Words Words Words...
I know I haven't been posting alot lately and it must be very hard on some of you. However, I am confident you'll pull through this difficult time.
But here I am on Christmas night in PA with some time to kill and a fresh cocktail. Let's talk books! I've read a few of the things in the last five months or so and I will attempt to explicate said tomes in the ramblings that follow...
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A precocious and spiritually omnivorous young adolescent Indian zookeeper's son escapes a sinking ship (on which his family perishes en route to their future home in Canada) and finds himself stranded at sea on a life raft which also happens to be occupied by the shipwreck's other survivors: an orangutan, a hyena and a tiger.
This beautifully written and wholly captivating novel has a quasi-allegorical quality and an ending that will leave you scratching your head. It's a tad slow getting started but don't worry -- once it hits its stride, you can't stop reading. Thanks for the recommendation, Julie!
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
Props to my roomate John for loaning me this, my first Kurt Vonnegut book. In this novel, supposedly Vonnegut's 50th birthday present to himself, he vents his spleen on the state of the world (circa 1973, as it happens) in the misadventures of the book's two main characters, the eccentric and curmudgeonly sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout (note the similarity to the author's name) and just-barely-sane car salesman Dwayne Hoover, whose trajectories collide in the book's apocalyptic climax. Vonnegut's prose is hilarious and biting, peppered with non-sequitors and his own, child-like cartoon illustrations. His social satire imbues every line and he easily blends poignancy, tragedy and whimsical humor. I really enjoyed reading Breakfast of Champions but I can't say that I really cared about any of its characters -- not that Vonnegut exactly wants you to...
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy's rather sparing use of various punctuation (and his total abandonment of quotation marks) are a little to get used to but this economically-written piece of literary noir gets rolling quickly. It's got an old-fashioned "good vs evil" conflict, set up like a modern Western (in which here, the "good guys" are sturdy American war veterans and the "bad guys" are drugs and the amoral, bloodthirsty men who sell them) and indeed, McCarthy's "this-country-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket" moralizing tone does get the better of him more than once in the book. But his prose is hauntingly poetic and chock-full of symbolism, and he makes some rather shocking plot choices. You can knock this baby out in two days; it's a real page-turner. Thanks for the loan, Joe!
Moon Palace and New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
I'm no literary scholar and usually I just read a book and enjoy it without trying to analyze all its intricate, underlying layers of meaning and metaphor. So in lieu of my own explication of Moon Palace, I'll print this excerpt from Library Journal:
"It was the summer that men first walked on the moon. I was very young back then, but I did not believe there would ever be a future." Yet this novel deals precisely with the future that protagonist Marco Stanley Fogg seems to doubt the most: his own. We see Marco through several quite remarkable years, during which he nearly starves himself to death out of poverty and dejection, is rescued by a beautiful Chinese girl named Kitty Wu, and ends up as the live-in helper to an invalid old man, the recording of whose life story becomes Marco's obsession and the focus of the novel. Indeed, the old man's tale eventually becomes Marco's, spiraling into one big center where everything and everyone is (literally!) related. The novel's fantastic quality can be hard to swallow, and some of the action is maddeningly distant, but it's interesting, worthwhile reading.
Um, yeah, what she said.
But seriously, I loved this novel and found its story and central characters quite absorbing but then Auster squanders it all at the end, where he rushes to tie up some plot points you've been reading about for the last 150 pages and caps off the whole odyssey with a somewhat underwhelming outro.
But hey, it's fucking hard to write a great story with characters you care about and a fascinating plot that keeps you ripping the pages back one after the other and then to wrap the whole thing up with a literary climax that leaves you feeling not only satisfied but deeply moved, inspired and changed by the experience of reading it. I have total respect for people who try to do this, and Auster is damn good at it. Maybe Moon Palace isn't perfect, but it's certainly four-star.
New York Trilogy is apparently considered to be Paul Auster's "signature work"; it contains three novellas -- City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room -- which all start out as detective stories but each one unravels into a bewildering unreality that is part psychological examination, part autobiography, part literary study. And taken together, the three pieces blur together in a hazy, dreamlike whole. There is no sense of resolution at the end, no signposts to indicate right or wrong, no moral compass. I've never read anything quite like this. Of the two Auster books I've read, this one I recommend the most. Thanks again Julie!
That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
The most earth-bound of Lewis's "space trilogy" also is my favorite of the three. Lewis called this story an adult's fairy-tale. In it, he tones down the sci-fi and fantasy aspects of its two predecessors (Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra), and leads you to the heart of an interplanetary battle of good and evil by getting you intensely interested in the book's incredibly well-drawn characters. Lewis's social satire is top-notch and his scholarly sophistication doesn't overwhelm the story. My favorite C.S. Lewis book to date. Thanks to my dad for turning me onto this trilogy.
Leap Days: Chronicles of a Mid-Life Move by Katherine Lanpher
I always liked Katherine Lanpher as the co-host of the Al Franken Show. When I heard about her book, it sounded diverting enough to pick it up -- basically Leap Days tells the autobiographical story of a Midwestern journalist with deep roots in her home turf who, at age 44, pulls up the tent stakes and hauls off to the "younger, slimmer" environment of New York City to take a job (co-hosting the Franken show) in 2004. Since I'm a New Yorker who moved here from somewhere else, I find stories about people who move to New York from somewhere else interesting. Lanpher's got a lot of heart and snappy wit and fills her narratives with tons of great anecdotes and details. A good, quick, light read.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
Yet another hat-tip to Julie for turning me onto this great book. This fetid, surreal tale, set in 18th-century France, tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenoille, an evil, strangely scentless orphan who happens to be singularly "blessed" with a supernaturally prodigious and utterly inhuman sense of smell, which leads him inevitably to a career as the most virtuosic perfumer in the world.
But the whole perfumer trip just turns out to be a ruse which enables the rotten, soulless Grenoille to follow his more urgent calling -- to become a cold-blooded murderer in search of the ultimate perfume of all: the scent of only the most lily-white and virginal young girls. With nary a virtuous character character in sight, this pitch-dark story tells itself less with dialogue (of which there is very little) than with painstakingly evocative olfactory descriptions. Brilliant and disgusting. Read it.
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson
I must admit that I'm not quite finished with this book but I'm close. I loved Bryson's The Mother Tongue so I figured I'd enjoy this one as well. I was right.
The Lost Continent is a simultaneously hilarious and insightful travelogue told from the perspective of a native Midwesterner who has spent the whole of his adult life in England. Following an urge to rediscover his roots, Bryson returns to Des Moines, Iowa (where he was born and raised) a full 15 years after his expatriation, rents a car and zigzags across the 50 states (well, 38, anyway) in search of what he calls Amalgam, the mythical small-town of his imagination that encapsulates all that is good and sturdy and wholesome about American life. In short, he wants to rediscover the America of his boyhood.
What he finds, instead, is a homogeneous landscape blighted with parking lots, burger joints, gas stations, harsh lights and an overall sense of aesthetic bankruptcy. The book was written in the late 80s, when the McDonalds-ization of the U.S. was just a spring bud compared to the hideous outgrowth it is today.
Bryson's book isn't just a string of indictments, though; his reflections on America are tinged with real affection and a genuine sense of loss. He gushes praise and awe and admiration for the American people and the continent itself whenever it's due. Thanks to Stefan, who gave me his copy of The Lost Continent because, according to him, he "hated it." Thanks for hating it, Stefan!
Happy New Year.