She’s Come Undone

“Mine is a story of craving: an unreliable account of lusts and troubles that began, somehow, in 1956 on the day our free television was delivered.” (She’s Come Undone by Wally lamb)

She's Come Undone CoverAt her best, Dolores Price is an aging Matilda, minus the super-brain, but with the same wickedly creative sense of justice. At her worst, she’s Merry from Roth’s American Pastoral, minus the perfect American family and political killing, but with the same incomprehensible adolescence. While Dolores is busy vacillating between these two characters, she also throws 1950’s housewife, crazy convalescent, and hard-to-get single woman into the jumbled mix that is her character. One can’t help but wish that she would just stay her true self – her delightfully foul-mouthed, creatively wrathful, bashfully insightful self – and stop trying to be an every-woman of the 80’s.

If only all books held up to the promises of their beginnings. After the first chapter, I was looking for a book full of razor sharp observations about its quirky characters. As per the mysterious quote above, I was hoping for more much more unreliability and many more lusts and troubles. Instead, Dolores mostly avoids lust, brings semi-boring trouble on herself, and is irritatingly reliable in her ability to describe horribly boring patches of her life. For all that, I did manage to finish this book in only a few sittings because, reliable and un-lustful though she was, I had to find out what became of Dolores (and, perhaps, every woman coming of age in the 80’s).

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR  Avoid
Length: 480 pgs
Ending: interesting and hopeful, but not fairy-tale happy
Incidental Learning: Psychiatry, feminism
Further Reading: I’m having a hard time thinking of any interesting coming-of-age story from a female perspective. Maybe this is a boring topic for me. I’d recommend reading ‘Catcher and the Rye‘ and hoping that someone writes a book that interesting starring a girl. That’s the best I’ve got.

In Cold Blood

“Nobody ever comes to see him except you,’ he said, nodding at the journalist, who was equally well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock.” (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood CoverThese days, there is almost a pathological need to insert ourselves, as authors, into narrative non-fiction. We were there. We read it. We did it. We interviewed whomever, we saw whatever. So we should be in the story, right? Capote, despite his true emotional involvement in the Clutter case, refers to himself only once as ‘the journalist’ (see above). Nothing, absolutely nothing, comes between the reader and the content. There is no ego, no author, no imposed emotions. Just those involved in the case speaking for themselves, in their own words.

Capote doesn’t even take liberty with the paragraphs he must himself compose. The writing is clear; precisely configured not to distract the reader from the content. It is a story laid bare and stark before the reader, and it is all the more haunting and poignant for what it lacks. I can’t help but feel, after reading this pristine example, that all of the ‘work’ authors have done improving the narrative non-fiction genre in the past 50 years has been for naught. Instead of adding things, adding ourselves, adding emotions, maybe we should try taking them away again.

 

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow – TBRAvoid
Length: 343
Ending: appropriately unhopeful
Incidental Learning: The Clutter Case, Mid-century Kansas, psychology of the criminal mind
Further Reading: Other Capote. Modern narrative non-fiction (such of the much-lauded ‘Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks”) will only disappoint for its lack of cleanliness and restraint.

Infinite Jest

“If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility, like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find… that people addicted to a Substance who abruptly stop ingesting the Substance often suffer wicked papular acne, often for months afterward, as the accumulations of a Substance slowly leave the body… That females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males… That some people really do look like rodents…” (Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace)

Infinite Jest Cover

Infinite Jest the book is the complete opposite of its subject, Infinite Jest the fatally entertaining film. If the book has a plot, it is that a mysterious entertainment cartridge labeled only with a smiley face is circulating the country; everyone who watches it is so entertained they loose all desire to do anything else with their lives. The book revolves around the family of the man who made the entertainment, the cross-dressing American investigator and wheel-chaired Canadian separatist looking for it, and the hideously deformed/fatally perfect cocaine addict who starred in it. In contrast to the film, reading Infinite Jest is hardly entertaining at all.

The pleasure derived from the work is so far removed from the act of reading it that the pleasure’s origin is hardly recognizable. The reading experience is so unfamiliar, so blocked by extra phrases, pedantic descriptions of drugs and tennis, and laborious endnotes, that your mind is working too hard to grasp its nuances while actually reading. The intense pleasure, the hilarity and brilliance, somehow come after, while your mind is subconsciously sorting through the inanity. You’ll often find that a half-hour session spent reading Infinite Jest will yield only frustration, but later you’ll be struck by an original and perfect thought that you’ll swear came fully formed from your own mind, until you remember that boring book you were reading earlier…

For example, you’ll see a GIF out of the corner of your eye and think ‘Is that Mr. Bouncety Bounce?’ before you realize that Mr. Bouncety Bounce is a disturbing adult dressed like a baby who appears on television only in Infinite Jest.  You’ll make a passing reference to Identification or your Own Personal Daddy and then register that those terms don’t have much meaning to the general populace, but have somehow become part of the way that you think and express yourself. You’ll be reading in a room of crazy people (read: library) who are singing unawares with their headphones on or dancing to no music at all, and you’ll find out that you’re the craziest of them all because you’ve been laughing for three minutes already without even noticing.

The act of reading infinite jest may not be consistently entertaining, it may be a rather poor experience in fact, but you’ll find that your head is a much more interesting, unexpected place to be as a result of the effort. So I can’t make any judgments on the book as a whole now. I am going to wait. I expect my mind will be pulling it together for some time yet.

Recommended Action: I couldn’t say. Read it if you are willing to commit approximately 6 weeks of a reading life to a book that is at once hilarious, disgusting, boring, brilliant, pedantic, and experimental.
Length: 1078  6″x 9.2″ pages in aprox. 10pt font with 100 pages of 6 pt. endnotes.
Ending: So far, outrageously disappointing. Pulls nothing together, resolves nothing, and is, frankly, disgusting. We’ll see how I feel about it tomorrow.
Incidental Learning: You will learn more than you ever needed to know about recreational drugs, half-way houses, AA, Tennis, physical deformities, and modern art films.
Further Reading: This should probably be prior reading. You should be familiar with Hamlet, obviously, but I also found just having read A Clockwork Orange incredibly helpful – there are similar thematic overtones and Wallace borrows a lot from Burgess’s language and style.

Gone Girl

“Tampon commercial, detergent commercial, maxi pad commercial, windex commercial – you’d think all women do is clean and bleed.” (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn)

Gone GirlThe first third of the book treats the reader to alternating accounts of a wife’s insipid diary and the thoughts of a boorish and boring husband… so how did Gone Girl become this summer’s thriller? I have few explanations for how so many people made it through the first part, but once the story morphs from a missing person’s case into a psychological examination of the marriage, it’s like an unstoppable train wreck. The book turns out not to be about police ineptitude or detective work, but about a serpentine relationship between two manipulative, wary, selfish, and fully realized individuals.

Flynn shows incredible strength in creating Amy, a female character not afraid of breaking any social or moral taboo to inflict her old-testament-like punishment on those who wrong her, but I think she doesn’t go far enough with the husband, Nick. Nick is supposed to be the sympathetic character still tied to reality, but I thought he came off as too conventional and morally void a person. I would have liked to see the book go further in its exploration of this deranged couple and have Nick buy into the strange reality of their marriage instead of clinging to the social norms. If you’ve read this (which I’m sure you have) do you think Flynn could have gone any further without risking her ‘bestseller status’?

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBR Avoid

Length: 432

Audiobook: Length = 19 hours, Quality = OK (Girl narrator does a better job with Nick than guy narrator)

Ending: Keeps you thinking/questioning

Further Reading: The Dinner by Herman Koch, which has been hailed as the ‘European Gone Girl’. A little more literary, but just as psychological.

The Dinner

“The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course, I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and then you have voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principal.” (The Dinner by Herman Koch)

The Dinner CoverIf you, too, have been craving subtly creepy, slightly shocking stories told with excellent skill and attention to language, you couldn’t do better than follow up whatever literary psychological thriller you just read with The Dinner. You’ll be lead through a four course meal by the incredibly unreliable narrator, Mr. Lohman, as he negotiates a ‘small’ family problem with his brother. As Mr. Lohman captures the reader’s trust with sly jabs at the upper-class and witty complaints, he slowly reveals his own history and the real trouble in his family. The real question becomes not whether the narrator is unreliable, but how it is possible for anyone  to have developed such a complacent, twisted view of himself and his situation.

A review of this book in the NYT  stated that ‘the most disturbing thing about this book is how meaningless it turns out to be’ or something of the sort. I partially read the book to figure out what on earth that conclusion could mean; unfortunately, I’m still no closer to an answer. Part of my job is reading through tons of reviews of fiction, and sometimes I feel as though they seek to create a tone or pattern instead of saying anything true about the work. Intelligent ones compare the author to other obscure, modern authors, compliment the author’s language paradigm by quoting specific passages, and then, unfailingly, criticize the book in the last paragraph in order to prove that no work is perfect. Personally, I would say that the ‘meaning’ of this book comes in reflecting on how we each recreate the stories of our lives for ourselves, etc, etc. If you’ve read it – would you say that it is ultimately meaningless?

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow TBRAvoid

Length: 304 pages

Ending: open to interpretation; haunting

Further Reading: an excellent follow-up to Familiar by Lennon

Familiar

“But how can you prepare for the unknown? For the impossible? She wants to know what to do, how to behave, but there are no precedents in her life, or any other life she has heard of to follow. She can only think of movies.  A spy picture: the agent going undercover, pretending to be somebody else, ferreting out secrets.” (Familiar by J. Robert Lennon)

familiar coverThis book is part of that strange-sounding sub-genre that I’d never thought I’d come to enjoy so much: literary psychological thriller. If you’ve never read one before, the mainstay is that the ‘literary’ pretty much cancels out the ‘thriller’ aspects, and the reader is left with a slow, creepy novel that crawls into your subconscious, depositing fears you never knew you had. In this case, Lennon draws out the fears of being unfamiliar with one’s self and one’s own family.

Lennon writes a character who suddenly finds herself transported into a different version of herself, living a different life. She simultaneously has to find clues about her recent past and discover why this change happened to her. She considers parallel universes, insanity, or some sort of divine intervention, but never finds proof for any hypothesis. Lennon does not do the work of answering these questions for the reader; instead he lets the unsettling tension between the familiar and unfamiliar pull the reader through the book without succumbing to the temptation of a tidy ending. Yet, Lennon is also too sly to write a novel that simply experiments with the possibilities of alternate words; he also explores the disturbing realities of dysfunctional families – of how our children can be both familiar and completely unknowable.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 224

Ending: Generally untidy and vague, except for the last page, which is just weird

Further Reading: This book is not for everyone, but those who loved the mild and haunting creepiness of, say, I am the Cheese, might find that J. Robert Lennon is their new favorite author. I also read The Dinner (post pending) by Koch recently and thought it was an excellent follow-up to this book.

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Lesson no. 8: Happiness is being with the people you love…
Lesson no. 19: The sun and the sea make everybody happy…
Lesson no. 20: Happiness is a certain way of seeing things…”
(Hector and the search for Happiness, Francois Lelord)

I loved the detached, almost objective, perspective of the narrator: it seemed as if Francois Lelord was looking at humanity, and all of our daily quirky habits and emotions, from a bird’s eye view. This allowed him to simplify certain concepts that people spend copious amounts of time trying to define (such as “countries run by bad people” and “the thing people do when they’re in love”) and also to tell a nice, light, story without being encumbered by too many details.

Yet, I am not planning to read Francois Lelord’s next book (Hector and the search for Love). Although it was a charming story, I don’t think that I learned anything new from reading it. Many of the lessons on happiness were lovely to look at, but none of them struck me as being particularly pertinent or profound. Perhaps the very reason that I liked reading the story is the reason I didn’t find the lessons drawn from it very helpful – they were just so impersonal that it is hard to think of applying them to your life.

Reminds me ofThe Little Prince, although I wouldn’t necessarily turn it around and say that The Little Prince reminds me of Hector, if you know what I mean.

Beverage: This book definitely necessitates something light and frothy to go with it – perhaps a milkshake, the flavor of which would, however, be up to you.