Sunday, November 30, 2014

Round Up!

Too much good reading leads to too little blogging.  We'll start with what Mrs. Levitt (my fourth grade teacher) used to call a "Mustard Catch-Up Day."  Here so here are a couple of weeks worth of reviews, quick and dirty.

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle.  This has been on prize lists, and it's by the lead singer of the Mountain Goats, so it's been talked about.  I went into it knowing almost nothing (including only knowing one Mountain Goats song ("This Year")).  The title is evocative, but in that I found it quite misleading.  The blurb makes it sound mysterious and action packed, and while you could call it the former, it's not really the latter.  What it is, big-time, is absorbing.  It's one of those books that is composed mostly of little moments, but with just enough of a mystery to draw you onward.

It's basically the life of a guy whose face was destroyed because of something he did a long time ago.  So his life is a very carefully constructed thing, on two levels: basic medical necessity and massive disfigurement.  He makes his living by writing games, which people pay to play by mail, and the games bring him into contact with people, causing their lives to touch in these small, specific ways.  The story is mostly told backwards, where we start out knowing that there are Things that have happened, and they are gradually unveiled.

The cover copy makes it sound like it's about these mysteries, these what happened and why questions, but really, that's not a good way to put it.  I mean, these things are the source of the curiosity and fascination that keep you reading, but the revelations aren't any kind of twist--you've seen the aftermath of each incident in so much detail that the thing itself, when you arrive at it, is almost anticlimactic.  It was remarkably powerful, though, and the points it's making about cause and effect--how the effect can have a lot more meaning than the cause, and how inevitable things look in hindsight, and how many decisions we make that only make sense in the moment but not really from any vantage point with perspective--are hypnotic and intriguing.  Not usually my kind of book, but I really enjoyed it.

Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, by Anya Ulinich.  This was probably the wordiest graphic novel I've ever read, and maybe the most time consuming one.  Lena Finkle is in her late 30s when she divorces her husband; she's a New Yorker and the mother of two teenaged girls, and when she was in her late teens she emigrated with her family from Russia.  The book is about the year after her divorce, and it's about being a Russian woman in America, and how that affects her views on dating and her relationships with men.  And there's a LOT of ground to cover.

She's only ever slept with three men (her first boyfriend, her husband, and an old flame from Russia) when she enters the dating scene.  She does it almost scientifically, as a way to determine whether what she's feeling for her recently reunited Russian boyfriend is going to last.  I'll admit, I was expecting more humorous OK Cupid stories than I got here--there were funny ones, but really it was about wrestling with the different parts of herself--the Russian immigrant part, that keeps telling her that if she's not starving, her problems don't count; her very straightforward nature, which doesn't always mesh well with the dating scene; the part that feels rejected when she rationally shouldn't care.  All the parts you expect to come out of the woodwork on the dating scene.

It's an in-depth examination of a woman's interior life, and I think the lens of her Russian heritage and immigrant experience is a very interesting one.  It simultaneously made the character harder to relate to by making her very different from me and kept her intriguing, seeing what her internal voices will come up with next.  It was a rich, dense book; I admired it very much, and I think I liked it.

Texts from Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg.  You have to read this book.  I give you no options.  It's so, so, so funny.  Because characters in books are often crazy, and if you look at them from the point of view of a normal person, their behavior gets even weirder.  If you are bookish, you must read this.  It doesn't matter if you've read the source material; even without knowing the specific books, you get the point, the satire. Oh, god, it's so funny.  If you want the taste, look at Mallory Ortberg's "Women who Want to be Alone in Western Art."  It will very much give you the flavor of this.

You should also watch the video of her reading her poem, "Male Novelist Jokes," because it's so damned funny.  And, because I can't seem to speak coherently about this book, you should read this review by Sarah Mesle, which is the one that actually convinced me to read the book.  I'm not sure if most of the "characters" here are women, but the humor does come from the characters' grandiosity, and the dichotomy the reviewer sets up between Genius and its unwilling audience is dead on.  This stuff is smart, is what I'm saying.

Seconds, by Bryan Lee O'Malley.  See, now I understand why I couldn't read Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, even though I loved the movie.  It's because Scott Pilgrim is a complete and total ass, and without Michael Cera's bumbling charm, all that comes across is his assiness.  I never got beyond the first few pages, because Scott is so hateable, and in the book I couldn't find a way to love him, too.

Katie is different--she's more likeable.  I think her vulnerability comes across more clearly than Scott's--she's a big-mouth and bossy and everything (I've watched enough Top Chef to know that this is what it takes to run a restaurant), but she's also insecure, especially around her ex, and nervous about all the new ventures she's taking on.

The premise here is that Katie's running her old restaurant and starting a new one, running into her old flame and nursing a friends-with-benefits thing with someone else, etc.  She's reaching for big things and trying to make sure things come out just the way she wants them.  And then she discovers a magic that lets her change the past.  And, as you can imagine, this is great for a while, and then there are some not-so-great results.

Like I said, I didn't hate Katie, but I didn't love her, either; I kind of liked the book in spite of her.  Watching her get greedy was really painful, but most of the book was well-balanced, between the temptation of this amazing magical thing and the not-unexpected lessons to take away from it.  So overall, I really enjoyed this book.  My only big criticism is that I felt like the end did not fit very well with the rest of the story.  It got very trippy and bizarre, which, hey, magic and messing with spacetime, so okay, but the trippy bizarreness was also somehow tied to this other piece of magic--this "house spirit" thing.  And I thought that was kind of out of nowhere, as though the direct line between messing compulsively with space and time and crazy mixed up consequences wasn't clear, and there needed to be some sort of malevolent someone messing things up.  It actually took away, in my mind, from the fact that everything that happened was an actual consequence of Katie's own actions.

These are not actually short reviews.  This is really just four reviews in one blog post.  I feel like I'm showing my hand; what the heck am I going to write about on Wednesday?  Oh, well.  I guess there are always more books!

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