January 5, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | January 5, 2007 |


The following are capsule reviews of books read by the Pajiba staff during the month of December.

Goodbye Lemon, Adam Davies — Nick Hornby has written a lot about how personal context influences one’s enjoyment of a book, e.g., if you’re in a good mood, your reading experience is likely to reflect that. I finished the final chapter of Adam Davies’ debut novel, The Frog King four years ago, on the subway, slightly drunk, after meeting — for the first time — the woman who would later become my wife. It’s still one of my favorite books, even though it was yet another novel about a twentysomething, commitment-phobic, narcissistic asshole working in publishing. Yet I found him inexplicably sympathetic. And, well, the book broke my fucking heart. With Goodbye Lemon, Davies continues to display a remarkable knack for 1) exhilaratingly mischievous wordplay; 2) creating readily identifiable, sympathetic asshole protagonists; and 3) breaking my fucking heart. Lemon is about a 32-year-old college lecturer who returns home for the first time in 15 years to deal with the his father’s peculiar illness (locked-in syndrome) and find some closure to his childhood, in which the drowning of his five-year-old brother featured prominently. Davies ain’t for everybody; it’s dick-lit at its finest — the spirit of Cameron Crowe distilled into novel form and stripped of a soundtrack. But if you like cutesy self-involution, whiplash poignancy, borderline preciousness, and quirky characters (that will break your fucking heart), I can’t recommend Goodbye Lemon (or The Frog King) enough. — Dustin Rowles

Schrödinger’s Ball, Adam Felber — Felber’s first novel is a fun start to his book-writing career. Playing with the storytelling form a little, he uses different narrative types to bring together bits of science, philosophy, civics, history (sort of), and, most importantly, humor and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The story’s a bit complicated to explain in a short blurb but, basically, there are several apparently disconnected threads that all meet up in an intentional deus ex machina in Harvard Square. The center of the story involves four friends — including a girl who has half-hour orgasms and a guy who’s still walking around even though he dies in the first chapter — dealing with their relationships with each other. There’s also the President of Montana, who goes to war with the United States; a crazy bag lady who, when not busy avoiding (imaginary?) robots, is rewriting history; a physicist, Dr. Erwin Schrödinger, who still manages to mooch free meals from us even though he died in 1961; and a rat temporarily named Lester. The end of the book, when all these threads are brought together, is a bit anticlimactic and includes a blatant rip-off from a recent popular book and film (which I won’t identify to keep this spoiler-free, although you’ll likely see it coming by the halfway point anyway). But all of its shortcomings are absolutely excusable because this is one of those books where it’s the journey, rather than the destination, that matters; and it’s a very funny and entertaining journey, to boot. — Seth Freilich

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein In spite of the geeky SciFi associations that come with it , I freely admit to loving me some Heinlein. I’d read several of his earlier works, which were more conventional in their treatment of science fiction tropes; Stranger is obviously a more serious exploration of humanity’s role in the larger universe. I was a little disappointed at first, since the book seemed to be an excuse for Heinlein to disseminate his views (through mouthpiece Jubal Harshaw) on philosophy, culture, and everything metaphysical rather than a straightforward narrative. But by novel’s end, the story had expanded in richness and metaphorical power to forgive the self-indulgent flourishes and I grok that it was an excellent read. — Phillip Stephens

The Female Thing, Laura Kipnis — Here’s a little relationship advice: If you’re an idiot meathead that’s lucky enough to find an aggressive feminist to marry you, impress her by reading a little feminist literature. I picked up The Female Thing after reading an interview with its author over on Bookslut, and it’s a fascinating read, if only for insights into the female psyche that are considerably more revealing than what you might find in the advice column of Cosmopolitan. Kipnis’ overarching thesis concerns the relationship between feminism (which seeks to eliminate female inadequacy) and femininity (which seeks to sustain it by perpetuating the myth of female deficiency). The book itself is broken into four sections (envy, dirt, sex, and vulnerability) and Kipnis is often vicious, arguing that feminism/femininity dichotomy is detrimental to the modern female condition (though she offers no solutions). Most of the essays are fun, droll attacks on post-feminism written by an academic in the tone of a “Sex in the City” episode (Kipnis would likely advocate the Samantha sport-fucking mentality), but she gets down to business in “Vulnerability,” taking issue with the way that Andrea Dworkin and Naomi Wolf (among others) have muddled the distinctions between actual rape and the fear of rape. The Female Thing also offers an entertaining, easily digestible history of feminism, the female orgasm, women’s relationship with menstruation, etc. and, more importantly for ignorant husbands like myself, it (along with Wikipedia) clears up the distinctions between feminism, post-feminism, second and third-wave feminism, and anti-feminism. It also provided ample inspiration for my review of The Holiday. — DR

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, Christopher Moore — Christopher Moore had been on my radar for years as an author I would probably love, but for no good reason, I never managed to actually read anything of his until this summer, when I cracked open his most recent book, A Dirty Job. I loved the hell out of it and knew I needed to read more Moore, but I got bogged down in moving and other shenanigans and didn’t get around to picking up another Moore book until just before Christmas. The timing made The Stupidest Angel the obvious choice, and it turned out to be a pretty good move. Although not quite as funny as A Dirty Job, it was still a very quick and fun read. There’s not much to the plot, which is certainly less involved than A Dirty Job, but it doesn’t matter, because Moore’s writing is so rich (yet simple), that it doesn’t take much to keep you invested. The characters are entertaining, and more importantly, there are zombies. And at the end of the day, it all boils down to this — every Christmas tale needs some zombies. Like, imagine if Ralphie were to shoot out some zombie eyes with his official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred-shot, range-model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Wouldn’t that have ruled? See — good Christmas story plus zombies equals better Christmas story. And that’s what The Stupidest Angel is. — SF

Traveler, Ron McLarty — I plowed right through Ron McLarty’s 2004 debut, The Memory of Running. There was something compelling and heartbreaking and assured in the tone of the story, narrated by the simple but earnest Smithy Ide, a middle-aged sad-sack who sets out on a cross-country bicycle trek to find his sister in Los Angeles. McLarty’s follow-up, Traveler, isn’t as confident in its protagonist, and the story doesn’t quite have the emotional heft of his first novel, but it’s still a pleasing enough read that hits more than it misses. McLarty once again spins his yarn through the voice of a down-and-out loser of a hero: Jono Riley is 51, out of shape, and splits his time tending bar and stumbling through a weak career as a New York stage actor. He gets a letter summoning him home to East Providence, Rhode Island, when Marie, his childhood crush, dies from a gunshot wound she received when she was 12; the bullet that had been lodged in her shoulder became a traveler, entering her bloodstream and killing her 40 years after the fact. Jono’s trip home dredges up a host of painful and bittersweet memories, as well as the mystery surrounding Marie’s shooting, but it’s the passages of Jono’s youth and coming of age that far outweigh the present-day story. The anecdote of his date one summer evening with a college girl is hilarious and sweet and endearing, sexual without ever slipping down into prurience. Jono’s reunions with his past give him a predictable appreciation of his adult life, but the joy here is in the reading, not the arrival. — Daniel Carlson

Atonement, Ian McEwan — A lot’s been made recently of Ian McEwan’s partial plagiarism of select passages of Lucilla Andrews’ memoir No Time for Romance, one of the inspirations McEwan credits in his book. But the lifted sentences themselves do nothing to detract from the staggering power of McEwan’s 20th-century panorama, nor the man’s clear gifts as a storyteller. Atonement shows a remarkable narrative focus and fantastic psychological insight, as McEwan introduces and interweaves the conflicting members of the Tallis family on an afternoon in 1939 that sets up the action for the next 60 years. Young Briony Tallis, only 13, witnesses what she believes is a crime, and her confused testimony damns the wrong man and becomes the weight she must live with for the rest of her life. McEwan’s layered prose demands patience; he spends the entire first half of the novel on Briony’s night in question, shifting perspectives and subtly highlighting how so much of our lives and actions are based on often incorrect perceptions of the people around us. It’s sprawling and sad and often downright beautiful. By the end, McEwan pulls off something pretty amazing, and I really can’t go into it except to say that the story suddenly gains weight and perspective as it references the very pages that have come before. If McEwan cribbed a couple sentences, I can live with that; the rest is astonishing. — DC

The New History, Alun Munslow — I suppose it’s a little conceited to include something I read for grad school, but after the last column provoked whiny cries of “pedestrian” and such, I figure it’s OK to ratchet up the pretentious a bit. In The New History, Munslow, a historical philosopher, continues to document the threat of history as a discipline under postmodern scruples. Postmodernism’s claim that language and consciousness do not accurately represent “reality” (which is itself problematic) seems to imply that our present notions about history as the study of a past reality are meaningless. Munslow enters the debate with the intention of salvaging history as a useful discipline; he actually accepts the postmodern deconstruction of objective reality, but rejects that it implies the “death” of history as a whole and instead claims that Postmodernism itself will be merged with the historical narrative. Well … needless to say, The New History is only going to get your rocks off if you’re deeply interested in PoMo or the philosophy of history (or in school), but Munslow’s work is pretty essential for those few keeping track of the “End of History” debate. — PS

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon — This one is actually a re-read — I first read it about five years ago, during a post-Kavalier & Clay Chabon-binge, but a recent conversation about the upcoming film adaptation and the controversy over the changes reportedly made by writer/director (and Pajiba interviewee) Rawson Marshall Thurber made me realize how little I remembered many significant characters and events. So I decided to make it my airplane reading for my annual pilgrimage home to the land of fried foods and churches on every corner, and what a surprise it turned out to be. It’s actually quite different than I pseudo-remembered; some characters I thought of as insignificant turned out to have pretty important roles in the story, while others were downgraded a notch or two. And one plot development that was a huge surprise the first time I read it turned out to have been so thoroughly foreshadowed that I felt plain stupid for having been shocked before. Worse, though, was that, knowing the cast of the film, it became very difficult to imagine the characters without imagining the actors, which was merely annoying in some cases but downright painful in others — what the hell is Nick Nolte doing in my Michael Chabon book?! Overall, returning to an old favorite book is actually a lot like going home for a visit: No one looks quite the way you picture them, things that seemed important before dwindle in significance, and you’re torn between your sense of nostalgia and the painful knowledge that nothing will ever be quite as you’d remembered it. — Jeremy C. Fox

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson — Marilynn Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Winner is not really prose that’s up my alley, given that it’s both soporific self-meditation and soporific self-meditation on Midwestern Christianity. But, as lulling as Gilead is, I was impressed with the depth and thoroughness with which Robinson discussed ethics, and her Barthian apologia for Christianity was intelligent, at the least. Robinson uses one man’s lifelong struggle with loneliness, jealousy, pacifism, and forgiveness as seen from his Presbyterian ministry to represent pretty much all theological grappling. Her writing style can be a little sentimental, which doesn’t mesh well with an introspective work like this, but Gilead will either sell you on the profundity of its ideas, or it won’t sell you at all. — PS

The Ruins, Scott Smith — I don’t think I’ve read a horror novel since I retired Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Joe Landsdale back in high school, but there’s been so much praise foisted on The Ruins that I had to see what all the goddamn fuss was about. I’d read Smith’s debut effort, A Simple Plan and found that, while it was certainly decent, it actually wasn’t nearly as good as the Sam Raimi film adapted from it (Smith didn’t have the talents of Billy Bob Thornton to rely on). The Ruins, actually, is sort of a cross between A Simple Plan and last year’s brilliant The Descent: It’s claustrophobic as hell and plotted in such a way that the conclusion is almost inevitable (though, that doesn’t, somehow, diminish the suspense). The less said about the storyline the better, but I will say this: I read it in three 100-page chunks, one of which fell on Christmas Day, which says about all you need to know about the need to get through it. As gripping and intense as The Ruins is, however, I can’t say I was altogether pleased with the way Smith wrapped it up; it felt like a season of “Lost” that abruptly ends without providing any answers to the scores of nagging questions. Fortunately, it at least felt like season one, so it was still a riveting excursion to the final scene. — DR

Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart — Yeah, everybody and their goddamn (very literate) dog loved Absurdistan, a brilliant satire/farce that revolves around a fat-assed, sex-crazed, Candide/Ignatius J. Reilly-type protagonist who gets stuck in the fictional Absurdisvani, which is basically Somalia, Iraq, and Iran all rolled up into one, offering ample opportunities for Shteyngart to take aim at multiculturalism, religion, American diplomacy, obesity, and, you know, Halliburton. It’s a 21st-century Catch 22 — social commentary that is hilarious, intelligent, and biting, but not so dense that it’s the kind of great literature that feels like work. It’s so unbelievably well-written that you just want to puke. But, you know what, I still didn’t love Absurdistan. It’s a great novel with all the aforementioned characteristics, but — you know, whatever. It neither spoke to me or said anything I was particularly interested in hearing. It’s a book that will make you feel smarter for reading it, all the while provoking quite a bit of laughter, but fuck it — for such a great novel, it doesn’t make you feel a goddamn thing. It never elicits any kind of emotion and, worse still for a novel of this variety, it doesn’t really make you think, either. Indeed, for all the genius of Absurdistan, it’s still — remarkably — kind of empty. — DR

The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Jonathan Stroud — As Pajiba readers will soon glean from these book columns and that cartoon post, I gobble up anything that harkens back to my more imaginative youth. Children’s literature and fantasy in particular has undergone a new renaissance ever since Harry Potter opened the floodgates. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy is a fine entry into the medium by virtue of its turning the (mostly) benevolent HP universe on its head. In Stroud’s world, the wizards are a decadent, oppressive caste that controls politics and power through magic and the manipulation of otherworldly slaves. The central character, Nathaniel, is raised in a harsh environment by a magical caretaker and taught to only value power and societal preeminence, both of which he gains through the help of a wisecracking djinn named Bartimaeus. The three books follow Nathaniel’s dubious rise to authority in Britain’s magician government and his subsequent decline in morality, giving the story an unpredictable base and strong ethical compass. Ultimately the proletariat non-magicians begin to threaten the ruling class and Nathaniel must decide which side of the fence he’ll fall on. Stroud follows both sides with equal interest and all the proceedings are leered at by the sardonic, jaded, and funny-as-hell Bartimaeus. — PS

Are you reading something you love? Or hate? Save someone from a bad reading experience: Please, feel free to leave your recommendations on the comments section below.

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Feminism, Christmas Zombies, Midwestern Christianity, Imaginary Robots, Ian McEwan, Robert Heinlein, and more ...

What Pajiba's Reading / The Pajiba Staff

Books | January 5, 2007 | Comments ()



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