Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Atwood Trilogy!

Hooray!  In an interview with GalleyCat, Margaret Atwood said she plans to write a third novel to form a trilogy with Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood.  That is definitely something to look forward to!  In my opinion, you can never have too much post-apocalyptic fiction.

It will also be interesting to see how she moves the story forward in a third novel; Year of the Flood showed the world-changing events of Oryx and Crake from a completely different perspective.  It made me want to go back and read the first novel again, because so much more was going on than was immediately apparent.

That aspect of the books reminded me of The Sparrow, a brilliant novel by Mary Doria Russell.  It was obvious what had happened to the unfortunate first contact team in that story, until you read the sequel, Children of God, and realize how much even the participants in the events of the first book misunderstood and misread what was happening to them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Book Review:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (August 31, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374158460
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374158460

Jonathan Franzen manages to provoke such strong reactions that it's difficult for me to form an opinion of his work free of the aftertaste of controversy.  This was certainly true when The Corrections came out in 2001; after Oprah Winfrey selected the novel for her book club, Franzen made controversial remarks about her viewers and seemed to fear that having an Oprah sticker on the front cover of his novel would drive away his true audience, those who presumably don't watch daytime talk shows.  Oprah subsequently withdrew her invitation.

Franzen's apparent lack of appreciation for all Oprah has done for books and authors annoyed me so much that I actively avoided The Corrections until years later, and only conceded to buy it when I found a used copy for $2.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered a very well written, emotionally engaging account of a dysfunctional family; in other words, a perfect fit for Oprah's book club.  Ulysses it was not.

Fast-forward to the year 2010, when I open my mailbox to see that Time has declared Franzen the Great American Novelist.  Presumably Time made this declaration in large part to stir up controversy and sell magazines, not to actually place the crown of greatness on Franzen's head to the exclusion of all other living American authors.  Still, the cover gave me a knee-jerk sensation of dislike.  Franzen's latest novel, Freedom, wasn't even in stores yet and already I wanted to hate it.  

Just to make things more interesting, a tweet from author Jodi Picoult (with subsequent backup from Jennifer Weiner) took the New York Times to task for giving so much attention to writers like Franzen while ignoring women and genre-fiction authors.  A Huffington Post interview with Picoult and Weiner makes clear they don't have an issue with Franzen specifically, but once again Franzen appeared as the poster child for literary elitism.  Someone even took the time to make a fake Twitter feed under the name Emperor Franzen.

Now that I've read Freedom for myself, I am once again bemused by the incredible amount of attention this author manages to generate.  Don't get me wrong--it's a very good book.  It has believable, engaging characters.  It asks big questions about how to live and how to be a good person.  The story manages to include mountaintop removal, the war in Iraq and the threat to songbirds from non-native house cats, all in a sweeping family epic of disappointment, betrayal, anger and forgiveness.  

Patty, a former basketball star and stay-at-home mom, loves her husband Walter, a Minnesotan with passionate views about social justice and the environment. Richard Katz, Walter's former college roommate, also loves Walter for his goodness; he inspires in Katz the desire to be a better man himself, although clearly it doesn't always work.  Somehow, though, I never loved Walter the way Patty and Richard do.  It became increasingly hard for me to understand or sympathize with Patty and Walter's relationship; not that it wasn't believable, just crushingly depressing and frustrating to watch.  The novel's ending at least offered some solace, but it was hard not to think of those wasted years and cringe.

Is it the great American novel for the 21st century?  If I have to answer right now, I'm going with no.  I liked it, but I'm not sure I'll remember the details by this time next year.  (Barbara Kingsolver's novel Prodigal Summer, another sweeping novel that asks how to be happy while showing the interconnectedness of life and our environment, was love at first read; I still vividly remember the story, right down to the history of kudzu and the death of the chestnut tree in Appalachia.  I recommend the book at every opportunity.  To me, that's the sign of a great novel, American or otherwise.)  

I do wonder whether I would have liked this book more if I had never heard of Jonathan Franzen.  Did all the crazy hype raise my expectations to unnatural levels, while his persona of snobbery made me secretly want to dislike the book?  Who knows?  It was interesting, though, to read the description of once-obscure rocker Richard Katz as he reacts to hearing his surprise hit album getting airplay on NPR, perhaps the equivalent of losing your literary street cred by making Oprah's book list.  

This book was also notable for its striking descriptions of depression, in all its possible forms.  Most of the main characters in the book suffer from it at some point.  Katz goes back to deck-building to avoid the banality of success, and notes: "He strongly disliked the person he'd just demonstrated afresh that he unfortunately was.  And this, of course, was the simplest definition of depression that he knew of:  strongly disliking yourself."  It reminded me of a quote from Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza: "Hell is the incapacity to be other than the creature one finds oneself ordinarily behaving as."  Most of the people in this book get stuck in exactly that sort of hell, at least for a while, and don't know how to get free of it without hurting the people they love the most.  

  • Genre:  Aspiring Great American Novel 
  • Read it if: you only read books reviewed at least twice by the New York Times, you have strong feelings about the cerulean warbler, or you are powerless in the face of relentless hype
  • Skip it if: reading about depression makes you depressed, or if your child has ever swallowed a penny and you would like to avoid vividly reliving that sensory experience (this time involving a wedding ring!)
  • Movie-worthy:  Sure.  Cast Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman and it will probably be nominated for an Oscar.
[The next day:  Oprah is reportedly picking Freedom for her final book club selection! A nice twist.] 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review: Murder Between the Covers by Elaine Viets

Book Review:  Murder Between the Covers by Elaine Viets

Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Signet; First Thus edition (December 2, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0451210816
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451210814

In this second installment in the Dead End Job series by Elaine Viets, poorly paid wage slave Helen has just started a new job at a bookstore called Page Turners.  Unsurprisingly, someone soon turns up dead and it's up to Helen to clear the name of her friend and neighbor before it's too late.

Flawed, likable Helen and the wacky things she encounters in her dead end jobs make this series so appealing; it doesn't take a genius to identify the murderer before Helen does, but most of the fun lies in vicariously experiencing life as a bookstore clerk.  It also helps that Viets has solidly grounded her character's dead end job experiences in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where wacky things seem disproportionately likely to happen in the first place.  

Check out the author's website for an entertaining interview about the research she did for each book, like working in a Barnes & Noble in Hollywood, Florida.

I've already acquired the rest of the books in this series and plan to read them in between heavier literary meals--they're perfect treats when I need a light-hearted read (or when I start to miss working!)  

  • Genre: Mystery for laughs
  • Read it if: you enjoy both Studs Terkel's Working and drinking box wine by the pool
  • Skip it if: you take your murder mysteries very seriously
  • Movie-worthy: would definitely make a fun made-for-TV movie