Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Consider the Lobster" by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is an author I've somewhat avoided, fearing his prose would be lengthy and over-wrought or maddeningly meta. But, an esteemed colleague of mine is an enormous fan, and when a senior (whom I taught as a freshman) stopped by and inquired whether I'd given Wallace a chance, I conceded I'd have a go if he brought in one of Wallace's works.  Hence, Consider the Lobster.

On my own, I wouldn't have chosen Lobster as the work to begin with. After all, Wallace is most famous for his fiction, and Lobster is instead a collection of his nonfiction essays, all previously published in major magazines. Some of the essays are in-person exploratory/analytical/opinion pieces (such as following the '00 McCain campaign trail or attending the Maine Lobster Festival) and others are literary analysis or book reviews. All in all, it's kind of a weird collection. I mean, typically a person reads a book review because he or she is interested in the book being reviewed, or someone reads an article about the Adult Video Awards (the book's first essay) because he or she is intrigued by porn galas. But, in this case, readers are reading these pieces not because they're interested in their subject matter but because they're interested in their author--David Foster Wallace.

Now, to be fair, Wallace's essays are very personal and heavily editorialized, so learning about Wallace from them is not the same as trying to divine Shakespeare's sexual orientation or political leanings from, say, Othello. Still, I couldn't shake the weirdness of reading a 60-page (I kid you not) review of a book about American usage in order to find the "essence" of Wallace as a writer.

Nonetheless, I'll try to offer some thoughts. I'm not sure if they'll be well-organized or coherent, since the pieces cover such a range of topics.

Wallace is clearly a talented writer. He comes off as smart but not snooty, even though he has an enviable vocabulary (I even wrote down and looked up some of the words). He seems to be someone intensely involved in trying to understand the world around him and who is willing to question himself and his opinions much more than most. For example, in the essay "Up, Simba," about the McCain campaign, he explicitly struggles with the juxtaposition of McCain's outrageously selfless war story and McCain's need to sell and act to try to win the Republican nomination. Or, in a very odd piece about a biography of Dostoevsky, he inserts random musings about God and the purpose of life without explanation except this line: "[Joseph] Frank's bio [of Dostoevsky] prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit" (271). Of course, Wallace committed suicide in 2008, and it's tempting to try to "discover" those roots in his pieces, but I don't think I'm going beyond what he offers in the text.

However, even beyond trying to understand Wallace as a man, there's some great material. I realized in "Up, Simba" that I knew far, far too little about McCain (I knew from the beginning that I would vote Democratic in '08, so I never really bothered). In "Authority and American Usage," I learned about the grammar wars and was exposed to some fabulous lines such as, "This is so stupid it practically drools" (89). I could identify with his post-9/11 cynicism (in "The View from Mrs. Thompson's) and could empathize with his desire to understand sports stars (as he tries to do through cheesy memoirs, detailed in "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart").

One of the few definitive things I knew about Wallace going in was his penchant for footnotes, which are more or less on display throughout his essays. I did find them annoying and distracting, even though reading so many has now made me parenthetical-happy in this review. I'm sure there's something to be said for the footnotes making you more aware of your reading (you can't get into a mellow flow with those kinds of interruptions), and they certainly do make you feel more intimate with Wallace (like a whisper during a movie that he just couldn't hold in).

And, as an aside (okay, really, this ought to be a footnote--damn you, Wallace!), Wallace also has the habit of using acronyms and other shorthand which I imagine learned people are just supposed to know. So, I felt incredibly stupid when it took me until the fourth to last page of the book to figure out that w/r/t means "with reference to." I had to look up "N.B." (effectively, "note").

I still would like to try Wallace's fiction someday, though I need a break from footnoting and introspection first. Nonetheless, he's a distinctive writer, so much so that regardless of what he writes about, the piece is so clearly him. However, Consider the Lobster would probably be best suited for Wallace fans or for people looking to study style through a single excerpted piece.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Thursday Next: First Among Sequels" by Jasper Fforde

Fforde's fifth Thursday Next book is much like its predecessors, something I think I've said about every book in the series. In this, like the others, an absurd number of side stories come together in a way that eventually makes sense, so I won't even attempt to summarize the plot.

There have been some changes in this book. It takes place fourteen years after the fourth novel, making Thursday in her 50s. Somehow I couldn't quite imagine her this age, though, so she still remained 30-something in my mind. Thursday's children Friday and Tuesday are also given more attention, though I would have liked to see them in a more primary role. It also felt, to me, that the book allusions that make the series so much fun were a lot less present. I missed all the knowing references, which Fforde instead supplemented with more detail about BookWorld itself.

What really saved First Among Sequels for me was the introduction of two kinda new characters. In her world, Thursday's escapades have been novelized, and so in BookWorld she's joined by her fictional counterparts: Thursday1-4, the hero of the sex and violence series, and Thursday5 of the hippie "mother earth" book. There's an added layer of humor in the way Thursday interacts with her other selves.

First Among Sequels shows that the longevity of the series may be a bit strained. I enjoyed Shades of Grey, the first novel in a new Fforde series, infinitely more.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Before I Go To Sleep" by S.J. Watson

When Christine wakes up in the morning, she has no idea who she is.  There's a stranger in the bed next to her, and when she looks in the mirror, she's shocked to find herself more than twenty years older than she expects. When the man awakes, he explains that he's Ben, her husband. After an accident many years ago, Christine developed amnesia--though she can remember events for a 24-hour period, when she sleeps, all those memories are wiped away.  She can remember snippets of early childhood and adulthood but nothing since then. As Christine adjusts that day, she meets Dr. Nash, whom she's been working with recently (though she has no memory of doing so). He gives her a journal she had been keeping over the past weeks to remind herself of who she is. When she gets home and opens the book, she finds a chilling phrase across the front: "Don't trust Ben."

This is the premise for the fast-paced amnesia mystery Before I Go To Sleep. There's always something intriguing about stories related to personal identity. After all, even if all else were lost, we seem to think we'd at least know ourselves. But Christine is thrust into a world where all the knowledge she has must be provided by others; the journal is the first tool that allows Christine to take control of her own knowledge. Once she does so, she realizes Ben's been keeping secrets from her.

Watson does a nice job of keeping his protagonist and the reader on their toes as they go through cycles of trusting and doubting Ben and Christine herself. There's not a lot of depth of character, though Christine's uncertainty is nicely done.  But the twists and turns of the situation are well-crafted, even if the climax is a bit less thrilling.

Before I Go To Sleep was a quick read, but that's largely because I didn't want to put it down. Though I don't think it will be particularly memorable, it's an engaging novel that will appeal to a wide variety of readers.

Monday, September 12, 2011

"Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline

This year I've found myself increasingly drawn toward action-oriented stories and away from novels full of rumination and questions about identity and the meaning of life. I suppose, like everyone else, sometimes I just want something fun. However, that doesn't mean I'm willing to settle--the books I read still need to be smart, well-written, and driven by compelling characters or I won't care. Enter Ready Player One.

I loved Ready Player One. It spoke to the geek in me and was fun and fast paced. The premise: in the near future, much of the world's population spends its time in a massive online environment called OASIS (similar to Second Life). When the eccentric creator of OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves behind what is essentially a treasure hunt: he has hidden an "egg" somewhere in OASIS, and whoever can find it first will receive his massive fortune and control of the company. Ready Player One focuses on Wade, aka Parzival, a (largely) friendless teenager who has devoted the last five years of his life looking for Halliday's egg.  When he discovers the first key toward completing the search, he's thrown into the spotlight and must race to find the egg ahead of IOI, an evil corporation determined to rule OASIS.

On its own, the story above would probably make a fun book. But there's an added detail that makes it even more fabulous: Halliday was obsessed with the '80s, and the only way to solve his hunt is to become an expert at every part of the decade Halliday loved: the movies, TV shows, music, video games, and technology. The book, then, is jam-packed with nerdy '80s references, all described lovingly and reverently. I was born in the '80s, so I'm no expert on many of the allusions, but that wasn't a problem. Ready Player One appeals to anyone who grew up with early technology and has seen and embraced the enormous advancements since then--but still feels a bit of nostalgia for scroll-screen Mario.

The character development is perhaps a little weak, and the problematic nature of most of the world spending all their time online is only slightly addressed. I was thankful for it. Ready Player One is perfect as is and ideal for a self-professed geek of any type.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"The Man in the Rockefeller Suit" by Mark Seal

Stories of secret identities are a trademark of classic mysteries, but to me, these stories always have an air of nostalgia. They come from a time when it was easy to change who you are because there was no electronic trail to follow you wherever you went. This notion I had made The Man in the Rockefeller Suit all the more astonishing, for it tells the story of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant who transformed himself into various new identities over three decades, culminating with his best performance--convincing wealthy Boston that he was Clark Rockefeller, a member of the famous Rockefeller family, for years. And the story ends in 2008.

Seal notes that one of the reasons Rockefeller (I'll call him by that, simply because it's his best known name) was able to get away with it was because of how outrageous his lies were.  From the beginning, he adopted the persona of an aristocratic person of wealth and established himself in rich communities.  Though the stories he tells the people he meets seem absurd (working in Hollywood, descending from English royalty, doing high level work with various governments), it seems most people didn't have trouble believing him. The lesson seems to be if you're going to lie, lie big.

He even is married to Sandra Boss, an upwardly mobile Bostonian, for twelve years! Though he earns no income during that time, shows her no evidence of wealth, nor introduces her to his famous "family," she doesn't question his identity. In fact, the only reason he is discovered is because of his daughter with Sandra, Reigh (whom he calls Snooks). Sandra does eventually divorce Rockefeller, and in order to avoid his true identity being revealed in a custody battle, he relinquishes custody of Snooks to Sandra.  Months later, he abducts Snooks during a court-supervised visit, and it's this that finally puts the FBI on his trail.

Seal has done his research, interviewing an enormous range of people connected to the story. It was interesting to think of this story in comparison to another outrageous nonfiction book I recently read, Sex on the MoonSex on the Moon is told from the main individual's point of view, thus portraying him rather sympathetically. Rockefeller Suit, on the other hand, is told from everyone but Rockefeller's point of view, so he comes off in a (deservedly) negative light. Because the voice of Rockefeller himself is absent, a central question is left unanswered: what was going on in his head during this time? Did he actively think about his cons? Or did he delude himself into thinking he actually was rich and sophisticated? Why did he have the compulsive need to deceive everyone about every aspect of his life?

From start to finish, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is fully engrossing and ideal as audiobook entertainment for a long car trip.

Monday, September 5, 2011

"The Magicians" by Lev Grossman

Every year I ask my 9th graders to write sonnets. Of the many that have been written over the years, one of my favorites is a sonnet addressed to Hogwarts. In the poem, the speaker ruefully inquires about when she will receive her admissions letter. That poem came to mind recently as I thought about why so many read fantasy, and I decided that, for most of us, when we read fantasy, we do so with at least some desire to inhabit the world depicted. We imagine how much more exciting our lives would be if we could do magic, and despite the fear of a monster like Voldemort, we envy the sense of purpose and heroic achievement such an enemy provides.

But, in doing this, we don't stop and imagine what life would really be like if we--ordinary, normal us--knew magic. Would magic really be fun to learn? What if it were tedious, dull, and repetitive, more like memorizing a dictionary? And, more importantly, what is the purpose of magic if there is no villain to be fought? If you could have anything at your fingertips, how could you experience the joy of desires fulfilled? It is these questions that Grossman's The Magicians seeks to address.

The Magicians purposefully invokes popular fantasy worlds (specifically the world of Harry Potter and Narnia) in order to subvert our expectations for the novel's protagonist, Quentin. When the novel begins, Quentin is a disaffected high school senior. After mysteriously wandering in to an unusual examination and discovering previously unknown magic powers, Quentin is admitted to Brakebills Academy, a college version of Hogwarts. But even at Brakebills, Quentin is not happy. Learning magic is not fun; school is not fun (he doesn't even make BFFs)--it's nothing like the fantasy world of Fillory (a straight rip off Narnia), a world depicted in books Quentin poured over as a child.

Grossman goes to pains in the beginning to show the tedium and purposelessness of Quentin's schooling. The danger of Quentin's current path is seen in the parents of Alice (Quentin's girlfriend).  Her parents are magicians, but like many, they graduated without any purpose or goal in life. Their lives are meaningless.  This part of the novel is important to Grossman's message, but it also makes for boring reading, despite the strong writing.  After all, we read fantasy for the adventure and heroism! Instead, we get a whiny, unhappy teenager who spends a lot of time drinking. The ennui is so pervasive that the book becomes difficult to read (you can't help but thinking: what's the point of this? this is so dull... there's no reason for all this...)

In the last third of the book, the action picks up as Quentin and his friends discover a way to enter the world of Fillory. Suddenly the adventure that one expects in fantasy is present, but, again, Grossman subverts the readers' expectations. The characters are so desperate for purpose that they allow themselves to be duped into a quest, ignoring a central question: why does a magical world need humans to save it?

It seems like readers' ratings for The Magicians are mixed, and I can understand why.  I wouldn't recommend the novel to fans of Harry Potter and Narnia (or at least not to readers looking for something similar to those) because Grossman is not particularly interested in magic in and of itself. And though you want to like the characters, they're often terrifically unlikeable. The characters, instead, are real and more like us--selfish, cowardly, cruel--which isn't always pleasant. Furthermore, The Magicians hits pointedly on our constant yet unachievable desire for something more: "We're wired to expect the world to be brighter and more meaningful and more obviously interesting than it actually is. And when we realize that it isn't, we start looking around for the real world." It's true, but it's also depressing.

In the end, the message and questions raised are intensely interesting, but the book often isn't. When my husband and I finished listening to the audiobook, one of our first questions to each other was, "Would you read the sequel?" I still haven't determined my answer.