Archive for the ‘Contemporary’ Category

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

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Book #111: House of Leaves

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

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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

Book #107: The Butcher Boy

Oh man. Oh. Man.

Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy details a young killer’s descent into madness. It’s narrated by the teenaged Francis Brady, usually known as Francie. Francie grew up in a small Irish town with his mother and father, and he’s just a wee bit nuts. If you combined Norman Bates and Huckleberry Finn, you’d probably wind up with Francie Brady. If that’s not enough to interest you in reading this book, I’m not sure what to tell you.

Francie is an interesting narrator because he can seem so sane and rational, especially in the beginning, but then you slowly realize that this kid is fucking crazy.

He’s definitely a flawed narrator – he’s telling this story years later after he’s been convicted of murder – but his voice is so interesting. I found myself alternately hating him, being terrified of him, and feeling profoundly sorry for him.

It quickly becomes clear that Francie is not well and needs help, but there’s not really any help to be found. The twists and turns the narrative takes and the way Francie’s voice shifts and changes as the story progresses makes The Butcher Boy compelling and interesting the whole way through. You don’t really have time to get bored or look away or even get complacent.

The way the story unfolds and the changes in Francie’s voice as he gets closer and closer to recounting the actual murder and events that followed is so compelling. I really, really liked this book, even though it was pretty disturbing.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Lolita

Book #103: Cat’s Eye

Margaret Atwood is a great writer. Cat’s Eye is the third book by her that I’ve read. So far, it’s the one that I’ve enjoyed the least.

Cat’s Eye is the story of an aging artist, Elaine Risley, who’s returned to Toronto, where she grew up, for an art show commemorating her paintings. While preparing for the show, she reminisces on her childhood and wonders, especially, what happened to her childhood friend Cordelia.

Like most character-driven novels, I have a really hard time explaining much more about Cat’s Eye. Cordelia is at the center of Elaine’s memories, first as an elementary school “frenemy” and tormentor, and then as a best friend. Elaine reviews her life and the times that it intersects with Cordelia’s.

I’ll be honest: Cat’s Eye got a little personal for me. I have my own versions of “Cordelia” from elementary school and high school. When Elaine remembers some of what she was feeling as a little girl, feeling manipulated and tormented by her friends and how helpless she felt to do anything about it, it took me back to some of the things I remember from childhood.

Girls can be mean, especially to their friends.

That made Cat’s Eye a bit difficult for me to read at time. In spite of my connecting with Elaine in a pretty personal way, I feel a bit meh about Cat’s Eye. It didn’t do a whole lot for me, as a whole. Again, like I said with What I Loved, since Elaine is an artist, Atwood devotes a fair amount of time to describing her paintings. Since I’m not a particularly visual reader, a lot of this was lost on me.

The story wasn’t the best and I didn’t love the book, but I’m willing to be lenient since it’s Margaret Atwood. At least I know with her that even if I don’t like the story, the writing will be good.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Book #101: What I Loved

Have you ever read a book that don’t mind while you’re reading it, but once you finish you feel sort of glad that it’s over?

That’s how I felt with What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (who, by the way, is married to Paul Auster). It’s one of those novels that I think is almost pretentious, but isn’t totally pretentious, kind of like White Teeth or something by Jonathan Franzen.

(That said, it’s been recorded on this blog that I didn’t care for White Teeth and do not like the one book I’ve read by Jonathan Franzen.)

The book is about love and friendship, told through the eyes of an old art historian, looking back at his family’s relationship with another family. There is a lot of pretentious talk about art and literature, since the four adults in the novel are all writers, artists, or academics.

One of the men is a controversial artist in New York City, and Hustvedt takes great pleasure in describing all of his works in great detail, like she’s painting a picture of the paintings, sculptures, and other works he’s created. Often these descriptions were long and indulgent, and often they lost me. I’m not a very visual reader. I don’t often actually picture things in my head as I read, so pagelong descriptions of paintings or dioramas added little to the story for me, although I guess maybe they do for people who are really visual readers who are good at visualizing things they read about.

Also, I felt like the last section of the book was really unnecessary. Of course, this is when most of the plot actually happened, but for some reason it felt like it didn’t connect well with the rest of the book.

That sounds painfully vague, but it’s one of those character-driven books where there isn’t much plot, and the plot there is is really hard to succinctly describe.

All in all, I’d say that What I Loved is okay while you’re reading it, but I didn’t really take anything away from it, either positive or negative.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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