17 April 2014

Putting "Wolf Hall" down

Have you ever been with a group of people who tell you that The Big Bang Theory is the funniest show on TV but you just don't get it?

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is that way for me. So many people think it's brilliant while I can't contain enough interest to finish it. Which is very rare -I generally never try to put a book down without finishing it. But there are pages and pages that go on where I'm not sure who is actually speaking.

Unfortunately I'm giving up on this book at page 237 -which is about a third of the way through it. Though, I'm really disappointed in myself that I'm unable to get into this book -so many critics and book people have raved about it and it won the prestigious Booker Prize (the British version of the Pulitzer) in 2009. I just found the prose exceptionally dense and confusing. 

Moving on.

02 April 2014

Books: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2013)

“Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. “

The book is told in a unusual format, what’s called a “epistolary.” Basically, it unfolds through masses of email messages, along with chunks of official documents and (not so) secret correspondences (I’ve encountered this style one time before, in Steve Kluger’s brilliantly hilarious 1998 novel Last Days of Summer).  While it may distract some folks, the book gets going very quickly and any reader will find themselves wrapped up in the narrative.

One of the biggest strengths of Where'd You Go, Bernadette is that it’s often weird, funny and sometimes serious all at the time. And because author Maria Semple's background is in television comedy (she wrote for Arrested Development) her zingers are spot on, as she gets some great digs at Seattle, Canadians, self-help culture and the our odd private school system ,“a place where compassion, academics and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet,” and where there are only three grades: S for “Surpasses Excellence,” A for “Achieves Excellence” and W for “Working Towards Excellence.” 

The sad part is, as much as Semple pokes fun at it, somewhere this is going on.

23 March 2014

Books: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2012)

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

Also known as the Night Circus, it is the brainchild of a theatrical producer named M Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, at the subtle bidding of a mysterious man in grey known as Mr. A. H---; (though his first name appears to be Alexander) but it is also the creation of Marco and Celia, both of who, over the years, become passionately embroiled in its performances and acts, as well as, inevitably, with each other. 

Unbeknownst to them, though, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. 

While the stakes appear to be high, ultimately I cared less for the lovers and only kept turning the pages for the world that author Erin Morgenstern has created here. Primarily set in some alternate world of the late 19th century, where magic appears to exist, she crafts a brilliant world of smells, textures and even tastes. While the overreaching tone of the book is darkness (and the Circus, which forgoes what we traditionally know of them -primarily it’s wild color tones-, is created in black and white, a perfect parable to the game in which both Marco and Celia have been caught up in), she brings a brightness to her world that has advantages of working it's way into the readers soul.

Also, the supporting players, such as clockmaker Friedrick Thissen, contortionist Tsukiko, the redheaded twins Poppet and Widget and even Bailey Clarke seem to interest the author more, as they come fully realized at times -more so than the lovers. Still, it’s a fully realized alternate reality and very enjoyable novel that moves to its rather predictable ending –but that, in the end, did not really bother me.

15 March 2014

Books: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (2009)

In Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s follow-up to her harrowing Sharp Objects, she gives us another highly dysfunctional woman and family. And in many ways an even stronger book than her first, but its way overlong and pulls a bizarre twist ending that sort of defies believability. 

The story fluctuates between present and the past. Libby Day is a 31 year-old woman, who at the age of seven survived an attack on her house that left her Mother Patty, sisters Debby and Michelle, dead. Her older brother, Ben, a sullen, depressive teenager at the time, is convicted of their murders and sent to prison for the rest of his life. In the present, Libby has reached a point –now 24 years later- where interest in her family’s death has waned. She’s become petulant, mean (which she admits in the opening paragraph) and has never gotten over her sticky-finger problem (which is good, as that plays out in the end). She is also nearly broke, having gone through the $300,000 that was donated to her after the tragic murders. But happenstance (and only in novels, TV and films does this happen) comes in the form of man called Lyle, who is a huge fan of true crime stories and belongs to a group called the Kill Club, basically an underground convention for folks who watch way too much real crime shows and books, and who believe Ben is innocent of the crime. He offers her money in hopes she’ll attend a gathering of folks whom believe in her brothers innocence if she can provide information (and family mementos) to understand what led up to the murders, including getting in contact with her father, Runner, who has vanished. 

The other part of the book is a detailed look into the day of Libby’s family murders. Here we see Patty as a single mother of four, losing her family farm to foreclosure, trying (and yet not) to feed her kids, keep the peace between all of them (which she fails at miserably) and keep former husband Runner Day away from them. But like a bad penny, he reappears at the worst time, and Ben, in need of a father figure, finds his lost parent not that helpful, which forces the 15 year-old into a world he is not prepared to deal with.  

Much like Sharp Objects, the premise of Dark Places is hardly original –I would venture to say its premise comes from a much earlier time in history, in particularly the nior books of the 1950s and 60s where authors fictionalized real events (like Truman Captoe’s In Cold Blood). But Flynn is a strong writer, with a great prose style and a desire, and appears not to care that she's not to made anyone of her characters remotely likable. And Libby, much like Camille in Sharp Objects, has a distant personality and Flynn seems to take pleasure in knowing her readers will find it quite difficult to like this main protagonist. 

It’s an emotionally draining novel as well. Nothing seems to go right for anyone. While the Day family seems particularly cursed (to a point I felt, at times, was a bit ridiculous), the folks caught in their wake all have personal demons and destructive personalities. Also, I feel the darkness that Flynn want's to evoke goes on way too long and made me ponder just how much more shit she was going to pile onto all of her characters, but in particular brother Ben and mother Patty. I could've done with less.

While Flynn did set up early the possibility that Ben was not the killer, the reveal was silly, and really out of nowhere (again, shades of Agatha Christie). And then there is the issue with coincidence that really pissed me off (though again, only in novels, TV and movies would this happen). Though, in some reflection, perhaps the mystery aspect was not important. Perhaps it was just a cover for readers who want to feel good about themselves that they don’t lead such a horrible life.

I still want to read Gone Girl, but I think I’ll wait a bit. Back to back nihilistic novels about broken people have made me feel a bit depleted.  

09 March 2014

Books: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006)

Now that I’m finally onto Gillian Flynn (who, of course, I’ve been aware of since this book came out in 2006), I’ve got some conflicted feelings about it. While the strongest part of the book is its dysfunctional characters, including Camille Preaker’s home town of Wind Gap, it’s also some the unpleasant aspects of Sharp Objects, like the horrible pettiness that small town life seems to perpetuate, the ugliness, the backstabbing and even the causal sexuality that simmers more on the surface than below.

By and far, it is a strong debut, a literary thriller with mean streak that made me turn the pages, but left me feeling a bit dirty, like the remnants of a water line on house after a great flood. All the characters, even Camille, are a bit unlikeable (and just another reminder of why small town life can be suffocating for the folks who don’t fit it).

“WICKED above her hipbone, GIRL across her heart. Words are like a road map to reporter Camille Preaker's troubled past. Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, Camille's first assignment from the second-rate daily Chicago paper where she works brings her reluctantly back to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. Since she left town eight years ago, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed again in her family's Victorian mansion, Camille is haunted by the childhood tragedy she has spent her whole life trying to cut from her memory. As Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims — a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming.”

Yes the book is dark, and at times original (but the basic premise is time worn), and Camille will either anger women for her foolishness and her very casual attitude about sex and the role women play in that theater, or they’ll praise her for being so strong –and yet fragile- when you understand the life she grew up in. Camille is a survivor, but that survivability is always close to enveloping her like the night when she does things that seem deliberately (like the endless drinking) destructive. She understands it is wrong, but does it anyways. And while Flynn’s prose is strong, I still could never get near to Camille. I mean, at times, I just hated the character. I’m sure that’s her intention, but while Sharp Objects is a good, well written book, I feel that this genre may not be for me.

Though, ironically, as I say this, I’m about to read her second book, Dark Places. And that has started out with another mean, dysfunctional woman who comes into contact with the folks who are obsessed with real-life crimes. This may temper my reading of Flynn’s huge break through novel, Gone Girl.

01 March 2014

Books: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (2011)

I’m a sucker for time travel stories, as I’ve written about before. But after reading Connie Willis To Say Nothing of the Dog some years ago, I discovered that my time travel stories must be literate as they are entertaining. Another words, an author who actually understands time travel and tries to explain its potential paradoxes and does not use it as a mere prop to their stories.

Part of the enjoyment of Spanish author Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time is how much enjoyment he gets out of making time travel work in 1896 and then pulling the rug out from under his readers. 

The book is essentially three novellas connected by The Time Machine author H.G. Wells. It begins in 1896 with a character named Andrew Harrington –an annoying personality of utter self-pity that made the early chapters tedious to get through-who is planning to kill himself 8 years after his prostitute girlfriend is last victim of Jack the Ripper (even though this is science fiction, I find the idea of some upper crust person that Harrington is supposed to be would’ve fallen in love –and paid again and again- to spend time with a prostitute with a heart of gold not to be that believable). But is prevented by doing so by his cousin Charles, who tells Andrew there is a way to save his beloved. And that way? Time travel via Murray’s Time Travel company.

In the wake of the success of Wells’ The Time Machine, many publishers are trying to capitalize on the fascination of time travel along with a man named Gilliam Murray, who can open a portal to the 4th dimension and travel to the year 2000 and witness the final battle between the humans and the automatons that have enslaved the future. But Murray informs Andrew that his “machine” can only travel to the future –May 10, 2000- and not the past. But while Andrew is disappointed, Charles then hatches an idea that includes a visit to H.G. Wells, who for reasons that will not be explain until later, has that same time machine he described in his book sitting in his attic. 

The second part deals with a woman who feels out of time in Victorian London and dreams of a future where she can choose whom she wants to be –and it’s clear that Palma is riffing on The Time Traveler’s Wife and even the Terminator in this segment. Meanwhile, the third part tells a tale of a Scotland Yard inspector who is trying to find a killer who seems to be offing his victims with something that looks like a heat ray. Which then begs the question, how do you arrest someone who hasn’t been born yet?

Yes, the book is extremely metafictional, which may dissuade hard core science fiction fans, but Palma writes with such zeal and panache, I ended up enjoying the book way too much. I mean, where else can you read a tale where Victorian characters spout off about parallel universe, about how and if you can change the past, and what would you do if you continued to go same time in future, would you eventually meet a version of you? Palma also references Doctor Who, Time Bandits (and Terry Gilliam), Jules Verne and even Planet of the Apes. There was even a part towards the end where I thought Palma was going to drag out a certain Doc Brown and his time traveling car.