November 26, 2009

Book 60: Miss Wyoming

Miss Wyoming
Douglas Coupland

Coupland is unmistakably himself in Miss Wyoming, and readers familiar with his characters and their unwavering mission to find and make meaning in their lives will recognize plenty in this book, though its style is divergent from Coupland's work at large. Due perhaps to these small differences, Miss Wyoming is not as immediately effective as much of Coupland's other work; its beginning seems rather staged and almost too Coupland-esque before the story develops its razor-sharp insights and cynically funny lines. Exploring a third-person point of view instead of the usual first, the book follows many narrative threads deftly, beginning in the present and slowly working backward across several intertwined and diverging timelines but without leading readers too far astray. The ping-pong plot could have caused fierce whiplash but instead the narrative slowly develops across the quick chapters and characters just introduced and almost tangential to the plot receive their close-ups, deserved instead of distracting. The larger scope of the narrative as it bounces between characters and locations serves as an appropriate backdrop for Coupland's familiar zeitgeist-chasing probing into the lives of the disenchanted. Though some of the territory is familiar and the plot a bit outlandish and, despite the novel's overall solid construction, difficult to grapple firmly at times, Miss Wyoming is a worthy addition to the Coupland canon if not his strongest, most evocative book.

Grade: B+

November 17, 2009

Book 59: Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously
Julie Powell

After the weighty, cynical humor of The Book Thief and with a large term paper looming before me (as well as, conveniently, Thanksgiving), I decided to go for something on the lighter side. Julie and Julia is not the best book ever written. It is, at heart, more or less a standard tale of someone who goes out on a limb, faces some difficulty, and ends up learning some Valuable Life Lessons along the way. It is, at heart, one of those books, the cheesy pick-me-ups where you know everything will turn out all right. It is also cynical, snarky, sarcastic, and wonderfully vulgar. Entirely unchallenging and brisk throughout, Powell's humor pulled me through my own tough week. Cliche or not, I loved every single minute that I was reading Julie and Julia. Facing a crisis at the prospect of imminently turning 30, Powell decides to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking while living in a cramped apartment just outside of New York City and while working as a beauocratic drone for The Man. The results go over just as smoothly as you'd expect; though it's obvious that Powell entered her challenge with more culinary knowledge and practice than the average snarky 20-something posesses nowadays, she faces her share of hangups and challenges, but never stews over them.

Indeed, the book's great strength is that it very rarely comes across as whiny. Powell turns many merely discouraging incidents, and even some seeming crises that turn out quite well, into drawn-out dramatic scenes, but her humor gives the book a bounce and her ability to be self-deprecating in an endearing way carries the novel. Most engaging is Powell's voice, uncensored and seeming incredibly authentic: here is a woman who thinks the way I do and who will, to put it simply, go there. Powell attempts the incredible and must have gained an insane amount of culinary prowess during her year cooking in the footsteps of one of the most beloved chefs of all time, but throughout the whole process she seems emphatically normal. Though there are bad nights and fights with her husband, she doesn't excessively dramatize them; Julie and Julia feels like a true account, stretched perhaps for dramatic effect but never straying too far from its essential crass warmth. Indeed, when it came time for Julie to deliver her Required Life Lesson Learned, it was delivered with such self-awareness that I was actually laughing out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Sure, Julie and Julia has its moments where it's obvious Powell is stretching a bit, trying a tad too hard, but her voice is endearing and so wonderfully sarcastic that I could not wait to pick the book up for another valiant attempt at Chasing the Dream.

Grade: A

November 10, 2009

Book 58: The Book Thief

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak

Some books just grab you and refuse to let you go. Compelling from its first four lines, which establish the book's unconventional narrator at once and segway immediately into one of the narrative's many insightful asides, The Book Thief is thoroughly haunting through its final fatal cadence. Zusak, in choosing Death to narrate this tale of survival and hope in the midst of Hitler's Germany, has made a bold decision that pays off in every conceivable way as the novel winds its way through the majority of Germany's war years. More on him later, as he makes the novel and seals its brilliance. Zusak tackles a lot of heavy and difficult themes throughout The Book Thief, not least of which is death, but he carries off the novel splendidly without beating any of these themes to death and allowing them to work their way through the novel and its characters slowly and subtly until, by the end, the reader is simply changed. The novel sneaks up on readers, who can never be sure what to expect as moments of genuine childish humor (the novel's protagonist is introduced at age 9) mix with pure sadness and then into a dark, not quite cynical humor that is as profound as the novel's most emtionally draining moments. Zusak pulls off the incredible within this book, writing a book about Nazi Germany with normal characters, exploring the depths of human depravity without resorting to unnecessary gore or shock value and presenting the era in a way that seems, amongst the deluge of literature about this period, fresh. This book approaches Nazi Germany from an entirely different perspective than most and, in doing so, more effectively probes that era than just about any work of standard 1940s-evoking fare.

The perspective? By and large, the novel owes its groove and tone to its narrator, a murky representation of Death. Personified yet unquestionably supernatural, Death is by turns caustically sarcastic and lovingly tender. He cracks jokes throughout the novel that can only be laughed at with a twinge of guilt, but his descriptions of soul-collecting (he carries the souls of children gently in his arms) are genuinely moving. His affection for Liesel, the novel's lively protagonist and eponymous budding criminal, rivals the depths of human love felt by and for her throughout her childhood. His insights throughout are by turns hilarious and deeply profound: you laugh, but then you think and, more often than not, realize that it's true. Zusak uses Death to view our obsession with this monster from an outside perspective and the results are time and again astonishing. From the general dry narrative style, with its many sudden switchbacks, to his amusingly titled asides (which include everything from elaborations on a vague preceding description to a mock scoreboard), Death is one of the most appropriate narrators I have ever come across in a book. Though he seems like an obvious choice for one of the darkest periods in human history, Zusak does not make him a monster. Instead, as he himself clarifies, he is merely a result.

Death is a presence throughout the novel as he was particularly in this time and place in history but this does not eclipse the ultimate humanity of The Book Thief; indeed, Death's notes of sad regret color the novel and give it more emotional depth than an omniscient narrator or other first-person narrator probably could have. Death lends an exceptional emotional weight to this book and give sit power on every page, shifting rapidly between elation, fear, hope, sadness, loss, and love but without producing whiplash for the reader. The Book Thief handles itself delicately while dropping bombshells literal and through literary devices and there are profound moments on each and every page as Zusak explores the magic and mystery of words themselves. The book, ultimately, parallels reality in its mood. Who, after all, has not had an elated joy turn quickly to a sobering melancholy? And to think that all of this says little about the characters who populate Zusak's Germany, from the fanatic Frau Diller to the compassionate Hans Hubermann, they come alive on each and every page in this novel that more fully evokes the truth of human experience than I previously thought possible in a novel about such a turbulent and easily simplified historical moment.

The Book Thief
is simply astonishing on every single page.

Grade: A

November 6, 2009

Book 57: The Best American Mystery Stories 2005

The Best American Mystery Stories 2005
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is a one-woman powerhouse in the world of contemporary fiction, and having read much of her fiction it is interesting to get her perspective as a guest editor in the Best American series, particularly in genre fiction. Though her position necessarily means that she is absent from this collection, the book is vibrant throughout with quality stories that, even if most are fairly ho-hum in this particular edition, are sure to entertain. The lead-off hitter is Richard Burgin with "The Identity Club," and I think it exemplifies most of the stories in this collection, The story begins with a breathtaking premise, that members of this club take on the personality of a dead arist of some kind, living their life in the guise of the chosen figure. Though the idea is incredible, the story tackles it in a predictable manner and, though the story stands as a powerful examination of mortality and the nature of individuality and the lifespan of great art, it falls sort of flat at the end. Entertaining, but not life-changing. Likewise with George V. Higgins and "Jack Duggan's Law," which is a fairly mild police procedural. It is a great one, fully evoking a sense of mood and characters, but at the end of the day it is just another procedural. Daniel Handler's "Delmonico" presents an interesting spin on the locked-room mystery with his unconventional barmaid detective, but some basic flaws in the writing hold the story back a bit.

That is not to say, however, that there are not absolutely exceptional stories in this anthology, however. I was skeptical at first of "Officers Weep," which spins its narrative out of a series of police blotters, but as the story found itself I found it moving, funny, and worth revisiting; I thoroughly enjoyed it in every way. "The Last Man I Killed" is powerful with a very dark sense of humor, exploring the power of the past in a tone of rich irony and crafting a story not so unlikely after all. The twist is forceful and the story leaves a lasting impression. More straightforward but no less riveting is the devastating exploration of a life unknowingly lived beside a criminal in "The Love of a Strong Man." The story hits and hits and they keep coming; it's a dark story but a very moving one that subtly asks us to explore the consequences of human action and our own reactions to the headlines. Likewise devastating but incredibly powerful in its tragedy is "One Mississippi," which again explores the aftermath of a crime and the imprint it leaves on those whose life it destroys. These stories do not simply explore the underworld for the thrill; rather, they use crime as a key to open the doors of the deepest of human mysteries, exploring the tragic side of crime and of life. Crime in the hands of these skilled writers is a destructive force and they seek to explore what it hath wrought.

Aside from a few predictable missteps, The Best American Mystery Stories 2005 contains quite a bit of work of extremely high quality that will shock and shame readers who sneer at genre fiction. There are no straight detective stories in this collection and what readers find is a group of writers who will go to the depths of human existence to extract meaning. Sure, there is a vicarious thrill in standing beside the narrator of "Until Gwen" as he seeks revenge upon his father, but the dark humor is quickly transformed into something much deeper and very moving; readers who are willing to make the journey with the narrator find much more than cheap thrills. The nature of these stories is not to exult in violence but to explore it thoroughly, and the best among these select few are those that find themselves most haunted by the ghosts of humanity's darkest dreams.

Grade: A-