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Posts Tagged ‘impressionistic reviews’

Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov (Melville House’s International Crime series)

Death; or, The Story:  Viktor Zolotaryov is a failed writer approaching destitution when destiny drops in his lap a dream job:  penning obituraries, or obelisks, of still-living artists, dignitaries, politicians–anyone and everyone of distinction in Kiev. As any discerning reader will immediately guess, this is a dodgy task with dire implications:  the obelisks portend certain doom for their subjects. Viktor is slightly dumb and deeply passive; he spends most of the book in denial about the results of his work, and when he is forced to confront its grisly consequences, he is disinclined to act. A doormat, he is wont to agree with any demand asked of him. This leads to diverse plottish hijinks, some predictable and some absurd. It’s possible that this is a funny book? I could never decide. If it is funny, it is a dark humor, deadpan and understated despite the oddity of its premise. I can see the possibility of a successful film adaptation.

The Penguin; or, Characters:  Kurkov has not produced a mystery in the traditional plot-driven sense; really, the book succeeds more as an existential character study. At the outset, Viktor’s life is devoid of human contact, and though he acquires enemies, acquaintances, and dependents, he remains fundamentally disconnected from them all. I am not denouncing him as a sociopath and don’t think that Kurkov is either–most likely this delineates a sort of post-Soviet ennui and social breakdown. For Viktor is not incapable of developing emotional bonds. It just so happens that his deepest relationship is not with another human but with Misha, the penguin he adopted from a zoo too destitute to feed its denizens. Misha is ineffable; unlike a dog or a cat, whose desires and personalities are easily enough discerned, he is a tuxedo’d depository for various human interpretation. For Viktor, Misha is the ideal life companion, more perfectly suited to his lifestyle than any human could ever be: Misha is dolorous but noble, loyal but discreet with his affection, dependent upon Viktor for food and care but always distinctly himself, as apt to shuffle away to stand in corners as he is to lay his head on his master’s lap. But this is only Viktor’s perception; for others, the interpretation of Misha is different. A dying penguinologist diagnoses Misha as depressive, doomed to pine fruitlessly for the arctic vistas of the south pole until an early death. A child, deserted by her father into Viktor’s care, views Misha as her only playmate and friend. And Viktor’s disreputable business acquaintances see Misha as a perfect emblem for their activities, a distortion of Viktor’s gentle pet that leads to disastrous events. I have no direct quotes to add to this write-up because, in a flash of inspiration, I lent it to one of my favourites of the bookish curmudgeons with whom I particularly bond, an older woman who is constantly deriding the unbearable seriousness of my reading choices. I’m looking forward to discovering whether Death and the Penguin is a good fit for her; I have a hunch it will be.

Dogma, Lars Iyer

Surely you’ve heard of Lars Iyer and his projected trilogy from Melville House, of which Dogma is the second (though it could easily be read out of order as the first; a chronological progression of events, these books are not)? No? Well then. Iyer chronicles the dubious friendship between an unlikely duo of dissolute philosophers:  the narrator, Lars, whose few objectively determinable characteristics include his lineage (Dutch and Indian), his religion (Hinduism) and his dogged passivity; and W., his best friend and foremost detractor. Both Spurious and Dogma take the form of a mostly one-sided dialogue consisting largely of W.’s diatribe against his friend’s deficiencies–when he’s being kind, he refers to Lars as “Diogenes gone mad”; when he is not, everything about Lars is open to disection, from his physique to his intelligence to his lifestyle. These heaps of abuse are interspersed with philosophy and underpinned by a presentiment of apocalyptic doom. As with the first book, dire portents lurk at the edges:  the creeping damp of Spurious has been joined by a plague of rats that colonize Lars’ domicile. Is this yet another dimension of the demerits cataloged by W., proof of Lars’ disgusting slovenliness, or is it a harbinger of the world’s end?

What’s the deal with this relationship, anyway? Is Lars as despicable as W. makes him out to be? If so, why does W. deign to be friends with him? (A question posed constantly by W. himself.) If not, why does Lars endure the abuse? And what about the distinct structure, the one-sided dialogue, with Lars doggedly reporting every last diatribe of W.’s, only occasionally recording his own responses, only sometimes giving context? I doubt that these questions matter in the least, though there was a glimmer of a key provided at the end of this book, but they are a consideration portion of the book’s draw.

Some reviewers have deprecated Dogma for being insufficiently different from Spurious; for the record, I disagree. The first book was largely concerned with the pair’s obsession with immortality and their power struggle over which of them is Kafka and which is Brod (an argument haunted by the dread that both may be Brods); Dogma sees them in action, striving to achieve the longed-for assurance of a legacy. At its start we find the duo on a lecture tour of America; its intent is to disseminate their enlightened philosophy to the wilds of America, but it quickly devolves into drinking, bickering, and drawing cartoons of America, represented by Tom Sawyer and Moby Dick cavorting in the Mississippi. The transatlantic adventure is discontinued soon enough, but back in England our heroes embark on another project:  the invention of Dogma, half discourse style, half religion. Chapters are devoted to the defining of Dogma. Dogma is, among other things, spartan, full of pathos, sincere, collaborative, and world-historical. It is, to say the least, very few things that W. and Lars appear to be in their day-to-day dialogue with one another. They wrangle through the dictums of their intellectual movement, stating and rescinding them; W. despairs and emits diatribes against Lars; and all the while the damp and the rats continue their ominous take-over of Lars’ flat…

The end comes as a disappointment. I would happily have continued on in the company of W. and Lars, and I am most desirous to read the last book. Will my questions be given closure? I do not know, and I do not particularly care; these books are delightful in their solipsism regardless of how the trilogy closes.

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis

It is a great temptation to diagnose the various characters in The Dog of the South, my second read from Charles Portis. They are outlandish, Characters-with-a-capital-C, and though they are never dull their outlandish distinction was a deterrent against emotional attachment. It is difficult for me to discuss this book without the dominating context of True Grit, a novel that I love very much. I dislike comparative reviews, so I will say simply this before moving on:  Ray Midge is no Mattie Ross; Dog did not depose True Grit from its place in my heart. Where Mattie and her disciples are wholly real to me, Ray and the people he meets are too pointedly odd to bridge the distance created by determined quirk. This is a minor quibble–I was happy with every minute I spent with Dog and will not disagree with anyone who calls Portis a writer of neglected American classics.

Like Mattie, Ray is on a quest; unlike that most dauntless girl, his has considerably lower stakes:  he is driving through Mexico, following a trail of credit card receipts, in search of his car, which has been stolen by his runaway wife, Norma, and her aspiring-revolutionary of a first husband, Dupree. It is the vehicle that is Ray’s dominant concern; to the return of his wife he is strikingly diffident. Her desertion is warranted, one suspects, and in a striking moment of awareness, Ray expresses awareness of his shortcomings and sympathy to her dissatisfaction:  “I should have paid more attention to Norma. I should have talked to her and listened to her but I didn’t do it. A timely word here and there might have worked wonders. I knew she was restless, and anxious to play a more active part in life. She spoke in just those terms, and there were other signals as well” (5). Despite some regret, it is the car Ray desires, for the replacement they have left him is a disheartening wreck in comparison to his beloved Ford Torino:

It was a compact car, a rusty little piece of basic transportation with a V-6 engine. The thing ran well enough and it seemed eager to please but I couldn’t believe the Buick engineers ever had their hearts in a people’s car. Dupree had shamefully neglected it. There was about a quarter-turn of slack in the steering wheel and I had to swing it wildly back and forth in a childlike burlesque of motoring. After a day or two I got the hang of it but the violent arm movements made me look like a lunatic. I had to stay alert every second, every instant, to make small corrections. That car had 74,000 miles on it and the speedometer was broken. There was a hole in the floor on the driver’s side and when I drove over something white the flash between my feet made me jump. That’s enough on the car for now.

No noble steed, that one! Despite its decrepitude, Ray develops a fondness for the machine; it is soon clear that he is more capable of forming attachment to objects than to people. He’s too self-centered for relationships; everyone, from his absconded wife to the friend he makes on the road–Reo Symes, a disbarred doctor determined to enact a devious fraud against his missionary mother in order to attain his fortune–is incidental to his own consciousness. This kind of narrative total immersion is typical of Portis, from my diminutive sample, but the disjuncture between this particular narrator’s view and how things may actually be is especially distinct. Ray is a failure, a dilettante who has never been able to settle on anything, but he views himself as distinguished from the rest of the populace, an unrecognized genius. His delusions of grandeur are often hilarious, as when he compares himself to America’s founding father: “I had enormous respect for General Washington, as who doesn’t, but I also liked the man, believing as I did that we shared many of the same qualities. Perhaps I should say ‘some of the same qualities’ because in many ways we are not at all alike. He, after all, had only read two books on warfare, Bland’s Exercises and Sim’s Military Guide, and I had a read a thousand. And of course he was a big man while I am compact of build” (141).

Ray’s denseness about his own deficiencies find a mirror in Dr. Leo Symes, owner of the brokendown bus called the Dog of the South, who becomes his traveling companion. Symes is a distorted future version of Ray, full of stories of how he has been wronged, obsessed with elaborate schemes to attain the potential he never manifested. Also, Symes is obsessed with one John Selmer Dix, the author of self-help books for salesmen, and is convinced that Dix’s texts hold the keys to understanding, well, everything. I mention this because it highlights one of several shared trait between the two drifters:  both are convinced that everything can be distilled to an essential right and wrong way of doing things. They are underdogs, dreamers incapable of joining reality long enough to demand results from their goals. Everyone loves an underdog, but these two are so very delusional that it’s uncomfortable to observe their mishaps. It is possible that they are modern versions of Don Quixote, but unlike in the tale of that venerable forebearer, there’s never a sense of a defined reality from which the characters are departing. Everything and everyone is deranged, events are disjointed from a traditional sense of cause and effect. The picaresque chaos of it all is made even more distinct by its characters belief that, beneath the seeming meaninglessness, there is a correct way to live. It’s a book that’s supposed to be funny, I know, and, as I hope my meager quoting displays, it was marvelously deadpan, but I found its overall effect to be disquieting and nihilistic. It could just be me.

In fact, supposedly funny books often have the side effect of making me very sad. I have fiddled with days on this post trying to say something about the why of this with no coherent result, so I shall give it up for now. Of these three, only Dogma didn’t depress me–probably because so much anxiety and absurd intellectual distress is built into the book itself.

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The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this and I did not particularly. Either my expectations warped my opinion or I’m flush with self-knowledge. To be fair, it was better than I’d feared–perhaps my statement that, having read DeLillo’s fictionalized account of the shot heard around the world in Underworld, I had already experienced the best and needed never to read another baseball-related piece of fiction was premature and brash. In fact, Mr. McGinty has convinced me that I must seek out The Natural for a far superior sports novel and I intend to–I somehow missed it years ago when I made a sweep through Bernard Malamud’s work.* We shall see for sure in a few months or whenever I do manage to locate a copy of the Malamud, but I suspect that this lead will be the best thing that Fielding bequeaths on me.

The Art of Fielding. Yes, demanding internet, I shall try to say a few words about the book itself. It’s about a shorstop who is suffering a crisis of confidence and the various people who are affected by this tragic (’cause it means the school might lose its chance to win for the first time ever–quite tragic in the novel’s small scope) occurrence. It is a college novel–one of my favourite fake subgenres–but also a sports novel–not my favourite narrative due to the inevitable predictability of the story arches. It could, actually, have been quite enjoyable, but several huge factors crippled it fatally. My, it had awful characters. Except for two fully realized personalities–team captain and mentor extraordinaire Mike Schwartz and lovestruck college president Guert Affenlight–everyone was thin and unconvincing, a transparent collection of plot devices masquerading as people. Terrible ending that even I–not, as I have said, an avid consumer of the sports narrative–could recognize as a towering cliche. Unremarkable, simple prose. Blurbs by my arch-nemesis Franzen, a distinctly Franzenesque feel to the whole affair–Franzen by way of a feel-good Disney sports film. And did I mention that the ending was terrible? And that the characters–particularly Cool Gay Roommate/Object of Desire and Wine-Coloured-Hair Rebellious Daughter/Plot Device–were cringingly bad? It’s not good when your characters are mostly flimsy, but when two of the main figures–the young gay man and the only woman in the entire book–are little more than their labels eyebrows must be raised.

I am, as happens so often with these types of books (see:  Freedom), in the minority. It’s been critically acclaimed but, more telling, my customers love this book, which speaks of a popular appeal both broad and deep. I could see it doing quite well in the tournament–at the very least, it will make it out of the first round, and if it is axed I expect we’ll see it again as a horrific baseball-concussed zombie. Ugh.

(*”Somehow” is misleading. I missed it precisely because I had at the time the ingrained habit of starting with every author’s lesser works and avoiding the titles they were most known for. It’s left a lot of striking gaps in my knowledge.)

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

My gentleman friend could not make it through this book; he claims that its premise–gay Victorians–has been overdone of late, ridden into trenches of irredeemable cliche. Not being overfamiliar with the supposed ubiquity of the narrative, I enjoyed The Stranger’s Child very much. It does fall squarely in one of my wheelhouses:  I not-so-secretly adore (good)* historical fiction, particularly if it has Victorians and World War I and English manors and boarding schools and Oxford intellectuals. Hollinghurst covers all of this and–bonus!–builds his plot around the construction of an artistic legacy through the ages.  It’s reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Robertson Davies:  that is to say, it’s utterly delicious if you like that sort of thing. Since I am this book’s ideal reader I have no objective words on either its quality or its chances.

(*Byatt, Mantel, Dunnett, the like. No Philippa Gregory and her cohort for me, thank you very much.)

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje and I have never been close. My favourite book of his is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which should tell you that I don’t connect well with his more traditional novels. The Cat’s Table was no exception. I felt like I should have liked it quite a bit–it’s about children running wild on a ship, after all, a plot that has worked well for others. But I didn’t care for it–maybe just because I read it relatively late in the lineup, when my patience for the themes and structural choices that it shares with so many of the other books had become worn. Like in The Last Brother we have a grown narrator reminiscing about life-altering childhood events; like The Sense of an Ending we have a meditation on memory and the perspective granted by time. I liked both of these things better in the works I read first. There is an attempt at a sensational, exciting plot, but it doesn’t fit, nothing fits together properly in this novel, it draws so many thematic conclusions that I have no idea what it was trying to do, and while I didn’t hate it I don’t consider it very worthy. It won’t last long in the Tournament.

The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock

A violent little book with little to redeem it. One of the few books from the Tournament that I actively wish I had not read. Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf has an excellent review  which thoroughly covers my complaints. I’m too busy working on forgetting it to say more–luckily, I’m sure that this process will be facilitated by its speedy elimination from the Tournament.

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Last year’s winner of the National Book Award, Salvage the Bones has the prize pedigree to back its advance in the Tournament. Personally, I hope that the judges will refrain from giving this lackluster novel any more attention than it has already garnered; I am convinced–and this sounds horrible, I’m sorry, but I am–that its acclaim rests on it being a very PC pick. This is a story about Hurricane Katrina, narrated by Esch, a poor, black, pregnant fifteen-year-old. I have problems with historical tragedy being used in novels; as touched upon in my discussion of The Last Brother, it is often used manipulatively, to give a book false emotional weight. I felt this to be exactly the case with Salvage:  there is just so little to the book beyond the storm, its long buildup and anticipation, its quickly (and absolutely tritely) resolved aftermath. It read to me like any number of Young Adult Problem Novels, a subgenre I am well acquainted with from my misspent youth and which I have grown to abhor; I half-suspect it of being written as a YA book and elevated to adult through marketing ploys. Wander through the young adult section of your local bookstore:  I guarantee you’ll find dozens of books that would sit more comfortably beside Salvage as its rightful peers than you might by perusing the past winners of the National Book Award.

The “searing narrative voice” is supposed to be the thing that elevates this book from the others. Perhaps I am coldhearted, but I was unaffected. Esch is a noncharacter; her one personality trait is her horribly, repetitively described pregnancy. I doubt whether Ward  has ever been pregnant herself:  if she has, surely she could think of a better way to describe the sensation beyond comparing the abdomen to a bowl of water, a phrase so overused that I came to dread its inevitable recurrence with each turn of the page. I do not even want to talk about the heavy-handed overarching metaphoric comparison between Esch and China, her brother’s beloved and vicious fighting pit bull who gives birth to her first litter of puppies just as Esch realizes the fact of her own pregnancy. I would really have to sit and think very hard to come up with a recent read that’s contained such a clunky and forced parallel.

Other characters also fail to rise above the one-trait descriptions of them:  there’s the basketball playing eldest brother who longs to escape a life of poverty through sports, the half-feral younger brother who likes to scuffle around beneath the house, the alcoholic and neglectful father, the skeezy not-boyfriend who obviously prefers his official girlfriend to Esch, the strong & silent “nice guy” friend of her brothers. The only interesting characters were Skeetah, the brother closest in age to Esch, and his vicious China. The relationship between the boy and his dog was the only compelling one in the book.

I do like the structure of the book, if not the content:  the bulk of the book takes place in the days leading up to the hurricane, and the slow build of tension and anticipation is effectively excruciating. Katrina itself is well-described, well-written, and utterly harrowing, almost enough to raise my opinion. A sense of resentment at the emotional manipulation of the whole affair, combined with yet another terrible ending–this one falsely optimistic, pat, and overly simplistic–prevent that possibility. If this were in fact a YA novel I would judge it on kinder terms, but it is a prize winning adult novel, and I feel it to be utterly mediocre by those standards.

Green Girl, Kate Zambreno

A collection of vignettes about Ruth, a young woman adrift in London, told through the critical gaze of a Mysterious Narrator (presumably Ruth’s future self, but who knows; this intriguing stance was never resolved or much explored). Ruth is a “Green Girl,” a pretty waif utterly concerned with the surface of things, with her own surface. Her shallowness is the plot of the novel:  nothing happens, she is simply presented in various situations and then ridiculed for her failings. Positive reviewers have alluded to an empathy with Ruth, have suggested that her shallowness holds up a mirror to their own to a striking effect. I did not have the same experience–I found the character too emphatically empty to relate with in the least. Even the most appearance-concerned young women I have known, the most apparently stereotypical black-dress-buying US-weekly-reading makeup-smearing heel-wearing starlet-aspiring girls, are, indeed, people, each with thoughts and depths and worthinesses. I could find no reflection of reality in Ruth, nothing that matched my own experience of modern femininity. I kind of get what Zambreno might have been trying to do, but her social critique–if that is what this loose mess was intended to be–never advances beyond a profile of the so-called “Green Girl.” There is no deeper level, no greater concern, no interesting conclusion or implication. Like its character, Green Girl was, for me, nothing more than a pretty concept masking a hollow center. I will be shocked if this makes it very far at all in the Tournament (though I halfway suspect that its first judge, Edith Zimmerman, might find more value in it than I. We will see!)

Open City, Teju Cole

My surprise favourite of the books I hadn’t yet read. I disliked it while reading, but since finishing it has haunted my mind and encouraged my thoughts in directions they would not otherwise have gone. I  love it when a book does this, find it surprisingly rare, and value highly anything that stays with me for so long.  I rather intend to get my hands on a copy again and write a post dedicated to this one so I shan’t say more.

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I’ve written elsewhere,  once or twice, rather pompously I’m afraid, about the much-anticipated Tournament of Books already. For the uninitiated, the Tournament is the most fun on the Internet in March for bookish types; it is at once silly–because prizes for art are inherently ridiculous, based as they are on the vagaries of particular aesthetic taste–and profound–because it is, always, utterly aware of its own absurdity. For several years running I have done my best to read everything and, while I regret this OCD completionist attitude at certain reads, it’s always brought me more good than bad. It was easier this year than in last–I’d already read quite a few of them prior to the announcement. My first impression of the list was one of dissatisfaction:  last year was not a strong year for me in newly published contemporary fiction. I’m still working on formulating my revised and updated opinions on the books I read since the brackets made their glorious debut; until then, here are some brief, impressionistic thoughts on the ones I read prior to the announcement, in 2011. All have long since been returned to the library or otherwise rehomed (space restrictions, the fact that I already own more books than any person my age has a right to, prevents me from keeping most books after I’ve read them) so I am unable to do proper reviews, with substantiating evidence and quotes and page references, on any of the books, but these, the long-ago read will suffer most. Alas, nevertheless:

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

I liked this, as I knew I would:  memory claims that I’ve liked every Barnes I’ve ever read. It was fretful and extremely British; deceptively slight, but troublesome enough to continue in the mind long after the mere few hours it took to read had passed. I love this book for what it did to me more for its narrator (anonymous, forgettable, I do not even recall what his name was supposed to be) or the menial details of its plot:  it made me stop entirely in my head to think about agency and memory, action and inaction, the roles we play in our lives concretely and how they differ from the roles we think we play. “I wonder when our literature will stop being so obsessed with the fallibility of memory as its central theme,” a coworker said sarcastically when I tried to recommend it to her. She is right, in a way; it’s hardly a new idea. But it’s not exactly the point–the point is more about responsibility than anything else. A deeply moral book without ever moralizing, utterly profound, deserving of its Booker win regardless of what anyone says. In addition to its resonant theme I adored the way this was told–how actually, physically slight it was, how deceptively inconsequential and meandering and plotless/pointless everything seems until, suddenly, it’s over and you realize that something very large has just taken place without your notice. It’s incredibly subtle and masterful–I intend to buy it when it hits paperback and reread it to try and determine how it works, how Barnes managed it. This is easily one of my favourites of the batch and, though I’ve seen some mixed reactions to it, I do like its chances.

Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt! Her first published book, The Last Samurai, made a great impression on me when I read it years ago that I’ve been eager to read more by her ever since, and this didn’t disappoint. Much. It’s a very, very different book from Samurai, and in comparison to that one it is slight–and not in a good way. Still, it isn’t fair to judge a book on the basis of its predecessor, and I did like this one quite a bit:  it was funny (a rarity for me–I am terminally serious and rarely amused) and biting and awfully smart. I actually read it–kind of, halfway–again in January to make sure it really was as satirical and clever as I thought it was. And it was, though perhaps a bit too reductive about gender differences to be truly great. ToB predictions:  probably not good–anyone who doesn’t get its particular brand of humor instantly might be offended or, at the very least, put off by the distant narrational tone.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick de Witt

All I can really remember about this was how distracting I found the spectre of its potential movie while reading it. I enjoyed it, I think, but suspect I read it in one of my famous Sunday afternoon tears, that is, too quickly to think much about it. (This is my habit with genre.) Everyone everywhere seems to invoke the Coen brothers in reference while describing it and this is apt:  it reads just like one of their films. This is, more or less, a good thing, but it’s no True Grit (which I must have read about the same time or a little before) in my memory. It may do well in the tournament–I’m confident, at least, that it will make it to the second round.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

This is my favourite to win–not because I adored it unreservedly, but because I think it fulfills a number of broadspectrum factors of appeal. I loved this while I was reading it–I could relate so much to it:  I love Barthes! and I’m interested in the varieties of religious experience! I know just what it feels like to fall in love destructively just after graduating from college with a useless degree in literary theory!–so much of it resonated, and, I suspect, will do so for others. For the day that I was reading it and about a week after I thought very highly of this book. I still do, but my swooning enthusiasm has died down markedly as the months have passed and I am more and more bothered by its defects. Which, as they are spoilery, I will not delve into in this post, but may return to if it does well in the ToB.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht

This book had moments of excruciatingly beautiful writing but it never came close to fitting all of its disparate pieces together in a satisfying manner. I would like it a lot more if not for its pre-pub hype & the fact that no one–customers, mainly–who I’ve spoken to personally save for my good friend L. even remotely agrees with me that this book was just barely okay and certainly not great. Sometimes having a dissenting opinion makes me really aggressively contrary. If this advances at all in the tournament I will probably spend a lot of time complaining about it to my boyfriend–because he’ll at least nod along and appear to be listening–and perhaps to the silent caverns of the internet.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

I have all the respect in the world for Ann Patchett as a human being. We–my coworkers and I–are all vocal, laudatory fans of her decision to enter bookselling. We scour our daily bookselling mailing lists for quotes she gives on bookselling, handselling, and indie bookstores in the age of amazon, and email them to each other, often simultaneously, always expressing the desire to meet her and thank her. Honestly, I’m kind of forgetting that she’s a writer.

I loved Bel Canto back in the day but haven’t read it since I was a young teenager. After this one, I probably never will reread it; she’s awfully bookclubby. This is fine–bookclubby books are often perfectly good and fill an important social role–but it’s simply not to my current taste. I still cannot decide how it will fare in the Tournament; Kingsolver, similarly bookclubby, did after all do very well with the (weak, I thought) Lacuna.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

I complained initially about the inclusion of both Obreht and Russell and I stand by that complaint:  I would have much rather had just one of the 20-under-40ers and given the spot to a more interesting, less well-known pick. Even though I like Obreht’s chances better in the contest itself, I would probably have chosen Russell over Obreht for the tournament, myself, because I personally found her effort to be slightly more charming and enjoyable. My notes suggest that my reason for disliking both books was the same:  both are so poorly structured that they fail as cohesive novels. I think I’m in the minority, but I am slightly more likely to pick up Russell’s next book than I am Obreht’s; I guess I just like alligators more than tigers. It won’t happen, but I’d love to see those two up against each other.

1Q84, Murakami

I had read half of this prior to the bracket release. I put it down in utter disgust, planning to never come back. Dubious readers, this is something I almost never do. If I have already read more than half of a book I am almost always going to finish it. I was bitterly disappointed by Murakami but my loyalty to the Tournament forced me to rally my strength, conduct a rescue expedition into the wilds of Under Bed, and sacrifice an entire Sunday to finishing. Spoiler:  it did not get any better. Scott Esposito expresses most of my complaints very nicely and with a lot less vitriol but even so I might write up something just about the Murakami–I can’t talk about it without discussing explicitly the end.

As Mr. McGinty could attest, if he pleased, I’ve devoted an unhealthy amount of the past month worrying that 1Q84 might sweep the Tournament, destroying my faith in my own taste. There are an awful lot of people on the internet who love this book; I do not understand and no one can or will explain it to me satisfactorily. I fear I am in the minority regarding Murakami’s behemoth; I fear it will do very, very well.

I have at my right elbow my copy of Javier Marias’ A Heart So White, a book that is much better, so far, than most of these. The library is nipping at my heels for its swift return so I shall, dear Internet, leave you for the pleasure of its company.


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