Monday, May 24, 2010

War by Candlelight

by Daniel Alarcón

There was a time when I read a lot of short stories. Not sure why I stopped. I recently took a look at The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, but it's super long and a bunch of other people had it on hold. I did read a few stories, and those I read were quite good, but one can't just plow through a collection of short stories the way one can plow through a novel (or even really good creative nonfiction). Sometimes a bit of space is needed between stories.

Even in a collection whose stories are thematically (if loosely) linked — such as this collection by Peruvian-born, Alabama-raised author Daniel Alarcón — I like to relax a bit after finishing a story, before plunging into the next one. And stalling is pretty much what I'm doing now, not because I disliked this book, but because I wasn't really moved by it. Could be a case of me getting older and [shudder] more conservative, and not identifying with the "voice of the oppressed" as easily as when I was young and idealistic (and narcissistic); or maybe tragedy fatigue has gotten to me, and the million major catastrophes underway at any given moment have made me insensitive to the thousand little tragedies of everyday life in an impoverished city; or perhaps this collection of stories isn't so great. Or maybe I just didn't like it. It's okay not to like stuff.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Chocolate War

by Robert Cormier

Sometimes I read a classic and think, "Seriously?!" This is a fantastic book, though, and it deserves to be a classic of young adult literature. It's a bit controversial and over the years has been challenged (as the American Library Association calls it when some wingnut tries to have a book removed from a library or school curriculum), but, as anyone with sense can realize, the bits to which censors object are often the very same parts that make the book challenging and edifying to read. In this case, the story includes violence and bullying, as well as some sexual references. I wonder, though, if some of the haters are actually more disturbed by the way the adults are portrayed as mostly disinterested and, in one major character, frankly despicable.

Bottom line: this book is good enough that I read the whole thing in one day — and then watched the movie version a couple hours later. In addition to being a freakin' amazing late '80s time capsule (the main character is the same actor who played Wyatt in Weird Science, and the clothes! and the music!), the film does a good job capturing the characters' complexities. As movies often do, however, it kind of butchers the ending; I don't know what I'd have thought of the ending if I hadn't just read the book that day, but it barely made sense to me compared to the original ending.

In the Fold

by Rachel Cusk

A darkly comical British domestic drama with sharply drawn characters, this book is a real pleasure to read. I'm really impressed by the grammar — how many writers manage not to end a sentence with a preposition without sounding awkward? — but the greater source of enjoyment is the odd comfort that flows from the absurdity of social relations and the asininity of relatives. The story is also sort of a comedy of manners, in the sense that politeness, for the British upper and upper-middle classes, is not (as it is for Americans) about doing the right thing but about seeming unperturbed and unconcerned with other people's and even one's own misbehaviors. The author offers a more modern version, as well, of the classic stiff upper lip in the form of a suburban conformity and complacency that somehow comes off as charming, at least in contrast with the obvious sociopathy of the putatively self-actualized characters.

Am I telling you anything that will make you want to read this book? It's not easy to do with books such as this one. The comparison that comes quickest to mind is Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother, or perhaps All Families Are Psychotic by Douglad Coupland.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Be Near Me

by Andrew O'Hagan

After a slow start, this haunting book really pulls the reader into the morass of the protagonist's existential angst. Which sounds bad, but it can be delicious agony when executed properly. In part because of the hint of intergenerational romance, but mostly because of the emotional timbre of desperate yearning, Be Near Me reminds me of Call Me by Your Name. The skillful vivisection of a mind twisted by self-alienation puts me in mind of novels by Edward St. Aubyn, and likewise reminds one of the raw and unflinching interiority of Virginia Woolf's best work.

This book would stand up to re-reading in the future, and the writing is that sort which induces repeated re-reading and relishing of particular passages. I almost don't want to tell you the story is about a Scottish priest, for fear it will put you off as it nearly did me. His being a priest is somehow essential and immaterial at the same time, such that there's little enough religion and very little that a religious adherent would recognize as spiritual.

Like a cigarette (according to Oscar Wilde), it is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied. This book would be a serious contender for Top 10 status, but 10 is such a small number compared to the millions of books in the world and the thousands I've read; without diminishing it's greatness, I think it's more likely in a four-way tie for a rank in the upper teens or twenties.

The Tyranny of E-mail: the four-thousand-year journey to your inbox

by John Freeman

A disappointing and frustrating book, but it could have been so great!

Biggest problem is that it's not well-edited. Freeman seems at times to want to write like Alain de Botton (The Architecture of Happiness), and he's not so far off the mark, but better editing would have helped. It also could have addressed some of the larger structural issues. For example, the "four-thousand-year journey to your inbox" has no depth until the most recent few hundred years, and the last two chapters feel tacked-on and completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the book. The occasional brilliant sentences and insights only draw more attention to the unevenness and shortcomings of the whole.

I agree with many of the book's criticisms of e-mail and the cult(ure) of gadgetry, the myth of the global village and the failures of technology. I quickly grew weary, however, of the Chicken Little-ing and the constant use of "we" when describing the extreme rather than the common or average. No more than a few pages are devoted to the digital divide, even though there are at least four divides — generational, temperamental, socio-economic, geographic — that could have been explored.

Do I regret reading this book? No, but I didn't learn much and I don't feel particularly enriched by the experience.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs

by Irvine Welsh

If you like Chuck Palahniuk.... I actually haven't read much Chuck, and I've only seen the movie of Trainspotting, but this book has me convinced that Palahniuk and Welsh, both being laddish versions of Douglas Coupland, could have a fair amount of fans in common. Bedroom Secrets is a gripping narrative of unexpected — one is tempted to say spiritual, or, perhaps for machismo's sake, supernatural — connections, although the final twist is too inevitable to be surprising. (Or is the reader too jaded to be surprised?) The real surprise, the real charm of this book is not in the plot, rather it's the way the author manipulates the reader's affection and loyalty for the co-protagonists against the grain and in opposition to their evolving relationship. As it's a bullying relationship, finding oneself despising the victim can be an awkward experience; that disorientation, though, is what this book is ultimately all about.

The Confession

by James E. McGreevey

It doesn't matter that I read this memoir by former Mayor McGay of New Jersey several years after his scandalous — and simultaneously, strangely, inspirational — coming out and resignation. I didn't want to read it for salacious gossip and voyeuristic thrills. What fascinated me, and what McGreevey's done a great job of expressing, is the phenomenon of closetedness. In this particular case, the author's political career, public persona and accompanying media attention lend an emphasis or increased contrast to the psychological drama, but the dynamics of denial and self-loathing, of craving and indulgence and shame, are the same as for any person living a life at odds with an essential part of his or her identity.

Kids today publicly self-identify as queer at younger ages than did gays and lesbians of even one generation earlier. Despite newsworthy examples to the contrary, they are more frequently and more easily accepted by their peer groups. My own coming out experience wasn't particularly traumatizing or dramatic, in part because my understanding of my orientation and all its implications was gradual rather than sudden. I don't remember consciously feeling closeted or ashamed, and no one rejected me, but some of what McGreevey has written has cast new light on certain faded recollections. In any case, it's hard enough for me, just 16 years younger than the author, to imagine the difficulties of being homosexual in an earlier era, the fear of being outcast and the temptation of clinging to conformity. Imagine how much harder it is, and will continue to become, for younger homos who ever more readily find acceptance. The experience of the closet is an important part of social history and collective remembrance, and Jim McGreevey's eloquent and honest memoir is a significant contribution to its preservation.