Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Book #116: The Cancer Ward

I liked Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward much, much more than I thought I would.

It takes place in a cancer ward in a hospital in a city in the USSR, sometime in the 50s – after Stalin’s death but before the Khrushchev “thaw,” though I don’t think it was ever specified. The men in the ward are a colorful cast of characters, from the self-important, bureaucratic Pavel Rusanov, to the young student Dimka, whose leg needs to be amputated, to the main protagonist Oleg Kostoglotov, who was allowed to come back from exile somewhere in the steppes to seek treatment, they are a diverse group.

Solzhenitsyn moves in and out of these – and many other – characters’ minds as they grapple with their mortality and illnesses, while in the background Stalin’s death and the fall of the secret police chief Beria have the USSR roiling.

The book is somewhat autobiographical – like Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn was a political exile. He also based the events of the book on his own experience in the cancer ward during his own treatment.

The book is almost the perfect combination of events and plot and reflection on mortality, the government, and many other things. Sometimes the Russians tend to wax a bit too philosophical in their fictions, going on and on and sometimes abandoning the plot for way to long. Solzhenitsyn found a good balance though, and all reflection felt natural, but the characters were still important and real, and I still found myself really caring what happened to them.

It was a pretty long book – about 800 pages in my edition – but I read it pretty quickly and was sad when it was over.

If you’re thinking about reading it, I say go for it. I think it’s much more accessible than some 19th-century Russian novels like those by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Plague

Book #115: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, somehow, is my first encounter with the Sherlock Holmes books. Obviously I’ve watched Sherlock and some of the Holmes movies, but I’d never gotten around to reading any of the Holmes books.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was surprisingly fun to read. I don’t always enjoy the turn-of-the century writing style, but I liked Watson’s voice and the story was compelling without the writing getting in the way, as sometimes happens to me.

I didn’t have that strong a reaction to this book, however. I really enjoyed it and I want to read more Sherlock Holmes books, but I find that I don’t have that much to say about it.

Read it, if you haven’t somehow. It’s a well-constructed mystery and a great story. It’s a really quick read and moves along at a good pace. It has the right amount of tension and suspense, without feeling drawn-out or over-written. It also doesn’t feel gimmicky or cliche at all – though I suppose that could be because this is one of the originators of all the detective story cliches that have followed.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Cancer Ward

Book #113: Everything Is Illuminated

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those books that will punch you in the gut and knock all the air out of you.

It has two main plots. In the first, a young American Jew – Also named Jonathan Safran Foer – goes to Ukraine to find the woman who he thinks may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He’s accompanied by his translator Alex – who butchers English amazingly – and Alex’s grandfather. Together they try to find the village Jonathan’s grandfather fled.

The second plot takes place largely in 1791, in the village of Trachimbrod, known on maps as Sofiowka. Trachimbrod is a largely Jewish shtetl, and it’s filled to the brim with neurotic, quirky people. At the center of the story is Brod, Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who was found mysteriously by a river one day. From Brod’s strange origins and childhood, the narratives moves through life in the shtetl to Brod’s adulthood an marriage, continues through the years until it reaches Jonathan’s grandfather.

As Jonathan, Alex, and Alex’s grandfather search for the now-nonexistent Trachimbrod, they are drawn closer to a painful, tragic truth and a past that they could never have expected.

When I read Everything Is Illuminated in college, it totally shattered me. I loved everything about it and immediately placed it on my list of top-ten books I’ve ever read. At the time I was really interested in Jews and World War II, and the tragic nature of the book and the fact that it was an interesting spin on the “Jews in World War II” narrative (it’s about Jews, and World War II plays a minor role, but it’s not a Holocaust book) were bound to make me love it.

I’ll be honest – this time around I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. It could be that in the four years since I’ve read the book I’ve built it up in my mind to be this great literary masterpiece or that my interests have shifted a bit, I don’t know. For some reason, for the first third of the book I kept thinking, “I fell in love with this book? Really?” It wasn’t that it was bad. It was still very good, it just wasn’t the earth-shattering read I remembered.

But then I started to get more invested. The plot moved along and things like Alex’s bad English started to feel less gimmicky and I found myself getting sucked in. By the end as we approached the terrible thing my heart was racing and I kept telling myself not to be so invested because I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to be crushed.

But crushed I was.

It’s hard to say where I come down on Everything Is Illuminated. I still loved it. As a whole it had much the same effect on me this time as it did four years ago. But at the same time, I was more aware of some of the flaws and parts that felt gimmicky or didn’t seem necessary. It’s not a perfect book. It’s far from it. But in the end I felt so shattered that I’m inclined to be forgiving of the flaws, because damn, this books makes you feel.

So I still loved it. It’s still a book I’ll readily recommend to anyone who asks. If I see someone reading it or it comes up in conversation, I’ll still say, “Man. That is a good book. It’s one of my favorites.” But is it still in my “Top Ten Books of All Time” list?

I don’t know…

Either way, read it. It’s beautiful and haunting and it packs a powerful emotional punch.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Victim

Book #112: Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of those books where the setting is as much a character as the people.

Goodbye to Berlin is a series of semi-connected short stories about Berlin during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. The narrator, also a British writer named Christopher Isherwood, recounts his experiences living in the city in the lead-up to World War II, complete with the sleazy and not-so-sleazy people who meets and the seedy and not-so-seedy places he lives. From a dank room in a crowded flat with a German family to a room in a rooming house with the quintessential German hausfrau Fräulein Shroeder to the wealthy Jewish family he befriends, Isherwood’s stories offer snapshots into life in a city in decline.

1930s Berlin society is far from perfect, and as it slides closer and closer to war, things continue to go downhill. However, Isherwood’s genuine affection for the people he meets and the city he lives in. Even in decline and with its flaws, Isherwood seems to love Berlin.

At one point he even writes, “It is strange how people seem to belong to places – especially to places where they were not born.”

As someone with nomadic tendencies – I get an itch to move on and try out living in new places and doing new things after about a year – this really resonated with me. I’ve felt deep connections with places I have no business feeling connected to. I’m not from Budapest, Boston, Prague, Chicago, or Salzburg, but in some ways each of these cities has made an impression on me that goes beyond just, “I visited it and I liked it.” Each of them has awakened parts of me I didn’t know were sleeping. Each of them has touched me in places that are hard to reach. I can’t say why, and it’s probably pretentious and presumptuous to say, but somehow I feel a bit like I belong to these places. Or at least I did belong to them, even if it was only for a few days.

Any time I think about these cities, the cities themselves are always part of the narrative. They’re more than just settings or places where certain things happen, they are characters with the ability to influence the events and make impressions on the people who come in contact with them. I’ve been known to call Budapest my boyfriend. I had a short summer fling with Salzburg that left me longing for more. Boston is that interesting person I met on a trip one time and would like to get back in touch with. Prague is that toxic friend you know you should probably get rid of, but you just can’t because she always makes things exciting and when things are good between you, they are so good that you forget the terrible, soul-crushing lows. Chicago is the cool older sister that I always want to hang out with.

Isherwood does an excellent job of turning Berlin into more than just a setting in Goodbye to Berlin. He’s a very good writer, and his descriptions are often perfect. The short stories themselves are interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the characters Isherwood peoples them with.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Everything Is Illuminated

 

Book #111: House of Leaves

Holy. Shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. HOLY SHIT.

Holyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshit.

House of Leaves. I…wow. Mark Z. Danielewski is a crazy motherfucker. House of Leaves is unlike anything I’ve ever read. I’m not sure there’s another book like it anywhere. Not only is the story (or stories, I should say) compelling and terrifying, the actual, physical experience of reading the book is also part of reading it.

The book is presented as an analytical textbook about an indie film that has gathered a cult following. The film – “The Navidson Record” – is a found-footage horror story about mysterious doors that open in famous photographer Will Navidson’s house. When a mysterious labyrinth with moving walls, a growling beast, and huge, cavernous rooms is revealed to exist inside the house, Navidson enlists a team of explorers, as well as his brother and some friends, to explore and try to get to the bottom of what is happening in his house. Running through the narrative is the strain that the cavern and its exploration has on Navidson’s relationship with his wife. It’s a little bit like the Paranormal Activity films, I’d imagine. Except that as things are revealed – through footnotes and appendices and interviews – you become unsure whether or not the film is fact or fiction.

That’s just the story of The Navidson Record. The text of the book itself is complied by tattoo parlor employee and slacker Johnny Truant. When Truant and his friend enter a dead man’s apartment, they find hundreds of pages worth of records and notes on the film that Truant feels compelled to organize into the book – House of Leaves. As Truant delves into Zampanó’s – the dead man’s – work, he finds himself drawn into a world where he questions his sanity and is forced to confront darkness in his past – and present. Truant’s story is told through lengthy footnotes throughout the actual “textbook.”

The book itself, like I said, is as much a part of the reading experience as the story it contains. The book is riddled with footnotes and symbols. Sometimes the text reads in more than one direction so you’re turning the book sideways and upside down and even moving it in a spiral to read it. Sometimes text runs along the top of the page, or the bottom of the page, or even diagonally across the page. Footnotes have footnotes, sometimes they refer you to appendices or back to previous footnotes. Sometimes you have to hunt for footnotes that aren’t where they should be. Labyrinths are key in the story, and Danielewski turned the physical book containing the story into a labyrinth. It’s completely insane.

More than that, the book is riddled with codes and secret meanings. Certain words are different colors. The word house is always printed in blue, for example. If you go online and seek out message boards you’ll find all kinds of crazy theories and things people have found in the book. There’s a coded letter to decipher, and then there’s a code within the code. There are ciphers. There’s a footnote listing famous architects and artists and if you take the first letter of all the last names, there’s a message. Other times there are codes, but you wouldn’t know it unless you really devoted yourself to decoding things, because the first few letters will be gibberish and then suddenly there are words.

The think about reading a book like this is that once you figure out that there are meanings behind the text, everything seems intentional. Why was this word misspelled? Why is this word a different font from the other? This word is missing letters, do the missing letters spell something? Why is this footnote in italics while this one is in bold? There’s even a bar of music printed in the book. Have you ever tried to seek out a piano so you can play music that you found printed in a novel you’re reading? I have. I felt insane. That book can drive you crazy, if you let it.

Let me tell you a little story about my experience reading House of Leaves. It was late. I wanted to go to bed, but I only had 30 pages until the end of a chapter. Finishing them would get me to bed a bit later than I wanted, but nothing major. But then a footnote led me to another footnote, which led me to an appendix with around 100 pages of letters. One of the letters was written in code, so I had to figure it out. There was a code within that code, and then I noticed another appendix. That appendix showed me that weird symbols connected to certain footnotes had meanings, so I had to go back and connect the meanings with the footnotes. The next thing I knew, it was 3 hours later and I still had 26 pages before the end of the chapter.

House of Leaves was an absolutely insane experience to read. It’s one of those books that could really fuck you up without all the unique footnotes and codes. Those extra elements only serve to get the book in your head a even more. It’s a horror story and a love story and the order you read the appendices and whether or not you choose to pay attention to the extra things like codes or footnotes can completely change your reading.

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It changed my idea of what books can be and what they can do. I think a lot about the connection between e-books and physical books, and House of Leaves definitely added to that. Reading that book on a Kindle would not be the same. You would lose so much of the physical experience of reading the book and flipping forward and backward in search of footnotes and codes. You’d lose the sense of space when Danielewski plays with the spacing of text on the page if you were looking at it on a small screen.

Mind-fucking plot and insanity-inducing codes aside, House of Leaves definitely makes a case for physical books. The physical book is as much a character as Navidson, Truant, Zampanó, and the House. The act of reading is an experience. It even adds something to the plot, instead of just feeling gimmicky.

If you’re up for a crazy experience, I’d totally recommend House of Leaves. It’s completely nuts.

And, if you know of another book like it, please let me know. Going back to reading books with straightforward plots and nothing to decode and no mysteries to solve is a bit like going back to driving an automatic after you’ve been driving a stick shift. There’s just not as much to do.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Goodbye To Berlin 

Book #110: Breakfast of Champions

I’ve loved Kurt Vonnegut for years, even though I’d only read Slaughterhouse-Five. But now I’ve read Breakfast of Champions, and I can say that I love Kurt Vonnegut for something other than Slaughterhouse-Five.

Breakfast of Champions is one of Vonnegut’s later works. He describes it as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. In some ways it feels a bit thrown-together. Things don’t always fit together nicely, often story ideas or concepts are laid out and half-written and left hanging with the words “and so on. . .” Don’t think this is a bad thing, though. Somehow it feels natural that Vonnegut should do this.

Breakfast of Champions is very hard to describe. Two characters drive the novel. One is Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy businessman and entrepreneur in the midwestern Midland City. Dwayne, we learn within the first page or so of the book, comes unhinged and goes crazy after reading a story by the famed science fiction reader Kilgore Trout.

Trout is the other driving force of the novel – he’s been featured in several other Vonnegut novels as well. In Breakfast of Champions we see him old and destitute. He’s written prolifically but has not been recognized, until he gets invited to Midland City to be the keynote speaker at a festival.

If there is a defined plot to Breakfast of Champions, you could say that it’s the events leading up to when Trout and Dwayne meet, and the moment not long after that Dwayne goes crazy and attacks people after Trout’s story makes him think that he is the only human in the world and everyone else is a robot programmed to interact with him.

However, this “plot” is thin and muddied. While the book traces Trout’s journey and hints at Dwayne’s mental state the whole way through, Vonnegut often diverges into summarizing plots of Kilgore Trout stories – this is where most random plot outlines are done and left with “and so on…” or drawing pictures – the book is filled with illustrations – and describing and commenting on the world.

It’s a little bit like if you were reading a twisted and political children’s history book. For example, after mentioning Vietnam, Vonnegut writes, “Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.” He also describes the European settlers as sea pirates:

“1492. The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.

[. . .]

The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.”

Vonnegut often steps out of the narrative to explain things like this. It’s weird, but you like it and it makes you think about the world differently.

Then, of course, Vonnegut inserts himself, as the writer, into the story. He interacts with his characters and Trout eventually becomes suspicious that he’s not like the rest of the people in the world of the novel.

Overall, Breakfast of Champions is beautifully all over the place. At one point Vonnegut writes, “Let others bring order to chaos, I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.” The book is a chaotic, semi-organized hodge-podge of themes and ideas that are loosely held together. I feel like it’s something that only Vonnegut can get away with, because the writing is so good and he’s just Vonnegut. It’s what he does.

Breakfast of Champions is filled with lots of pithy sayings, clever turns of phrase, and poignant passages. The end made me tear up. I enjoyed it.

Rating: *****

Book #109: Kafka On The Shore

I love Haruki Murakami. In fact, my first ever post on this blog was actually about his 1Q84 It’s not on the list, but probably only because my version of the list predates the book.

I like Murakami because his books are really metaphysical and they always take me to this weird headspace where I’m never quite sure what’s real or what’s going on in the book. Reading Murakami can really mess you up for a bit, if you let it.

I read Kafka on the Shore in college. It was my first Murakami, and I loved it. I liked it just as much this time around. Murakami does something where he takes you into a world that could be ours, and it seems like it is ours, but things are just different enough that you wonder if there are so many things we don’t know about in this world.

It’s actually really hard to write about Kafka on the Shore, because there’s a lot going on and so much to think about, but it’s hard to get anywhere without just describing the entire book in detail. Certain books can only really be discussed with other people who have read them. This is one of them.

Kafka on the Shore deals with two separate storylines that converge in the end. The first story is driven by runaway Kafka Tamura, the “world’s toughest 15-year-old.” Kafka runs away from his wealthy father, hoping to escape a horrific prophecy. He winds up at a small library in a small city in Japan, where he’s offered work by the mysterious owner and her assistant.

The second story is driven by an elderly man named Mr. Nakata, who, following a mysterious incident when he was in elementary school, has been left mentally challenged but with a special talent – talking to cats. After a disturbing event, Nakata meets up with a trucker named Hoshino, and they embark on a mysterious journey in search of the entrance stone, which must be closed before reality is affected.

The storylines converge in strange ways as the world becomes stranger and less and less like ours. It rains leeches and fish, ghosts exist and interact with the living, and spirits break free from their bodies. It’s really a book you have to read to appreciate.

It’s also a book that I can’t say more about without giving things away, and I really want people to read it, so I’m not going to.

Kafka on the Shore is beautiful. It’s well-written and metaphysical and metaphorical, with beautiful observations about music, reality, love, and so much more. At the same time, it’s also a page-turner in parts, and as Kafka, Nakata, and Hoshino are drawn closer to the center of things, it gets really hard to stop reading and return to reality.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Breakfast of Champions

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