Warsaw ghetto show a place full of heartache and desperation.  The black market thrives as Jews cross over to the Christian side through hidden tunnels.  People try to sustain the normalcy of life through music and cafes.  But how soon before that goes away?  The novel concludes before things become more terrible in the ghetto.  We know what will happen eventually, but the novel sticks to the time frame of Cohen’s perspective.

One issue with the narrator is that as he tells the story to a man, his current state is that of an ibbur, kind of like a ghost.  This didn’t trouble me; I assumed it was part of Jewish culture, but it is kind of cheesy.  It does add another layer to the story, but for readers who do not enjoy the fantastic, it may be a problem.

The Warsaw Anagrams provides a glimpse of life in the ghetto and the suffering involved.  Full of interesting characters who must make decisions, in which they question their morals, the novel leads the reader through the twisting streets, cramped apartments, and secret lives constrained by the ghetto walls.  The novel is published by Overlook Press and available on Amazon.