Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

The Unconsoled Kazuo IshiguroI can recommend The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro only to hard-core fans of Capital “L” Literature and even then, only to completists.

The Unconsoled follows Charles Ryder, a famous pianist, as he prepares to give a concert in an unnamed European city. Along the way, he is diverted from his preparation by a series of tedious conversations, meaningless tasks, and importunate personal requests from strangers who may or may not also be close family members or friends from his past. Both space and time seem to distort themselves around Ryder, and he has the ability to narrate events and conversations of which he can have no logical knowledge. In the end, as you might guess (I did by about page 23), Ryder never gives the concert.

The obvious major influence hanging over the book is Franz Kafka, although Lewis Carroll deprived of his whimsy and delight makes a strong argument for himself, too.

It’s also hard for me to think that Ishiguro has unknowingly given his character the same name as the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, another feckless and second-rate artist who is unhappy in his personal life.

But whatever the relationship of Ishiguro’s Charles Ryder to Waugh’s Charles Ryder may or may not be, and whatever relationship The Unconsoled may or may not have to Kafka or Carroll, and whatever significance all the complicated, ambiguous goings-on in this 500+ page novel may or may not possess – the truth is I don’t care because I don’t think the novel rewards the effort required to figure it out.

I have a couple loosely related reasons for thinking this. I’m going to toss them out and let you decide. Here they are.

The Unreliable Author or “Who is Charles Ryder?” Problem

“What’s up with Charles Ryder?” is probably the big question about The Unconsoled.

Does he suffer from a mental illness or some form of amnesia or dementia? Does Ryder have emotional problems that prevent him from connecting with other people? Is he just another hapless existential shadow wandering through a meaningless universe? Is Ryder a cubist construct of the conscious and unconscious mind intended to be part of a “realism taken to its extreme” project? Is his character a vehicle for expressing the instability and chaos that lie deep within seemingly stable human personalities?

All of these explanations seem plausible but none seem more plausible than the others. Which leads me to the suspicion that Ishiguro thinks it is the reader’s task to make sense of the book, not the author.

Some people like this. I don’t.

Life is a complicated, frustrating, ambiguous experience of which it is my task to make sense.

I’m on it. But I got my hands full just trying to make sense of my life. I don’t need Kazuo giving me duplicate homework.

The Exploring “Emptiness and Tedium” by Being Empty and Tedious Problem

I actually think this is what The Unconsoled is doing. The problem is that while exploring emptiness and tedium is interesting as an idea for a book, and might make a great short story, it is not interesting AS a book – especially one that is 500 pages.

And here’s a related problem.

Right now, I’m looking at a kitchen full of dirty dishes I need to clean up before I go to bed. If I want to explore the emptiness and tedium of life, I can think of no better method than washing those dishes. As a bonus, when I’m done, the dishes are washed.

At which point I could read a book that tells me something other than the fact that life can be empty and tedious, which – by the way – I already know because I just finished washing the d@mn dishes for somewhere between the 7,000th and 8,000th d@mn time in my life.

The Length for Length’s Sake and Difficulty for Difficulty’s Sake Problems

I don’t think Ishiguro wrote a long, difficult book just because he wanted the prestige of having written a long, difficult book.

First, Ishiguro doesn’t seem like that kind of guy looking at his body of work. Second, to say that would be to accuse Ishiguro of writing in bad faith, and I don’t know that to be true, and it may not be possible to know that about The Unconsoled.

But I wonder if Ishiguro was tempted or influenced by the desire for the prestige, considering the result. Writers, despite our often shy reputations, are just as vain as the next artist, after all.

Maybe Ishiguro’s ambition was greater than his inspiration or talent. It happens all the time in novels. If fact, it might happen every time. That would make The Unconsoled an honest effort. But it doesn’t necessarily make it one worth reading.

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I love Dr. Seuss’s ABC and read it to my kids all the time. But after several years, I realized I had to skip “Letter R”.  It all seemed innocuous at first.

“Letter R” wasn’t my favorite rhyme but I kinda dug
Rosy Robin Ross’  jodhpurs and riding crop.

I wondered what Rosy found so interesting
about the red rhinoceros.  He seemed like
a nice fellow, but nothing special.

Then one day it struck me. I took a real close look
at that nose of his and thought, “Uh oh.”

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - Penguin editionEmma Bovary should have stayed on the farm.

Instead, she marries an oafish health officer and rises into the middle class of a country town, where she finds boredom, loneliness, empty promises from romance novels and religion, and fury at the cages in which 19th-century France placed women.

Flaubert’s universe is barren of virtue. There is no tenderness or compassion, no understanding or true friendship, no curiosity or wonder in Madame Bovary. No love either, despite all the talking of it.

Everyone is crass and venal, foolish, pompous, scheming and self-serving, craven, dastardly. Words fail the characters – even Flaubert’s words. The novel’s people are surrounded by his exquisite descriptions of wedding revelry, bustling towns, the beauty of nature, but Flaubert’s words make no impression and bring no consolation.

All anyone sees in Emma Bovary is her beauty, her clothes, and her body. So perhaps it makes sense that when Emma tries to solve the problem of her life – a problem she feels but can’t articulate – she turns to sex and shopping. They lead her to misery and destruction, of course.

I don’t think Emma could see other choices. Who is at fault? Emma Bovary herself? The society in which she lived? Or the world Flaubert made for her? Probably all three.

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix PotterBefore Beatrix Potter became the author of children’s books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), she was a gifted natural historian and scientist.

So it’s not a surprise that Ms. Potter’s illustrations closely resemble the animals on which her characters are based or that she writes unsentimental stories that display a strong understanding of human (rather than animal) psychology.

This is certainly the case with Beatrix Potter’s most famous character, Peter Rabbit, whose trauma in Mr. McGregor’s garden is so realistically portrayed that cheeky amateurs with access to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) could diagnose him with Acute Stress Disorder if they liked.

In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter’s mother tells him not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden because “your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

This does not deter Peter, who runs straight to the garden and encounters Mr. McGregor. In the subsequent chase, Peter loses his shoes and coat and catches cold while hiding in a watering can. Peter escapes and his mother puts him to bed with a dose of camomile tea.

Trauma is a cause of Acute Stress Disorder, and I think this experience qualifies as a traumatic event according to the DSM-IV because Peter was both “confronted with an event that involved actual or threatened death” and responded with “intense fear [and] helplessness.”

We see the symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, which picks up Peter’s story the next day.

As the book opens, Peter’s cousin Benjamin finds him “sitting by himself” looking “poorly” and “dressed in a red cotton pocket-handkerchief.”

Benjamin leads his cousin away toward the McGregor’s garden without either agreement or resistance from Peter.

From this description, we can find in Peter (1) an absence of emotional responsiveness and a reduction in awareness of surroundings and (2) anhedonia or lack of interest in activities that used to bring enjoyment, both of which are characteristic of Acute Stress Disorder.

The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix PotterOnce in the garden, Peter Rabbit displays three more important symptoms: (3) poor concentration, (4) marked symptoms of anxiety, and (5) increased arousal, hypervigilence, and an exaggerated startle response.

There are three instances of poor concentration in the tale. First, Peter falls “down head first” from the pear tree he and Benjamin are using to enter the garden. Peter and Benjamin pick onions as a present for Peter’s mother, but Peter drops half the onions at one point in the tale and drops the others a little later.

Peter is also clearly anxious and hypervigilent during his return visit to Mr. McGregor’s garden. While Benjamin is collecting the onions, Ms. Potter notes “Peter did not seem to be enjoying himself; he kept hearing noises.”

Peter also doesn’t join Benjamin in eating Mr. McGregor’s lettuces either, instead saying that “he should like to go home.” When the two rabbits walk among Mr. McGregor’s flowerpots, frames, and tubs, “Peter heard noises worse than ever, his eyes were as big as lolly-pops!”

It is in this emotional state that Peter and Benjamin are trapped under a basket by one of the McGregor’s cats for five hours. Ms. Potter writes it was “quite dark” and the “smell of onions was fearful” under the basket. Both Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny cry.

The little rabbits are saved by Benjamin’s father, old Mr. Benjamin Bunny, who cuffs and kicks the cat into the greenhouse, then whips both Benjamin and Peter with a switch.

Peter returns home, where his mother forgives him because she “was so glad to see he had found his shoes and coat” and all seems to end well. The last drawing in the story shows Peter folding up the pocket-handkerchief with the help of one of his sisters.

But Peter’s trauma isn’t resolved as much as it is ignored, and the ambiguity of this resolution hangs over the end of the story. I suspect that the effects of Peter’s untreated trauma will linger for years, making it hard for Peter to find stable employment as an adult and perhaps leading to the self-medicating abuse of rabbit tobacco.

Peter Rabbit isn’t the only psychologically realistic character who experiences trauma in Beatrix Potter’s stories. Mr. Jeremy Fisher is nearly eaten by a trout and resolves never to go fishing again. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs are saved from a fox by the collie dog Kep, only to be gobbled up by puppies before Kep can stop them.

Even Mrs. Tittlemouse, who is threatened by no more than a series of unwanted visitors in her sandy house, lives under the constraints imposed by her obsession with cleanliness and order.

Beatrix Potter’s dispassionate examination of life’s menace has earn her books readers for more than one hundred years. I have to ask, however: “Why do we let children read them?”

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The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey EugenidesIn The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides tells the story of the five Lisbon sisters who kill themselves over the course of a single year, and along the way writes a mash note to youth and innocence, age and disappointment, and the Detroit of the 1970s at the moment when the city’s wealth and vitality begin to rot away.

Eugenides’ story is twee, and fantastic, and too cute by half until the last twenty pages, when he slips his knife under your breastbone, cuts out your heart, and holds it up, beating and bleeding, with a silent question: “This is life. Can you endure it?”

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"Juliet, Naked" by Nick HornbyIn Nick Hornby’s best books – High Fidelity and Fever Pitch – he manages to be a popular writer, a comic writer, and a serious writer all at the same time. Hornby equals the achievement of these books in his 2009 novel, Juliet, Naked.

Juliet, Naked tells the story of Annie and Duncan, an English couple slipping into middle age, and how they are affected when the reclusive ex-rock star, Tucker Crowe, enters their lives.

Annie and Duncan are exemplary Hornby-esque characters. They possess intelligence and some taste, but they are adrift in their work, and deeply uncertain of their feelings for each other. Duncan is also obsessed with Tucker Crowe and his most famous album, “Juliet”.

Annie tolerates this obsession until they disagree about a demo recording of the album’s songs – known as “Juliet, Naked” – that Crowe releases after twenty years of silence. The disagreement causes their relationship to fray. Annie attracts the attention of Tucker Crowe himself through a review of “Juliet, Naked” she posts online. And the story is off and running.

Hornby is a virtuoso of romantic ambivalence, and his talent is fully realized in Annie and Duncan. They are a portrait of all the dissatisfactions that develop when a relationship is based more on familiarity and convenience than on affection, and the scenes between them are funny, painful, and persuasive.

For example, here’s part of the scene in which Duncan tells Annie that he’s seeing another woman:

“Are you telling me you want out?” [Annie asked.]

“I don’t know. I did know. But now I don’t. It suddenly seems like a big thing to say.”

“And it didn’t earlier on?”

“Not … not as big as it should have done, no.”

“Who are you sleeping with?”

“It’s not … I wouldn’t use the present continuous. There’s been an incident. So ‘Who have you slept with?’ is probably the question. Or ‘With whom did this possibly one-off incident take place?’”

Annie was looking at him as if she might kill him with her cutlery.

“She’s a new colleague at work.”


Annie waited and he began to babble.

“She … Well, I was just very attracted to her immediately.”

Still nothing.

“It’s been a long time, in fact, since I’ve been as, as drawn to somebody as I am to her.”

Silence, but of a deeper and altogether more menacing quality.

“And she loved Naked. I played it to her last…”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

Tucker Crowe is not as convincing in his role of former rock star as Annie and Duncan are in theirs. Hornby tells us that Crowe was a talented musician who’s famous for recording a poor-man’s version of “Blood on the Tracks” and for possessing a series of beautiful, angry ex-wives.

But Crowe doesn’t seem like a man who was ever passionate enough to have recorded a minor masterpiece or destroyed multiple relationships. Instead, he comes across as the kind of funny, feckless, and self-centered Hornby character that excels at doing nothing with his life.

There are other problems. In the middle of the book, you can hear the machine of Hornby’s plot going clang, clang, clang and he falls back on his considerable comic gifts to keep the story moving. This part of the novel is still funny, but the humor comes from Hornby’s efforts, rather than rising from the characters and situations, and so loses its depth of feeling.

The good news is that Hornby produces a satisfying ending to Juliet, Naked once he manages to maneuver Duncan, Annie, and Tucker into a position where they all can meet. Hornby also does a pretty job of resolving many – but not all – of the discrepancies between Tucker’s rock-star past and his current personality.

The final pages of Juliet, Naked do leave questions about the story unanswered, but it suits the characters perfectly. To them, life is something of a muddle and never complete. It’s fitting that the ending of the novel they inhabit shares those qualities.

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The Baseball Codes by Turbow with DucaFor all you facing a dreary September of meaningless games, The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow with Michael Duca will bring a little joy to your personal Mudvilles.

Turbow and Duca classify the “unwritten rules” of baseball into four broad categories: On The Field, Retaliation, Cheating, and Teammates.

Each section is full of entertaining anecdotes, but – perhaps inevitably – Retaliation and Cheating are the most fun.

My favorite story involves the 1900 Philadelphia Phillies, who positioned a player with binoculars in the centerfield clubhouse to steal the catcher’s signs (no innovation) but used a vibrating electric box buried in the field beneath the third-base coaches’ foot to tip the signals via Morse code.

Opposing teams were suspicious of the enormous difference between the Phillies’ home record (excellent) and their away record (awful). Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran became really suspicious when he noticed the third-base coach standing in a puddle all game. Corcoran dug in the mud and found the cheat. The Phillies denied everything.

The Baseball Codes isn’t a comprehensive history, and it doesn’t offer an in-depth study of the game’s culture, but it is funny, lively, and an excellent source of stories to tell your friends over a beer while your favorite team is slouching away toward the off-season.

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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami In 1Q84, the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami tells the story of a freelance assassin and an aspiring writer as they slowly become entangled with a sinister religious cult and the mysterious supernatural beings the cult worships.

Murakami sets his book in a parallel world that resembles 1984 Tokyo, except for the presence of two moons in the sky. (The title of the novel is a reference to this other world, with a “Q” that stands for “question mark” replacing the “9”.)

1Q84 combines elements of fantasy, thriller, and detective stories with questions about the nature, function, and meaning of fiction. The English version, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, was published in the fall of 2011.

Murakami’s novel was widely expected to be a masterwork, but the reception among English speaking reviewers was mixed, with some hailing it as a major work of literature and others seeing it as a 1,200 page novel of no great substance.

I liked 1Q84 more than some of its critics, but I agree with those who think the novel is unlikely to find a permanent place among the world’s great books.

As an entertainment, I thought it was successful. I was never enthralled by the novel, but I did finish reading it, and I found its main actors, Aomame the assassin, and Tengo the writer, well drawn and appealing.

Only one character, however, a grotesque but finally sympathetic private detective name Ushikawa, burned with the convincing life that distinguishes great literary characters from their lesser brothers and sisters.

I also didn’t think all the references to artists, discussion of metaphysical ideas, or the novels-writing-reality and reality-writing-novels tricks (which are at least as old as Andre Gide’s 1895 Paludes), added up to very much.

They seemed more like the kind of fruits and nuts you might throw into a satisfying, but ultimately unremarkable cake, to make it tastier.

Finally, I thought 1Q84 lacked quiddity, lacked that strange and delicate alchemy which makes a novel deeply idiosyncratic on one hand and broadly universal on the other, and which distinguishes great books from merely good ones.

Fans of 1Q84 may offer two substantial objections to these opinions.

The first is that I don’t know if Rubin and Gabriel’s clear and workmanlike translation of 1Q84 reflects Murakami’s work or whether English readers have lost the rhythm and music of the original prose, not to mention the subtle resonances and associations which are particular to different words in different languages, but which are essential to writers of any talent.

To this I can only reply, true. That is a difficulty with any translation.

The second problem is the (reasonable assumption as it turns out) that I am largely unfamiliar with Japanese culture and society.

This means that if Murakami created a metaphorical history of Japan in 1Q84, or included large amounts of sociological comment, or has written significant elements of parody or satire into the novel, the chances are something better than 95% that I don’t get them.

To this I can only reply, also true. But it is a quality of literature that it transcends the time and place of its composition, and speaks powerfully to readers in other places and other times. That 1Q84 falls short on this measure does not make it a bad book. But it doesn’t make it an important one, either.

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I had a long slow argument with Henry James while reading The Wings of the Dove. Was he an immortal genius? Or a purveyor of pretentious soap operas? Here’s who won the argument:

“On that especial issue, Peter made something like a near approach, taking into account his great reasons, the particulars and nuances and complexities, they being, of course, more important than the main point, they being really fine, and grand, and ravishing, and although he hung fire on his answer, and really, who might blame him, before committing himself, as it were, to a more definite position, which if stated plainly, might fall a little flat, might seem a little thin, might reveal too baldly a poverty of thought and a desolation of feeling, conveniently concealed in a thicket of syntax, great flashes of brilliance aside, yet he did half commit himself, in the end, all of which is to say, perhaps, he wouldn’t decide James wasn’t coming out something more ahead than not.”

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The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe - book coversFans of science fiction, with two weeks of glorious vacation reading time before them, could do much worse than pick up The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe.

This four-novel series follows Severian, an exile from the guild of The Seekers of Truth and Penitence (ie, torturers and executioners) as he pursues his picaresque and ultimately momentous destiny on an earth so far in the future the sun is burning out.

Severian’s adventures keep the reader cheerfully turning pages, and Wolfe seeds the novel with enough time-bending, past-is-future plot twists and vague mythological-theological themes to feed late-night bull sessions in college dorm rooms everywhere, but the real delight – and the major accomplishment – is in the details.

The plants, animals, machines, buildings, cities, humans, and aliens of The Book of the New Sun consistently enchant with their originality and strangeness. And by creating a decaying medieval society, mostly forgotten and abandoned by other humans who fled to the stars long ago, Wolfe smoothly unites fantasy and science fiction. Excellent, guilt-free reading for August.

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