Apr 16, 2014

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers

I read this novel in one day flat, which I can't remember having done in forever. I don't think that is because it's an amazing book, though I did very much like it. Mostly it's just incredibly readable: the spacing is wide and dialogue is marked by long dashes instead of small quotation marks, each chapter starts halfway down the page with a blank page facing it. Usually plot-driven books read quickly, though this isn't really that. We spend most of our time in Alan's head, as he remembers the missteps he made while encouraging American companies to move their manufacturing to Asia, or when he met his ex-wife, or composing letters to his college-aged daughter.

Alan is in Saudi Arabia with three much younger colleagues. They represent a company that is submitting a bid to do IT for a new city, one which is rising from the desert, much like Dubai. He's excited by the prospect, the effort to create something great from nothing, but he has no real place in this new world, an old-school salesmen like him. Aside from his daughter, his life is empty, he's made bad decisions, his redundancy is a direct result of his own work. I really did enjoy reading this book - something about it spoke to me - but I have a feeling either it works for you or it doesn't. I can see the sparse language and quickness of the story failing to hold some people's attention. For me, though, I continue to enjoy Eggers' fiction, and look forward to reading more of it.

The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld is, among other things, a journalist who focuses on death row and the death penalty. Her message in this book is obvious: the penal system is horrific, and desperately needs reform. It's an important message, and I think choosing fiction as her medium was a smart way to get it noticed, but I feel rather bashed over the head with it. The writing itself is good, particularly in the parts in which we follow "the lady," a woman whose job is to find enough evidence to get a reprieve of the death sentence for her clients. But the prison parts are just awful. I guess that's the point, and perhaps it's willfully naive of me to rebel against reading such terrible things as repeated prison rape, guard corruption, and almost laughably substandard medical care. There are few people I could suggest this book to, few customers I know who would be able to handle the horror contained in this little novel. And it's a shame, because Denfeld is trying to make a very important case, and she clearly has the skill to do it. But reading is my escape, just as it is for our death-sentenced narrator, Arden; I get enough horror in the daily news, I don't want it from my fiction as well.

The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings

We've all been there: caught up in a conversation, you accidentally trip up on your own tongue and use the wrong word, or conjugate the verb incorrectly. The point you're trying to make is all but forgotten as your conversational partner gets hung up on your silly mistake, and you can practically feel the judgment radiating from them. Hitchings' book is about the history of just that situation, how people obsessed with proper language are not a new phenomenon. But language, Hitchings points out, is hardly static. It is in flux constantly, as evidenced by the words we now have in our dictionaries that did not exist two hundred years ago, or words that existed as recently as fifty years ago that have now fallen out of normal usage and will probably leave the English language soon. Grammatical rules have changed greatly, as well, though some have hung on tenaciously, like the dreaded double negative. Hitchings explores the way language theory has developed, arguing that those who make any comment about usage are often buying into a particular notion of socio-economic class. Derision over language is used to mock those in the upper echelons as well as the lower classes, with no attention paid to the fact that language is as changeable as the people who use it. It's a very interesting book, quite funny at times and illuminating something we use everyday but think about very little. I even learned a few new words, myself!

Apr 2, 2014

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

I am not, apparently, a big fan of incomplete sentences. They're distracting, taking me out of the flow of the writing and making me reread what I just finished in case the lack of grammar was all in my head. That's my only real complaint about "The Flamethrowers," however, my bookstore's next book club selection.

The novel is broken up into two alternating stories: first we have a girl known only by the nickname Reno, a young woman who moves to New York in the 1970s to try to become a serious artist. Then we have Valera, the Italian father of Reno's older boyfriend, who lived through two world wars and came out at the top of the industrial and socio-economic pyramid. It's a brilliant juxtaposition and interaction, the heady art scene of New York and the socialist uprisings of Italian youth. Which is more real? Which is more important? People die, and dissimulate, and deceive, for all kinds of reasons. Kushner's writing is extremely deliberate, creating a dense reading experience that is sometimes a bit difficult to push through, but well worth it. I wouldn't call this book a favorite of mine, but I do appreciate its artistry and the way it makes me think about topics I'd otherwise skim over, and it will undoubtedly make for a fascinating discussion.

Mar 29, 2014

The Best American Short Stories 2011, ed. by Geraldine Brooks

So I'm a little behind the times. Luckily, short stories don't go bad, and these truly are some incredible stories. I particularly can't stop thinking about "The Sleep" by Caitlin Horrocks, where an entire town takes to hibernating during the winter months. "Escape from Spiderhead" by George Saunders was also one of my favorites, taking place in a science fiction universe where convicts can opt into serving out their sentence as guinea pigs for drug tests. I really love short stories, and don't read them as often as I should. I think a good short story can be more arresting than a good full-length novel. Such impact packed into only a few pages affects me more than an equally well-written novel. I have an immense appreciation for a good short story, and thoroughly enjoyed reading this compilation.

Mar 24, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi

So I guess modern retellings of fairy tales is a thing now, like how Hollywood in the 90s and 00s had a thing with retelling Shakespeare plays. And if my love of The Lunar Chronicles and this positively delicious retelling of Snow White are any indication, I am fully on board with this trend. Boy is our first narrator, a young white woman in her early twenties who escapes her abusive father and hides out in small town New England. Snow is her stepdaughter, breathtakingly beautiful and innocent at seven years old, whom Boy sends away to live with an aunt in Boston. Bird is Boy's daughter, born with unmistakable black features, thus revealing Boy's husband's family to be black Southerners passing as white. You'd think that would be plenty of drama, but the action of "Boy, Snow, Bird" takes place in the unique minds of Boy and Bird. The Snow White references are clear - Boy sometimes catches herself smiling at her own reflection - but in the end, the story is about women coming together for each others' sake. The writing is fantastic, very funny at times and deeply moving. Oyeyemi is a formidable talent, and I'd love to read more of her work in the future.

Mar 23, 2014

I Hadn't Understood, by Diego de Silva

This Italian novel is published by Europa Editions, a press that specializes in bringing exceptional foreign language novels to English readers. It's a wonderful book, funny and moving and existential. Vincenzo, our (somewhat anti-)hero is 42, a struggling lawyer who's been separated from his wife for two years and shares with her a stepdaughter and a son. He's a bit of a bumbler - smart, no doubt, but rather locked up in his own world, and he rarely thinks before he speaks, often surprising himself with what comes out of his mouth. His ex-wife, though she has a live-in boyfriend, still occasionally calls him for sex, which is complicated by the unforeseen and utterly shocking attraction a particularly beautiful colleague shows in him. Add onto this his appointment as the defense attorney for a man involved in the Camorra (i.e. mafia) and a son who keeps showing up to school having been visibly beaten, and Vincenzo is in for a rough week.

De Silva has written other novels, plays and screenplays, and that background shows in this work. It's written a bit like a movie, even referencing how things would have played out had Vincenzo been, in fact, in a movie, or his observation that we seem to instinctively and subconsciously imitate Hollywood in our daily lives. It's a gimmick that mostly works, only falling flat very occasionally. It's a great book, fun to read and with an utterly endearing protagonist, and I'd like to note as well that you really can't go wrong with Europa Editions books.