Sunday, January 31, 2010

#6: Family Album

There are so many things one could say about Penelope Lively's Family Album. (For one, it has nothing to do with the book of the same title by Danielle Steel.) Here, I will quote a few: "a haunting new novel" (Dominique Brown, New York Times); "another winning demonstration of [Lively's] wit" (Ron Charles, Washington Post); "one of her most impressive works" (Joanna Briscoe, The Guardian).

To this could be added "thoroughly underwhelming," or -- perhaps less generously -- "a meandering tale lacking a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot, a progression, character development, and, while we're at it, a point." To varying degrees, completing the journey that is reading a book generally elicits the self-satisfaction of literary accomplishment; at the conclusion of Family Album, that feeling was something closer to relief.

To be fair, the story isn't awful, just repetitive and needlessly preoccupied with trifles. (Yes, trifles. If you're neither familiar with nor amused by English idioms, you've one more reason to cross this novel off the reading list. On the other hand, Lively appears to have appropriated a decent portion of vocabulary words from GRE prep courses. This would seem rather jejune if not for her literary fecundity.)

In a genuine attempt to cut the author some slack, I frequently reminded myself that there is much -- everything? -- about the intricacies of English middle-class existence about which I know nothing. (The term "Edwardian" is bandied about with alarming frequency, for example.) If that is the extent of it, then I apologize to Lively's loyal readers across the pond and respectfully retreat to lighter American fare. Perhaps Danielle Steel? The characters populating her Family Album are said to "face the greatest challenges and harshest test a family can endure, to emerge stronger, bound forever by loyalty and love." But then, those words were written by her publisher; and besides, as guilty pleasures go, I remain unwaveringly yours, John Grisham.

But I find it unlikely that cultural ignorance alone can explain the yawning gap between Family Album's aspirations and its reality. Maybe familial experience, then? I have as many siblings as Alison Harper has children (six), and perhaps that's just the problem: none of these dark, festering secrets and tensions strike me as extraordinary, or imbued with any larger meaning. Loud, rambunctious dinner conversations cut short by an ill-timed outburst? Self-imposed emotional detachment from the less pleasurable aspects of childhood? Par for the course, methinks. (Doesn't everyone do that?)

And now I'm starting to sound like Gina, the second child who, in an email to her siblings, agrees with her older brother that "all families screwed up, more or less." I just wish Penelope Lively's editor had kindly informed her of the same. Even the looming family secret, revealed midway through the book, is a letdown, almost a cliché as these things go, and both central and irrelevant to the story at the same time. Making matters worse is the grating redundancy; each sibling marvels, in a never-ending revolving door of memories, at how the formative years stubbornly retain their familiarity while growing increasingly foreign. The children themselves, from infancy through adulthood, are too numerous to animate with believable personalities, and so become terribly one-dimensional. Sandra can do nothing other than shop for clothes and look elegant. Paul must always drink heavily and display utter disregard for social etiquette. Clare just dances, and that is all. Even the interweaving style with which Lively travels through time and space to indulge her characters' collective nostalgia is arbitrary, with just enough proximity to Kazuo Ishiguro's similar tendencies to bring him to mind while silently reprimanding her for trying on his shoes.

There are, disappointments notwithstanding, some highlights amidst the unimpressive remainder. Strewn among the unremarkable hiccups of nostalgia are poignant touches that strike a chord with anyone who has grown up, left home, and returned, astonished at the changes. "Goodness," Katie exclaims in an email to her brother, Roger. "A married Gina, who'd have thought it." Similarly, towards the end, as Alison recounts the glory days of her motherhood at Allersmead, it would require an inhuman imperviousness to pain for the tragedy of her existence not to weigh heavily on the spirit of the reader. (And once again, specters of Ishiguro's Remains of the Day haunt Alison's pitifully denialist closing reflections.) It's just that the characters themselves seem to cope more serenely -- and authentically so -- with their upbringing than their creator does, and that, generally speaking, should not be the case. Chalk it up to big-family cynicism, but this is one family album I won't be flipping through again any time soon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

#5: The Disappeared

Read it and weep. Literally. The Disappeared is a quick, meaningful punch to the gut. In 228 short pages, author Kim Echlin wastes not a word or phrase in this despairing depiction of love and loss in war-torn Cambodia. Spanning decades and continents, from the dingy blues clubs of Montreal to the killing fields outside Phnom Penh, Anne Greves weaves a mournful path of despondency and courage as she follows her lover into the darkest recesses of human depravity.

Almost immediately upon opening this book, I knew I was going to enjoy it. Of course, "enjoy" is perhaps an inappropriate term given the subject. But a book's value is not measured in tidy narratives so much as in an ability to immerse its readers wholly into the world of its characters' lives. This holds true even when dialogue between characters is written intentionally dreamily, as if the protagonist's memory has decayed and dissolved over time, leaving only mystical moments where reality once breathed.

Strangely, I couldn't escape a familiar feeling for the first several chapters: the author's literary style reminded me of something else I'd read previously. Then it suddenly occurred to me: The English Patient. "The light in Mau's eyes was a pinprick through black paper," Echlin writes of Anne's first meeting with a new friend. "...I chose him because when he stepped forward, the others fell back...The light of his eyes twisted into mine." One entire chapter reads: "I can still see a particle of dust hanging in a sunbeam near your cheek as you slept." In very short order, it becomes all too clear that The Disappeared resembles Michael Ondaatje's masterpiece in little other than descriptive syntax, however. This is not dream-sequence-turned-real; it's a living nightmare, stretched and tortured into over thirty years of searching and loving and waiting and finding and searching all over again.

It is impossible not to empathize with Anne. Her naivete, her persistent belief in a justice, or karma, that will transform wrong into right, is as admirable as it is devastating. When she asks of her captor, "How can people move on without knowing what happens to their families? How can they move on without truth?" we want to laugh at her simplicity even as we cry for her faith in humanity. It is her ever-burning fire that ignites this story and affords us all the unique opportunity, if only for a moment, of believing again with her.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

#4: The Unlikely Disciple

As someone quite familiar with American evangelical culture -- encompassing a smattering of endearing qualities and a host of ugly ones -- I had already formed some preconceived notions before embarking on my latest read, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. The book chronicles the journey of Kevin Roose, the youthful author and aspiring guerrilla journalist, as he transitions into a semester at Liberty University, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell's brainchild and a "conservative Christian utopia," from an undergraduate program at Brown University ("a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah"). Warily, I predicted that Roose's reflections would fit neatly into one of two know-thy-enemy categories. Either he would feign empathy with his new classmates and faculty while cloaking all observations in a thinly veiled stream of sarcasm and condescension, or he would overly humanize them, anthropologist-style, like one might see in a probing wildebeest documentary on the Discovery Channel. Even the cover art and various other promotional photographs -- the author in a Liberty University t-shirt with Falwell's books scattered around, sitting alone in a large grassy area directly in front of a spotless white church, etc. -- hinted strongly at satire.

In the end -- spoiler alert -- neither prediction was entirely accurate. Roose's memoir lacked a fatal flaw; perhaps his greatest sin was engaging in a bit of self-indulgent melodrama, but -- and unlike the denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah -- his iniquities are easily forgivable. In fact, if Roose weren't so unnervingly honest in his evaluations of both the school and his own shifting perspectives, his brief jabs of alarmism could easily come off as irony. True, he has a slightly grating tendency to close chapters with sentences like "All semester, I've been worried about getting in over my head at Liberty, but what if it's too late?" And true, it is these passages that ring the least authentically -- a lifelong secular student from an Ivy League school stands on the precipice of conversion while studying at the epicenter of American religious anti-intellectualism? -- but it seems that Roose nevertheless wrote them out of a sincere desire to express his rapidly expanding gray areas.

On the other hand, the author's continuing revulsion with the institutionalized homophobia that he finds at Liberty provides a periodic gut check, both for himself and his readers, against growing too comfortable with the notion of right-wing fundamentalism as warm and fuzzy. This book is thus potent because it illustrates the fragile disconnect between abstract disgust and visceral, well, something approaching fraternité. No, it is not a call to ecumenism. It is also not primarily a repudiation of some of the more disturbing facets of the evangelical lifestyle or, more specifically, of Falwell's most appalling public statements. What this book undoubtedly is, however, is a gentle nudge away from demonization and towards, if not empathy, at least toleration. And although conservative Christian readers may be unlikely to agree, Roose's message applies to their anachronistic edicts on the "outside world" as much as it does to the ill-informed heathens who mock them.

Monday, January 18, 2010

#3: Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It

Maile Meloy's 2009 short story collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, is, on the surface, a teeming, raging vat of tension. Much of the time, this tension is overtly sexual; elsewhere it manifests itself in, say, "a smile that gave Aaron a twinge of jealousy" (a line from "Spy vs. Spy," a story chronicling, among other things, a fraternal grudge match). The author's eleven narratives, in their entirety, take place within cocoons of solitude, but of the kind that can -- and do -- occur in a crowded nuclear plant as easily as at a lonely lakeside campfire. Strangely, the characters in these stories, as many reviewers have already noted, never seem to have clear ideas of what they're looking for, or what should come after the Right Now. This way sounds good, but so does that one. In other words, both ways is really, truly the only way they want it.

When dealing with something as disconcerting and yet as fundamental to the human experience as loneliness, authors frequently take one of two paths. They either become the protagonist's apologist, explaining in undue detail the reasoning and emotions animating his actions in an effort to woo the reader's sympathy, or they write with callousness, an almost academic detachment. Maile Meloy dips her toes into both practices without fully embracing either. In "Nine," for example, the story is told in the third person but from a child's perspective. At times the visceral pain felt by the girl's mother is related casually, as in: "Valentine and her mother shared a room with two single beds, where Gwen sometimes cried without warning. There were sweat pea blossoms from the garden on the night table. They all went for a hike to a clear, cold lake. Then they said goodbye." Elsewhere, the author allows her creations moments of utter vulnerability: "The thought that she would never see Jake again -- not in the same way --  made her sadder than the ruined garden or the missing things."

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of infidelity going on here too: in the distant past, in the same time frame as the story, as something looked forward to in the very near future with dread determinism. But this unfaithfulness is not simply a sin visited by one wretched soul upon another; it's just as often a betrayal of oneself. "Now he had settled back into the habit of his marriage...," Meloy writes of a man agonizing over whether to leave his wife for another woman. "He tried to determine if he was paralyzed with indecision or only mired in comfort." It takes a gifted (not to mention generous and perhaps morally suspect) writer to empathize with a man's struggle to be true to himself when that truth takes the form of a younger woman.

The quirky thing about these stories is that, notwithstanding the hovering cloud of depression and gloom that will inevitably follow their reading, one can't quite evade the sense that these characters are real, that it might be pleasant to meet some of them, that it may help to re-read some of the stories to gain some added insights. I'm not sure I'm ready to let all these lonely people disappear between the pages just yet.

At the conclusion of "Spy vs. Spy," a middle-aged man muses on the strenuous skiing expedition he's just taken with his elder brother. "We should do this next year," he says. "We should do this every year." He may have been referring to skiing, but I like to think he secretly meant reading Meloy's book.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

#2: Let the Great World Spin

Adorning the front cover of Colum McCann's latest novel, Let the Great World Spin, is a circular insignia with the caption "National Book Award Winner." Dave Eggers, in a review excerpt, promises the reader (s)he will be "giddy, dizzy, overwhelmed," and on the back cover Frank McCourt frets about the impossibility of a comparable followup for McCann.

These are all good signs. And fortunately for the author and his loyal readers, they ring (mostly) true. His is a tale of grief, loss, hope, codependency, death, rebirth, and a host of other themes and narratives, all interwoven with fragility. However, it is this very fragility that at times seems forced, even summoning to mind -- in what is possibly a sacrilegious comparison, though I'm not certain to whose detriment -- Paul Haggis' 2004 film Crash. Both works attempt to gather together the broken pieces of human lives in an urban metropolis and make sense of them in a way that accounts for their similarities and their differences.

And yet in so doing, McCann occasionally undermines the realism of his otherwise gritty, up-close-and-personal feel. Reading this book can sometimes feel like walking down the street while tethered to a helium balloon; one is mostly on the ground but is periodically compelled to float up and into the clouds. This may appear to be an appropriate metaphor for a novel in which a tightrope walker hops, skips, and dances between the World Trade Center towers, soaring above the city and its inhabitants, but the execution felt a tad incredible, if not cheap.

For example, one of the novel's characters presides in a courtroom in which four other people central to the story are present. It's not that this is abnormal -- aren't interconnected stories a staple of many modern novels, especially ones set in a city like New York? -- but McCann sneaks these facts up on you as if his salary is measured in "ohhh"s and ''hmm"s: "The bridge stepped away and cleared her throat. Docket ending six-eight-seven, she said. The People versus Tillie Henderson and Jazzlyn Henderson. Step up, please." (Hmm, so Tillie was tried in Soderberg's courtroom. Now it's all coming together.)

Is there a better way to tell these stories? Honestly, I'm not sure. Perhaps McCann could've simply begun the story with scenes making explicit the connections among the main characters. Or maybe I'm just inherently skeptical of any book with an ensemble cast that must magically coalesce over the course of three hundred-plus pages. Complicating matters further is the way in which McCann slides in and out of voices, often with a strange affection for racial and class stereotypes, from a young graffiti enthusiast snapping photos on the subway to an upper-class wife grieving over her perished son to Tillie Henderson, a prostitute from the Bronx, all while skipping from the first-person voice to the third and back again. Expounds Tillie: "I was the first nigger absolute regular on that stroll. They called me Rosa Parks. They used to say I was a chewing-gum spot. Black. And on the pavement. That's how it is in the life, word. You joke a lot." Hmm indeed.

And yet, if asked if Let the Great World Spin were a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, I'd place it (and not too reluctantly) into the former category. If the reader focuses less on the chance intersections of the characters and more on the individuality of each of their stories, the novel is strangely more complete. Let the Great World Spin hovers in that gray area between a collection of thematic vignettes and a cohesive novel. In the end, I suppose it is a little of both, which is quite possibly exactly what Colum McCann had in mind in the first place. In which case: Well done, sir. You've written a fine novel, word.

#1: SuperFreakonomics

So, the front cover of my first conquest of 2010 already almost broke the only rule I'd set for myself. It's a shiny white cover with the authors' names in slightly raised lettering. However, it's also hardcover and doesn't have any glossy color photos (unless that's a real picture of an exploding fruit on the bottom of the cover, but I'm 84% certain it's not), so I think I'm safe.

On the other hand, it has a laughably long subtitle: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Hmm, a shiny hardcover with an exploding fruit, long subtitle, and raised lettering. Not exactly a recipe for success, right? Well, I suppose this is why one should never judge a book by its cover, because this is going into the record as a Recommended Reading.

Actually, let me take that back. You can judge a book by its cover, somewhat. As if the graphic design doesn't scream "Please Pay Attention" loudly enough, the content itself immediately continues the theme. The first two sentences of the book proclaim, "The time has come to admit that in our first book [Freakonomics], we lied. Twice." Pages later, we read that "as you leave your friend's party [in an intoxicated state], the decision should be clear: driving is safer than walking." (One wonders if that last line will eventually provoke a second admission of lying in the next installment, which must inevitably be titled SuperDuperFreakonomics: Funny Wars, Political PMS, and Why Rapists Make the Best Babysitters.)

But don't let the hyperbole fool you: authors Steven Levitt (a professor at the University of Chicago) and Stephen Dubner (a former editor for The New York Times Magazine) are no lightweights, and they pack plenty of legitimate punches to keep readers scratching their heads for a considerably long time. (I'm still scratching mine.) For example, did you know that a Chicago prostitute is statistically more likely to have sex with a police officer than to be arrested by one? (The undercover beat is just brutal.) Or that many hospital infections could be prevented by doctors washing their hands? Alright, alright, so you already knew that one. But what you probably didn't know -- unless you happen to work at a hospital -- is that, amidst a sea of failed attempts to compel doctors to comply with basic hygienic standards, simply installing a computer screensaver at one hospital depicting the swarms of bacteria on a human hand brought health compliance up to an almost perfect score.

As does its predecessor, SuperFreakonomics deals in human behavior and how various incentives, executed intelligently, can pretty much get human beings to do anything. Hence, the 1961 Milgram Experiment -- except that Levitt and Dubner wave breezily at this landmark psychological study, deeming it a prime exemplar in the crowded field of How to Make Any Experiment Confirm Your Findings by Conducting it in a Lab. And somehow, this actually makes sense (the experiment's mild repudiation, not the study itself). You see, the authors gently intone, human beings are little more than self-interested machines; remove the carrot and stick, and you've got yourself a rabbit with nowhere to go.

This pleasantly short 216-page book is replete with observations, projections, and muses that will gnaw at you. They will make you wonder how you didn't think of these ideas first, even while mentally flogging yourself for allowing a modicum of gullibility to seep into your otherwise cynical worldview. Combating hurricanes with a small army of large rings centered around pipes leading into the depths? Kissing global warming goodbye by shooting sulfur dioxide eighteen miles into the air? Yes, Levitt and Dubner respond gleely, yes, we can.

What was perhaps most fascinating in this book were the many ways in which data was collected on unpredictable and uncontrollable events. In economics, as well as in politics and other social science fields, it is quite difficult to achieve exactness in the same sense as the other, "hard" sciences (i.e. chemistry, physics, etc.). This is primarily because, unlike those other areas of study, economists and political scientists are not able to conduct controlled experiments comparing one set to another.

However, these limitations can be mitigated to near-miraculous degrees at times. For example, in a section on global warming, Dubner and Levitt note that in the first several days following September 11th in the U.S. (when all civilian flights were grounded), the ground temperature increased fairly dramatically due to less sun shielding from aircraft exhaust trails. Using the aftermath of a domestic tragedy to produce quantifiable research that would never have been available via testing, the authors make it quite clear that virtually anything can be studied scientifically if you dig deeply enough.

Of course, the digging of Dubner and Levitt is accompanied by their own giggling soundtrack, as the machinations of their own nerdiness are readily translated into annoyingly cute barbs at fellow economists and so forth. And now that I'm a little older and wiser than when I'd read the prequel, I'm more than a little shocked that I had never before caught on to Levitt and Dubner's obvious ideological leanings bubbling beneath these pages' surfaces. (Hint: Chicago school of economics.) That said, readers from both sides of the aisle will have no problem enjoying this idiosyncratic tour through the intersection of the human mind and the free market.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Meet 'n' greet

I'm not a big fan of New Year's Resolutions. I don't have anything against them per se, but more often than not they end in utter failure. Of these failures, perhaps none is greater than the fact that even these annual self-betrayals are insufficient to convince us not to stake our hopes on such flimsy, quixotic fantasies the following year. And so the cycle endures. It is for this reason that, heading into 2010, I had yet to resolve anything on New Year's Eve. I may not be a dreamer, this is true, but I'd yet to disappoint myself either.

In this sense, then, New Year's Day 2010 represented a bit of an anomaly. For in the waning hours of December 31st (or was it the first hour of January 1st? I can't remember), while carousing atop a Hong Kong mall directly under the celebratory pyrotechnics, I made a resolution. (Actually, I made several, but the other ones are neither appropriate nor relevant to this space.)

I resolved to read fifty books this year. Now, I have no idea how many books I read last year. My guess is it's somewhere in the thirties, counting assignments for school. But this year, thought I, it was time to up the ante, to stretch myself to hitherto unimagined heights, to set my literary gaze aloft to dance with the stars.

OK, so this is not true. I have no such literary pretensions; in fact, my frustration with an inability to grasp even basic themes and motifs in literature is one of the major reasons I resolved to read fifty books this year in the first place. And I decided to blog about it in large part as a safeguard against giving up in my quest. (Objectively speaking, a blog may not be the best safeguard either, as I've rarely been able to maintain one for longer than a week. But no matter.)

So yes, I am blogging about the books I read and, if I'm lucky, I'll be able to capture a little bit of the excitement of the journey as well as the thrill of the books' content itself. I aim to read both novels and non-fiction, and I am very open to suggestions at any time for what to read next. (I never own more than a few books ahead of the current one I'm reading.) My only rule is no paperbacks with glossy color photos and the author's name printed in slightly raised lettering. Other than that, please feel free to leave comments (as many as you would like), suggestions, etc. If reading is a journey, let's make it a road trip. Because everyone knows road trips are a lot more fun when you don't do them yourself.