Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dry, Augusten Burroughs

Self-indulgent crap. Oh brilliant adman alcoholic who finally discovers what he's been looking for in crack! Oh uneducated hard-lived wunderkind! Nonfiction (hmm...with the JT Leroy and James Frey craptacular revelations lately, I wonder...) story about checking into rehab, loving AA, then deciding AA is boring bullshit. I kept reading simply to see when Burroughs fell off the wagon. Tries to be gay-funny like Sedaris but falls way short. Summation: an easy and fast read, very graphic, but tiresome.

The Apprentice, Jacques Pepin

Uninteresting. I usually love a food book but this was dull. The dude worked at HoJo, for Christ's sake. Everything turned up roses for him, so there's really no story to tell, and it's hard to be interested in a description of a meal that took a couple of French chefs a couple of days to prepare. I can't really identify with someone who talks about "simply de-boning" a rabbit. None of the recipes will make it to my table, I fear. Summation: pick up some MFK Fischer instead.

The Luck of the Bodkins, PG Wodehouse

Ah, the old friend Pelham Grenville. It's like being on a long trip then getting to sleep in your own bed again. To be fair, though, this is a pretty lackluster showing, with none of the old favorites appearing. Wodehouse doesn't do the LA apoplectic movie producer very well, I fear. This one is set on an ocean liner headed for NY and features a Mickey Mouse doll and a stolen pearl necklace. Summation: any Wodehouse is better than most things; a glimpse of the old Wodehouse in the steward character, Albert Peaseman.

Forever, Pete Hamill

A good read but not a killer. 18th century Irishman lands in NY and saves an African shaman from a lynching. Shaman grants him eternal life so long as he doesn't leave the island of Manhattan. I think a lot of New Yorkers feel this way and if I had enough money, I would agree. Nice touches of magical realism. Features an interesting take on what a good guy Boss Tweed was. At heart, this is a typical love story -- white man knows no real love until a woman of color comes along. Incorporates 9/11 but interestingly, the author finished the book the week before and rewrote the ending. Summation: don't have one.

Aloft, Chang-Rae Lee

Another airport purchase but surprisingly good. More than just readable. Hero is a bit of an antihero who has let life happen to him. Again, the best part was excerpted in the New Yorker. I like the voice of the narrator and can say that his is company I would enjoy. Rather a hapless but fairly lucky middle-aged man whose daughter announces pregnancy and Hodgkin's at the same time but won't remedy either. Also a lot about flying in a little plane and the joys of travel (the actual travel part of travel). Summation: some hilarious parts but a pat ending.

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

This was a good read (I'm a fan of the post-colonial writers), although maybe not a great story. Indian kid grows up in America embarrassed by his Indian-ness and his parents' Indian ways but as he grows older, he sees the value in respecting his heritage. I think this might've been excerpted in the New Yorker. I'm sure there's a lot to be said about the hero changing his name to Gogol in college, but all I know of Gogol is Dead Souls, so I'm not equipped to discuss. (Dead Souls, while we're on the subject, is hilarious, though.) Summation: not heavyweight stuff but very entertaining. I read it on a plane and forgot for a moment my sheer terror.

Elizabeth Costello, JM Coetzee

I didn't like this book, and it was my first taste of Coetzee (which I hear is pronounced cut-ZAY-uh, but would appreciate being corrected if I'm wrong; I dislike not being able to speak intelligibly about authors I've read). Tiresome and talky/preachy, in fact. It explained a lot when I saw that most of the main character's speeches (reproduced at great length in the book) were actually the author's words, delivered at actual speeches on various occasions. Couple of tasties: Satan's leathery wing "as sure as soap"; "this dumb faithful body that has accompanied her every step of the way, this shadow turned to flesh that stands on two feet like a bear and laves itself continually from the inside with blood." That's good. Summation: not dumber for having read it, but eh.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller

Fascinating nonfiction. Memoir of girlhood in Africa in the 70's and 80's. I can see that the author loves Africa but I cannot see why. Hardscrabble existence, political turmoil, and racist attitudes. Some hilarious scenes, some foodborne illness, lost of descriptions of how hot it was. A review called it a work of "terrible beauty" and I think that's pretty close. The edition I read was marred by dogshit book-review-talk-amongst-yourselves questions at the end ("book chat" as Vidal would have it). Summation: good to read in winter when you're cold; could probably serve as a substitute for an actual trip to Africa for the faint of heart.

The Swimming Pool Library, Alan Hollinghurst

Totally shocking, if one can be shocked and stunning, if one can be stunned. Gay rich life in London in either the late 70's or early 80's (pre-AIDS, anyway), but the beauty is that it could be anytime, as money can remove practicality. This is a beautiful book by a man who adores men and could not be paid to glance at a woman. Summation: effortlessly well-written. If you are a prude, you do not deserve to read any books and I promise you will not enjoy this particular one.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Not my style. No cuss words. The idea is a 77-year-old preacher is writing a journal for his 7-year-old son because he knows he won't be around long. Religion is strange and offputting to me so I didn't enjoy that aspect of it. Often difficult to keep the pronouns straight because proper names are rarely used. A couple of good lines about getting old but this tried to be a tear-jerker and I don't like being manipulated. Summation: would have made (and was, in the New Yorker, I think) a great short story.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Not sure I can come up with enough compliments -- the best book I read in 2005. Another eyeball-knocker-outer. Beautiful beautiful beautiful. Tells the story of 3 generations of fucked-up Greeks from the motherland to Detroit. Fantastic upper-middle-class-in-the-70's (except that it could be 80's, I guess) storyline. A child raised as a girl has hermaphroditic gonads and chooses to live adult life as a man. The only weak section is the short interlude in San Francisco (which feels very Mary Gaitskill). This book broke my heart over and over. Summation: really almost every page is great. Caveat: don't read if pregnant (I gave this to a friend who tried that and was convinced her child would be born a hermaphrodite. The child is normal.).

Book of Illusions, Paul Auster

The device: a story within a story. The inner story is better than the outer but both are very good. Outer story features everyone except the hero getting dead, which is a bit much. The inner story too is full of pain and closes with a rather unbelievable burn-my-stuff-when-I-die scene. Auster seems pretty unhappy but his characters never lead normal lives or have jobs that are altogether necessary. Summation: read it for the excellent fear-of-flying section.

Atonement, Ian McEwan

Knocked the eyeballs out. Opens with upper-crust English estate country idyll and devolves into war-torn London. I read that this is a meta-type novel in that the narrator is a novelist but it doesn't feel self-consciously meta-. It feels like a great story, completely snark-free. Features kind of a surprise ending; the narrator successfully pulled the rug out from under me, which few narrators are able to do. Atonement features a main character one cannot like, who tries throughout the book and the writing of the book to atone for a childhood lie that set all the agon in motion. Summation: run, don't walk.

Villages, John Updike

Far from Updike's best. More sex-obsessed than usual. Chapters alternate between hero's present May-December marriage and his philandering past. Too-pat dispatch of cuckolded wife. By far the best part, in the Rabbit style, is the description of the hero's youth. The profession Updike targets in this novel is computer programming, and he has done his technical homework, as usual. Summation: worth reading for the 5 or 6 dead-on phrases but I can't shake the feeling that deep down, Updike hates women.