A Bevy of Books (Because I’m Behind)

Trying to catch up here at the blog. In home news today, I changed sheets to flannel and mended a pair of footie pajamas. Winter is coming.

Everything is Illuminated
by Jonathan Safran Foer. When I began this book, I was impressed, as in, head tipped to the side I said, huh, this is different and good. Chapters are of three kinds. Two are narrated by Alex, a Ukrainian tour guide, who in one type of chapter corresponds with the character Jonathan Safran Foer, and in the other recounts his side of JSF’s recent trip to the Ukraine to unearth details of his grandfather’s early life. The third type of chapter is told ostensibly in third person omniscient, but really by JSF (whether the fictional, the author, or both) of his family history based on what he found on (or what he’s making up after) his trip. As the book wore on, though, so did the JSF family history chapters. While I continued to delight in Alex’s fractured English and point of view, I came to loathe the history chapters. They brought nothing new to tales of persecution during WWII, but they did concern themselves in disturbing detail with the bizarre sexual habits of grandparents and great-greats. I’m all for grandparents having sex or people having weird sex. But I don’t have to know the details. So, by the end I still really liked about 2/3 of the book, but hated the other 1/3.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by JSF. For a book group because of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Narrated mostly by precocious 9-year-old Oskar Schell, who is weird but lovable and understandably deeply damaged by his fathers death on 9/11. Other chapters are letters written by his grandfather, who left his grandmother when she was pregnant with Oskar’s father, and the grandmother. The book is full of quirky bits, like photos from Oskar’s personal collection, pages that are blank because they were typed on a typewriter without a ribbon, four full pages of people’s doodles, numerous photos of doorknobs, and more. I’m reminded of a line from Spinal Tap: the line between clever and stupid is very thin. As with Everything is Illuminated, there is far too much detail about the weird sex of grandparents. The parts about Oskar and his mom were touching and interesting. The inclusion of Dresden is an intriguing contrast to 9/11. But the gimmicks and the grandparents didn’t work for me. Like EiI, a mixed bag of engaging, talented and really annoying writing.

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. Moving, with great characters, especially Rusty, who will stay with me a long time. A good example of taking something specific like polygamy and making it universal.

Savages by Don Winslow. A selection of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books that I finally got ’round to. A fast, entertaining read about a trio of marijuana growers who get mixed up with Mexican cartels. It’s told in short, devourable segments that sometimes switch to screenplay form. This reminded me in good ways of Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell and Breaking Bad on AMC: extremely violent but incredibly entertaining with involving characters.

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo. A fable about an orphaned boy’s search for his sister, presumed dead. There is also, as promised in the title, a magician and an elephant. Lovely, evocative illustrations and a good tale.

The Fate of the Artist GN by Eddie Campbell. I’ve loved some of Campbell’s other works, and he’s undeniably a great artist visually and holistically, but this didn’t work for me. Way too meta, which I can sometimes love but apparently wasn’t in the mood for this time. I’ll go back to it, though.

God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam. Margaret, eight years old, has to navigate a lot of adult weirdness, like her vague mother, Jesus-obsessed father, bawdy nanny, a mysterious house in the woods and two recently returned friends of her mother’s. Like her more recent novels Old Filth and The Man with the Wooden Hat, it’s peopled with complex and fascinating characters. I loved it.

6 Responses to “A Bevy of Books (Because I’m Behind)”

  1. Steph Says:

    I like to hoard books so although I own both of JSF’s novels, I’ve only read Extremely Loud, which I liked quite a lot, but not as much as I’ve enjoyed his wife, Nicole Krauss’, fiction. I was thinking of re-reading Extremely Loud this year because it seems appropriate, and I think I rushed through it the last/first time I read it. Also, I don’t remember anything regarding weird sex in it!

    Glad to hear you enjoyed both The Lonely Polygamist and God on the Rocks as I have copies of both. I keep eyeing TLP, but then backing down because it is so huge…

  2. Jennifer Reese Says:

    I loved Lonely Polygamist but gave it to several people who didn’t respond warmly. Jane Gardam is going on my list. Never read her. Thanks for that. I’ve been on SUCH a good reading tear lately — Kate Atkinson’s latest book, Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith, The Imperfectionists.

  3. girldetective Says:

    Jennifer, I loved The Imperfectionists. And I really need to re-read Case Histories so I can get into the Kate Atkinson series.

    A bunch of people at the discussion of Lonely Polygamist didn’t care for it, hated the protagonist, some even claimed he didn’t change over the course of the book! I found it very moving and worthwhile, and even though it was long it was not a long read. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but I highly recommend it.

    Steph, the grandparent sex in ELaIC was probably more apparent and irritating to me because I didn’t like it in Everything is Illuminated. What really bugged me about it in ELaIC, though, is that the grandmother writes about it in letters to her grandson. Yeesh. I’m re-reading History of Love this month, so I’m interested to see how it will compare/contrast.

  4. Kate Says:

    I too really enjoyed the Lonely Polygamist! For the life of me, I can’t remember entirely why, but I suppose the fact that I can remember the characters with such clarity a number of years after reading it would be one reason. I also loved the Imperfectionists–Rachman has a short story available on Amazon right now I also really enjoyed.

    ELaIC is like the movie the Sweet Hereafter for me (as in, my go-to answer to the question of what is the most depressing movie ever. It’s like short hand in our house–”how was X?” “Well, [it was no; it was approaching; it was just like] the Sweet Hereafter.”). I remember reading it during a summer at the beach and finding the combination of 9/11 and Dresden more than I could possibly handle. I have almost no comment on the writing, other than the book bothered me so much on an emotional level that I haven’t even talked about it with anyone. It was our town’s One Book, One Community pick this year, and I kept thinking, “Good Lord, this would be like making me watch The Sweet Hereafter again.”

  5. Jennifer Reese Says:

    I didn’t exactly like the protagonist of Lonely Polygamist, but I’ve never met a protagonist quite like him — truly dim, well-meaning, weak, hen-pecked. Unique in my reading experience. I did love Rusty!

  6. girldetective Says:

    Jennifer, it occurred to me later that Golden shares a lot of characteristics with the golden retriever dog: hairy, blond, good-natured, not too bright, good at procreating, and well liked by others. I didn’t like him, but I understood him as a character and sympathized with him.