Monday, October 23, 2006

A Spot of Bother

by Mark Haddon

Anna Karenina begins with the immortal line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Even so, not every book about an unhappy family is unique. At some point, I burned out on Oprah books. I realized that, although the details differed, they were at heart all the same: looking at someone else's pain as a way of avoiding one's own — or validating one's own — or reassuring oneself of the non-pain of one's life. (My fault, really, for expecting something other than emotional voyeurism from a talk-show host; Oprah seems rather dignified, but she's just Springer without the hair pulling and chair throwing.)

When it comes to domestic drama, I've always liked to recommend All Families Are Psychotic, which is actually a very funny book — because, after all, what's funnier than someone else's misery? A Spot of Bother is somewhat in the same vein, made even funnier by being British. All the character's lives are quietly imploding, and I sympathized, but I also laughed out loud about 20 times, including once on an otherwise very quiet bus.

These sort of books aren't for everyone, of course. I think it helps if you're familiar with the use of humor as a defense mechanism and/or if you survived your own unhappy family. (In my family, it's not a holiday until someone cries.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By

by Georges Simenon

From the author of the Inspector Maigret mysteries (and a lot of other pulp fiction), a serious psychological drama — roman dur, or "hard novel," as the introduction calls it — that's part J.P. Sartre and part Patrick Bateman (of American Psycho), about ideas of freedom and (or, versus) control.

I have a tendency to dismiss mysteries as low-brow entertainment for people who want to seem high-brow by reading but really don't want to have to think very hard about what they're reading — beach books, if you will (which, mind you, have their place). This, on the other hand, this is freakin' literature. Of course, it's not a mystery itself, but I wouldn't have expected a mystery writer capable of this. It might be the literature-in-translation effect, or perhaps it's to do with the era in which it was written (you know, the era when grammar mattered) — whatever it is, this book oozes seriousness, not only in substance but in style as well. I don't mean to say it isn't captivating or isn't a pleasure to read, but it isn't the sort of thing you tear through con brio. Like Nabokov's writing, it's rich and deep, which, depending on your own style, could feel like slogging through mud or luxuriating in a mud bath.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Puritan Ordeal

by Andrew Delbanco

"Reading is rapture (or if it isn't, I put the book down meaning to go on with it later, and escape out the side door)." --William Maxwell (1908-2000)

I didn't finish this book, and, thanks to the above quotation, I did not feel bad about it at all.

I found out about The Puritan Ordeal from a review of another book, and it's idea intrigued me: not just a social or intellectual history, but an emotional history of the white people who colonized North America, how they experienced and reacted to religion, the new landscape, etc. It turned out to be too academic for me, with too-long excerpts from historical texts and diaries, when all I really wanted was the author's conclusions. Of course, apparently unsupported conclusions would not have been quite right either, but the balance was a bit off for my taste.


by Rafe Martin

A year or two ago I really enjoyed the Sevenwaters trilogy by Juliet Marillier, which is based on the fairytale about the six brothers turned into swans and their sister who tries to reverse the spell by weaving shirts for them out of starwort and nettles while not speaking, laughing, or crying until she was done. So I was rather excited when I came across this book about the youngest brother, who becomes human again but still has one wing instead of an arm because his sister couldn't finish the last shirt.

As it turns out, the character in this book is not quite as tortured and mysterious as I had hoped, as I expected from the way he was in the trilogy. At least part of the problem is the loss of complexity inherent in the young-adult formula — and, omigod, is this book formulaic! Disappointing overall, amateurish and clumsy at times, a great concept poorly executed.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


by Clifford Chase

Another book that sounds really stupid if I try to explain what it's about: a teddy bear; animism; parthenogenesis; terrorism and the Patriot Act; the unbearable lightness of being; etc. (Not for nothing, that last reference; as ridiculous as it sounds, Winkie really does have the philosophical depth of a Milan Kundera novel.)

Reading this book reminded me of watching the bootleg video Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, directed by Todd Haynes, in which a remarkably nuanced examination of anorexia, and the life of a woman who literally starved to death in the spotlight of celebrity, is acted out with Barbie and Ken dolls. Rather than making light, the bizarreness actually heightens the poignancy of an already moving story.

The Ruins

by Scott Smith

Holy crap, this book is awesome!

This is the kind of book that keeps you up late at night, waaaay past your bedtime, struggling to stay awake so you can find out what horrible thing is going to happen next. Everything is fine and normal, then something bad happens, then something worse, and worse — and when you think it can't get any worse, of course it does. It makes you wonder what kind of freak could imagine this stuff, let alone write it down.

I got this book after reading a review, but I can't remember what it said that convinced me. One of the back-cover blurbs compares it to Stephen King and Thomas Harris, which would have been a turn-off. (Yes, I read tons of that stuff when I was a teenager.) The plot summary sounds stupid; there isn't much you could say without spoiling the suspense, but a longer description would probably sound even stupider. The premise is very simple (Smith's last book was A Simple Plan) and kind of stupid, yet it works. The jacket is very well-designed, but if I had started there and then read the blurbs and the inside flap copy....

It's hard to explain; you just have to trust me.

You have to trust me, OR ELSE WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!!!!!!!!