I can't read more than one book by Kurt Vonnegut every year or two, and this book reminded me why. There are some beautiful, unique things about Vonnegut's narrative style that are impossible not to love: quirky, short sentences; the way he incorporates many of the same characters (including himself) into various works; a charming way of framing reality by describing, as literally as possible, the state of the world.
And this book, in particular, had a lot of promise for me at the beginning. The concept is this: a man named Dwayne reads a novel by pulp science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, goes crazy, adopts the book's philosophy as his own, and wreaks havoc. This is the setup, anyway, and it takes almost the entire novel for these two characters to actually meet and for Dwayne to discover the book that will drive him past the point of insanity.
Leading up to that moment, there are a lot of gems—most notably, other little stories, summaries, and anecdotes that are are often better than the novel itself. Throughout the book, I often found myself thinking, "That would make a great story. Why not write that instead?"
Because as the plot developed (or, well, didn't really develop), I began to lose interest. I'm not an impatient reader, and this was a short novel, but instead of having a fairly well defined trajectory as set up by the beginning of the story, the book felt more like a collection of colorful ramblings, periodically sending a casual glance in the direction of the denouement.
Once I actually finished the book, I was incredibly disappointed. I was actively engaged throughout the first half, but it went nowhere for me. I thought this book would be my favorite of the handful of Vonnegut novels I've read, but it seems I just have to add it to the shelf with the rest of his forgettable, half-developed plotlines and overplayed stylistic choices. So it goes.
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 2/5 stars
TL;DR: Just like the rest of Vonnegut's many forgettable stories, Breakfast of Champions ties in the usual cast of characters, themes, and stylistic choices to the point where, even weeks later, you won't remember which book from his bibliography it was—and it won't matter anyway, because by the end, the whole novel feels totally pointless.
Too often, I feel as if literary fiction is in a rut. It seems like every literary novel these days is about one person’s relationship to their dysfunctional family with issues. I generalize, yes, and falling into this pattern doesn’t mean a book is bad; it just means it has to work a little harder to catch my interest.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest does that immediately by introducing us to Lars Thorvald, who was forced to help his family make lutefisk throughout his adolescence and was therefore shunned by his peers (especially his female peers) due to his particular stench. Right away, it’s obvious that Kitchens is something special—that its characters will stick with you like old friends long after the novel is finished.
Lars, in his adulthood, is passionate about food: so passionate that he develops a tasting plan for his newborn daughter, Eva (which the pediatrician quickly advises against until she’s old enough to get past formula and breast milk). Lars is heartbroken, for he wants so desperately to share his love of food with his daughter. As a character notes later in the book:
And for Eva, it does; an innate passion for food courses through her even without Lars’s early introduction. We don’t stay long with Lars as our protagonist, as we quickly move on to Eva as the central character in the second chapter of the novel. It’s here we begin to see that she will be the focus of the book, although no following chapter is delivered directly from her perspective. The events throughout the rest of the novel all center around her influence (whether directly or indirectly) on other people: her cousin, her boyfriend, her friends, and even contestants in a baking competition. But after the second chapter, she becomes a distant, untouchable figure only seen through other characters’ eyes.
This is what I love best about Kitchens. We see Eva as a young girl and get a sense of what’s going on in her head, but after that point, she begins developing into a chef, and in some ways, a legend. From her perfect palate to her frightening ability to stomach even the spiciest foods to her seemingly innate knack for making melt-in-your-mouth sweet corn succotash, Eva proves herself to be a prodigy. And through an incredible and unique series of events, she becomes an alluring mystery to those whose lives she touches. As readers, we’re equally fascinated.
The book was not without its flaws; there were moments, particularly near the end, where it felt as if things were cooked up a little too neatly, but I don’t feel this detracted from the art of the novel at all. Kitchens is beautifully done and nearly perfectly seasoned. My only critique is that it might be "just a little heavy on the rosemary, maybe." (Read the chapter called “Walleye,” and you’ll get it.)
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is different and lovely, and it really felt like a privilege to read this new author’s first novel weeks before it went on sale. It’s a warm, inviting piece of literary fiction that stands apart from its genre in a way that I find incredibly refreshing. Bonus points to Penguin Random House for choosing it at this season’s Title Wave pick—may it be an instant hit!
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 4/5 stars
TL;DR: This beautifully composed novel about how a young woman becomes a legendary cook is filled with incredibly memorable scenes and characters who are carried through their tale via a series of iconic recipes. It's a story of a life through food.
Isn’t there just something so quaint about Agatha Christie? You may have read Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None when you were young—almost everyone who partakes of the occasional whodunit has come across one or both of these—but according to her website, Agatha Christie wrote approximately sixty-six thousand other novels. Now, I may be off by a couple zeroes there, but really, there’s a reason this woman is known as the Queen of Crime.
So, I’ll admit it now, if you haven’t already guessed: I’ve been on a Christie kick. When I was in London for work last month, I had the pleasure of seeing The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play, and it was everything I hoped it would be. There was nothing spectacular or flashy about it. The set was stationary; no one revolted on any spinning barricades or opened any underground lairs filled with moats and smoke machines. It was just a cast of characters, a group of misfits with something surprising in common, all staying at a newly-opened bed and breakfast during a horrible snowstorm with a killer on the loose. It was perfect. It reminded me of the movie Clue (which I definitely haven’t seen hundreds of times).
Even after seeing the play and reading three Agatha Christie novels in under two weeks (Crooked House, The ABC Murders, and At Bertram’s Hotel), I still feel utterly tickled by the classic whodunit. I love the charming, iconic detective character (perhaps with his perfect little moustaches or her quiet, observational style). I love the setup and the denouement. But what I love most about all three of these books (and the play, and Christie’s two best-known works) is that they rely so heavily upon a collection of suspicious characters, any of whom have the means, motive, and opportunity to be the villain.
Crooked House in particular of these three recent reads allowed me to best relive that perfect mystery experience. The main character is not either of Christie’s famous detectives (Poirot or Miss Marple), so in a way, this draws the reader further into the mystery of the situation. The narrator is a man who wishes to marry a lovely young woman, but this woman’s elderly grandfather has just been poisoned, apparently by his much younger wife. The entire family wants to believe it’s the widow who has committed the crime, but the narrator gets the feeling that this might just be wishful thinking. So as both an insider and an outsider to the family, the narrator does a little investigation of his own and discovers that, as his fiancée puts it, every single member of the crooked little family is, in their own way, “ruthless.”
The ABC Murders, on the other hand, is the kind of book that makes you want to leap up from your armchair with a magnifying glass and yell, “There’s murder afoot!” In The ABC Murders, famed detective Hercule Poirot receives a letter announcing a sinister event that will happen in Andover on a particular date and challenging Poirot to stop it. As a clever reader might anticipate from the title, this is the start of a series of alphabetical murders: Ascher in Andover, Barnard in Bexhill, etc., each one occurring before the detective can do anything to prevent the crime from happening. The route to the solution of the alphabet murders is, ironically, in numbers: the loved ones of the deceased band together to help Poirot track down the serial killer—a man who may just have ties to one of them.
At Bertram’s Hotel holds the particular beauty of being more than it seems. In fact, I found the first half of the novel almost dull in its straightforwardness. So much time was spent introducing characters without any hint of a crime: a wealthy actress, her boarding school daughter, a clergyman, a racecar driver—all of them together (or around) Bertram’s Hotel, a perfectly adorable old-fashioned place to stay and enjoy the luxuries and nostalgia of days past. What these seemingly disconnected set of characters don’t realize is that while they think they’re alone, the unimposing Miss Marple is witness to more than they’d like her to know.
In each of these three novels, the characters are what make the mystery special. Christie is careful about releasing just the right amount of information to lay suspicion on each person without tipping the scales too much in favor of an obvious red herring. And although the character may conform too much to certain archetypes or fill stereotypical roles within the story, their backstories are well-planned and their motives duly considered. More importantly still is the way Christie weaves the connections together—there is often more than one person involved in the crime, and many others who, in sharing what they know, can discover the truth. It is truly the character web that manages to trap the criminal.
So, are Christie’s works as monumental and prominent as other great classical literature? No, probably not. But are they a little twisted, fun, clever, and often surprisingly original? Absolutely. Agatha Christie’s books are never a strain to read, but they do force the rusty problem-solving gears in your brain to oil up and get turning. And perhaps they might make you just a little more perceptive and skeptical of the people around you.
Because if there’s anything I learned from Dame Agatha, it’s that whenever you get a group of idiosyncratic people together (be they members of a fractured family, guests at a hotel, or passengers on a train), there will be at least one murder, and the killer will be among them.
Good luck at your next big family gathering!
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 5/5 stars for Crooked House and The ABC Murders; 4/5 stars for At Bertram's Hotel
TL;DR: In each of these novels, a large cast of characters is drawn into a mystery when someone close to them is murdered. Wow, I summed up three books with one tagline. Is that a bad thing?
It's funny, the way obsession can trickle in. When I first decided to read Infinite Jest, I'll admit that it was mainly because of two things: 1. It was available on Kindle, so I wouldn't have to lug around a brick, and 2. It was on sale for only $3.99.
And I suppose the third—and arguably best—reason was that I figured I should read it sometime. I don't know why I felt compelled here; I never make reading an obligation, and I will boldly declare my resistance to reading that I've deemed unnecessary. For me, there is no "supposed to." And truth be told, I like short books. There are usually very few 1,000-page novels on my to-read list. But this one stuck out.
Maybe it was because years ago, I recalled seeing the very first IJ challenge on infinitesummer.org and always regretted not doing it. Maybe it was because the concept of an IJ-type book infiltrating a person's life inspired a short story I wrote for my master's thesis, and I'd always wondered what it was really about. Or maybe it was because my boyfriend told me he read about 400 pages of it years ago and had to give up, and I'm just that competitive.
Whatever, I'm just glad I read it. My only regret in reading it is that I can no longer read it for the first time again.
Infinite Jest is a sort of complicated-to-define story. Over the course of my ~2 months of reading-filled commutes, I've had a number of friends ask me, "What's it even about?"
Well, tennis. But also entertainment. Politics. Politics as entertainment. Entertainment as politics. Wheelchair assassins. More tennis. Tennis as politics. The politics of tennis. Drugs. Addiction. Entertainment as addiction. Cats in garbage bags. Quebecois separatism. Mothers.
To make it a little clearer, here are the (incredibly simplified) three main threads to Infinite Jest:
- The Enfield Tennis Academy, a competitive tennis boarding school founded by the late James O. Incandenza, hobbyist filmmaker, former tennis player, and father of Orin (tennis player-turned-football star), Mario (apprentice filmmaker with numerous physical and mental disabilities), and Hal (?). After JOI's death, the school was taken over by his wife, Avril, and her half-brother, Charles Tavis. There are some odd things happening around the school, particularly in regards to JOI's youngest son, Hal, who is in his final year at ETA.
- The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where a number of addicts (whom we get to know very well over the course of the novel) go to confront their problems, following the motions of the spiritual principals of recovery. Key characters include Don Gately, former burglar-turned-counselor-in-residence, and Joelle Van Dyne, a mysterious veiled woman (and perhaps the prettiest girl of all time).
- The Organization of North American Nations, which is the setting for the entire novel, and which is in a state of crisis due to the Quebecois separatist movement and the circulation of a lethal entertainment cartridge that reduces its viewers to transfixed, drooling, lifelong addicts.
It's not necessarily obvious how these three threads will come together, and David Foster Wallace doesn't just hand the story to you, either. In fact, the largest complaint I've read about IJ is that the ending, well... kind of isn't one. As my eyes soaked up the final words of this seemingly infinite story, I tried to swipe to the next page and realized that was it. I was at the endnotes. My hands were practically shaking. Only pages before, we'd been introduced to new characters, more backstory, more questions—and then it suddenly, seemingly ends.
But that's the beauty of Infinite Jest. It doesn't end. The story continues beyond the written work, and the book gives you enough to know what happens next, as long as you've been paying attention along the way. Although the ending of the novel is not the resolution of the story, it's like the close of an elaborate symphony: the movements should continue resonating in your head long after the final notes.
Oh, and they do. Every day since I finished the book, some other little connection springs to mind—something I may have glossed over, but that suddenly clicks and illuminates a whole other section of the novel. I've been reading articles. Analysis. I've been printing out fan artwork and hanging it up in my cubicle at work.
And what's even more interesting is how gradually the book consumed me. I remember the dark days of confusion in the earlier chapters, hoping it would get better, followed by little moments of understanding that grew into connections and further curiosities. I remember when parts of the book became borderline laugh-out-loud hilarious to me, and when I finally felt like I was falling in love. I have a document of notes and predictions; my Kindle edition has pages-long highlights. This book is a masterpiece. And upon finishing it, it was all I could do to keep myself from going back to page 1 and starting over again.
OVERALL RATING: 12/5 Stars
NOTES AND ERRATA
 A reference to a scene early in the novel where a young Hal Incandenza presents a handful of mold to his germaphobic mother, Avril, and declares, "I ate this."
 See relevant guest blog entry: "Why I'll Never Bother Reading Ulysses"
 Entitled "Saved," this short story plays out the "one book on a desert island" hypothetical.
 Love you, sweetie.
 I read at an atypically slow ~20 pages per hour.
 What's going on with Hal is a key question in this book. Far be it from me to reveal anything.
 Or adopted brother—it's not exactly clear to any parties involved.
 Because they can't bear to do anything (not even eat or sleep) except watch the video on repeat, "lifelong" is relative here.
 IJ is infamous for its ~100 pages of endnotes, all of which are meant to be read as you're reading the main text. Do not ignore the endnotes. They are often funnier, more interesting, and more revealing than the novel itself. There are footnotes to the endnotes.
 My own analysis TK. Check back with my other blog, Reading the Repertoire.
 Often the work of Chris Ayers. Site is not totally spoiler-free.
 My favorite of which features a phone call between two of the Incandenza boys where Hal repeatedly interrupts their discussion to explain his success streak of landing his toenail clippings in the garbage can as he trims them.
I have been waiting for this weird and wonderful work to be published for years. Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite book of all time is Daniel Handler’s Adverbs, and while We Are Pirates is entirely different, it’s packed full of all the usual things that make Handler’s work brilliant. Powerful, funny prose that catches you by surprise with its unique ability to frame reality, a collection of believable characters that still somehow verges on the absurd—and, most importantly, an unusual, whimsical premise that gives the reader a view of our world via a lens of the extraordinary.
Troubled by parental oppression and plagued by the urge to plunder, fourteen-year-old Gwen Needle gathers an Alzheimer’s patient, a lovestruck boy, a Haitian nursing home attendant, and her new best friend into a group of pirates—real pirates, attacking and pillaging from their stolen ship in the San Francisco Bay. Meanwhile, her father is struggling to pitch an idea for a radio show, resist the temptation of his young assistant, and, hopefully, get his daughter home safely.
As a longtime fan of Handler’s, I appreciate the subtleties in this novel more than anything else. Handler has this delicious habit of creating inside jokes with the reader by reusing phrases, imagery, and snippets of dialogue, all while hearkening back to traditional pirate lore and dropping in other relevant allusions.
For example, the two teenage girls (those “wenches”) often encourage one another with a hearty “verily” during their exploits. Whenever possible, everyday situations are likened to life on the high seas in unexpected, sometimes ridiculous, but always enlightening ways. The storybook-fueled inspiration for their pirating journey could have been lifted right out of the plot of Don Quixote, complete with senile old man who has a somehow richer perspective on life. And the further you sail into the book, the stronger the parallels become, and the more familiar you feel with the characters, the author, and the story.
Daniel Handler recently stated in an interview: "[F]or the life of me I am mystified by the appeal of novels showing us the Way We Live Now. ... [M]ost of all I am interested in the Way We Don’t Live Now, a book with the essential strangeness of great literature. The strange illuminates the ordinary. But somebody tell me, please, what the ordinary is supposed to illuminate."
This is the key thing about We Are Pirates that I think some initial negative Goodreads reviews are missing. By being strange, We Are Pirates illuminates the ordinary. We don’t need a story about pirates to understand the relationship between an angst-ridden teenage girl and her frustrating parents, but doesn’t that make it so much more fun? Doesn’t it cast the usual family dynamic in a new, exciting light? Doesn’t it teach us, after everything, that perhaps we all have a little bit of the pirate spirit in us? I say “verily.”
There is currently no other book like this one on the market. It has all the intrigue of an old-fashioned pirating tale without being antiquated, the reality of the family life without being supremely dull, the childlike pursuit of adventure without being a kids’ book, and the darkness of a historical drama without being some throwaway thriller. For skeptical Snicket fans—you’re right, it’s not A Series of Unfortunate Events—but I assert that it is so, so much better.
OVERALL RATING: 5/5 Stars
TL;DR: I refuse to write one for this book. I love Daniel Handler. Read my review. Read his book.
I received a complimentary copy of Repeat from NetGalley—I selected it on a whim, hoping for something light after reading a number of books about deceit, murder, and stalking. In this case, Neal Pollack gave me just the levity I needed with this quick, easy (if predictable) read.
Brad Cohen, failed screenwriter, is about to turn 40. But he has no idea how many times this is about to happen.
Although he was initially headed for success, Brad got derailed somewhere in the midst of marriage and children and a minor pot addiction and working on a show called Battlecats (sadly not real, although it appears ThunderCats is). He’s barely scraping by, and his last shot is pitching show to Fox. It’s a pathetic concept, according to his manager, his wife, and one of the Fox execs: a guy gets caught in an infinite time loop and is forced to keep repeating the first 40 years of his life until he can figure out how to make it stop.
Some of you might be thinking, “Wait, isn’t that the plot of Groundhog Day? Or perhaps one of the many other similar stories out there where the character has to relive the same day/week/year/decade?” The answer is yes, but self-consciously so; the characters all ask Brad the same thing about his show concept, and he insists that it’s different.
Well, lucky for us readers, we get to see exactly how it’s different. Because Brad’s wife is something of a potion-mixing “sexy witch” (his words), and upon his 40th birthday, he finds himself in the exact circumstances of his imagined character. Upon his 40th birthday, Brad wakes up in the womb.
After realizing that he is destined to live the next 40 years of his life again, Brad decides to make the best of it. This time, he can do it right—he can make amazing investments, he can buy property in up-and-coming neighborhoods, and if he plays his cards right, maybe he can even help save America from impending disaster (think 9/11). But Brad quickly finds that a few life changes may dramatically alter his world on a personal level—and at a certain point, he knows his foreknowledge will run out. So what happens when Brad hits his next 40th birthday?
There. I feel like I just wrote a promo for a Rob Schneider movie. And really, that’s sort of what Repeat reads like; it’s amusing, but not necessarily funny, and you care about the characters, but let’s be honest—not that much. Although Brad learns some great lessons about life and choices through his unusual experience, nothing really comes as a surprise along the way.
I think the biggest issue with this novel is that there was really only one possible logical, natural, satisfying ending, so it came as no shock to me when it took place. In fact, it was such a simple solution that I was amazed Brad couldn’t come up with it sooner. The guy lives not just one lifetime, but what equates to hundreds or even over a thousand years, and it takes him that long to figure out how to make the cycling stop? I don’t buy it.
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 3/5 Stars
TL;DR: A novel about a man who repeats the first 40 years of his life over and over again is unsurprisingly predictable, but fairly entertaining nonetheless.
You is one of the creepiest and best stories I’ve read in a long time. It came as a recommendation from a friend and fellow writer (which perhaps says something about what my friends think about me), and I’m incredibly glad it did, because I couldn’t stop reading it. This is not an exaggeration. I read it through my lunch break only to find myself downloading it onto my office PC’s Kindle app so that I could keep reading it onscreen while I worked. I can’t think of any other book this addictive.
You is the story about you. You’re Guinevere Beck, but you just go by “Beck.” You’re an MFA student and a writer (sometimes, when you’re not busy re-watching Pitch Perfect). You stop into Joe Goldberg’s bookstore one day and he’s immediately attracted to you—as you are to him. He’s charming and always seems to know all the right things to say. He’s smart and savvy even though he never went to college. He reads all the best books, and he’s always in the right place at the right time. If only you weren’t so wrapped up in your on-again-off-again fling with that one awful guy, then maybe you could see that you’re perfect for Joe, and vice versa. Because Joe would never let you down. He sees you and only you—pretty much 24/7.
Because what you don’t know is that Joe is watching you, gathering information about you, reading your e-mails, spying in your windows, and discovering everything he needs to know to prove to you that he’s your perfect man. And the more you see him, the more you start to believe that he is the one for you. But with Joe in your life, disaster seems to follow you everywhere, and you can’t help but start to wonder why.
Appropriately written in the second person, You is told from Joe Goldberg’s perspective as he digs himself into Beck’s life. Even as early as chapter two, it starts to become clear how sick Joe is—how much deeper his obsession goes than a little Facebook stalking. He quickly settles into more than questionable maneuvers to work out where she is, what she’s doing, whom she’s contacting, and why. And whenever you think he’s reached his peak, there’s always shockingly more to come.
And worse, as the reader, you almost want him to get away with it.
There were a few plausibility issues in this book, some of which I won’t list to avoid spoiling parts of the plot, but what it amounts to is this: everything is all too convenient for Joe. For example, when he manages to steal Beck’s phone early in the novel so that he can read her messages and check her e-mail, Beck never deactivates the phone, so he can keep using it as long as he wants. And not only that—Beck just so happens to use e-mail as her primary mode of conversation between friends rather than texting, so Joe can always spy on her with ease. How helpful. I can think of four or five things along these lines over the course of the book that made me think, “Wow, the author couldn’t have thought of a more believable way around that?”
I was torn on how to rate it because of these too-obvious escape routes, but overall, the novel’s can’t-stop-reading quality, well-written narrative, and fascinating character dynamics outweighed the obvious flaws.
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 5/5 Stars
TL;DR: If you can stomach it, You is a totally compelling and creepy stalker story that, in spite of a few technical flaws with the plot, will continue to haunt you for weeks to come.
I received What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding for free at my desk one day. (The beauty of working in publishing, right?) And I immediately got a good chuckle at the title. Oh, Ms. Newman--you clearly get me. I am a twentysomething woman with no foreseeable plans for reproduction. A quick flip between the front and back cover's reviews also sold me: "David Sedaris, but with more joy." "If Eat, Pray, Love were written by your funniest friend." And Kristin Newman, sitcom-writer, would seem to be the perfect storyteller for the comedic hijinks of her own scandalous life.
The prologue, too, delivered on its promises:
"I am not a slut in the United States of America. ... I don't kiss married men or guys I work with, I don't text people pictures of my genitalia, I don't go home with boys I meet in bars before they have at least purchased me a couple of meals ... I do not sleep with more than one person at a time, and sometimes, no more than one per year. In America.
But I really love to travel."
Delightful! Fun! Clever! I was on board--and quickly--to a number of exotic places where Newman would recall her splendid affairs with some of the most beautiful men around the world, even though sometimes the connection just wasn't there ["Aleg leaned over and screamed at me (it was very loud), 'I speak small of English!'" (38)].
Because for Kristin Newman, the key to love and travel is this: Doing the thing you're supposed to do in the place you're supposed to do it. She mentions this a few times, like a mantra, while also detailing other rules of traveling: the qualities you should seek in a traveling companion, how long to carry on an affair after the trip is over, how many men to juggle is too many.
But somewhere in the midst of it all, I got tired. I put the bookmark in between pages 132 and 133 and stuck the book in various places--my gym bag, my work shelf, my desk drawer--all the while planning to definitely pick it up and finish it. It was a quick read, right?
So, last night, in an attempt to start cleaning up my half-finished books of 2014, I decided to dive back in. In doing so, I quickly remembered why I struggled the first time around.
The entire memoir feels like one giant digression. Which, I guess, is sometimes a product of conversational tone. But within four pages, the following paragraph transitions occur:
"Anyway, our trip to Brazil happened before Marco came along..." (132)
"But back to Salvador." (133)
"So back to Cristiano." (135)
And then, blatantly, on the next page:
"A brief digression into the notion of 'bases.'" (136)
Oh my god. No more digressions, please! Are we in Argentina? Brazil? Who is Cristiano? Is Salvador a city or a man? When I was reading this book straight through, I couldn't figure out exactly what was causing the story to drag, but when I tried to pick back up in the middle, it became painfully obvious.
This book was full of too many escapades, too many characters I didn't care about. And, no offense to Ms. Newman intended, but I don't even watch any of the sitcoms she's written for, so I found it difficult to muster up any sort of curiosity about her life.
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 2/5 Stars
TL;DR: Although a memoir about independence, promiscuity, and travel has a certain allure (especially to someone of the female, childfree, twentysomething crowd), Newman's style and aimless narrative causes the book to feel like one giant digression, and before long, it becomes impossible to keep track of which man she bedded in which place--and it leaves you wondering why you should care.
Gone Girl: The Most Interesting Parts are Spoilers (But I'll try to find something to write about anyway)
In my apparent theme of reading mainstream mysteries/thrillers with "Girl" in the title, my first book of 2015 is Gone Girl. I'd heard it mentioned several times over the past couple years, and especially now that there's a movie of it. So, with no preface or even an Amazon summary to pique my interest, I started reading.
At first, I wasn't wowed. It seemed like a Law and Order SVU episode, only with a less interesting concept and with more irritating writing. On the day of her fifth anniversary with her husband (Lance Nicholas "Nick" Dunne), Amy Elliott Dunne goes missing from her home with signs of a struggle in the living room. Nick is devastated—but maybe for the wrong reasons. Throughout the first third of the book, we rack up suspects, all the while delving deeper into Nick's persona (oddly uncaring, distant, serial-killer smile) and getting a sense of the woman who was Amy through snippets of her diary.
"I think it's fair to say I am a writer. I'm using this journal to get better: to hone my skills, to collect details and observations. To show don't tell and all that other writery crap. (Adopted-orphan smile, I mean, that's not bad, come on.)" (10)
At this point, only ten pages in, I began to find the style grating. And Amy, too, for that matter. Amy is the daughter of a pair of writer psychologists who based their successful children's books, the Amazing Amy series, off of the foibles of their own growing daughter. Because of this, Amy has always had very big shoes to fill. Poor Amy! Early in the novel, I liked Nick and had little sympathy for ditzy, quiz-writing Diary Amy and her wifely worries.
But that's what's kind of beautiful about Gone Girl. As the first part of the book continues, you quickly realize that Nick is not everything he seems and that Amy (doting, loving Amy) is trying her hardest to be the good wife and bring Nick back to her after their marriage has deteriorated over the years. And with Amy now mysteriously gone, Nick has realized her worth all too late.
Here, I try to restrain myself from adding a rousing, "But wait, there's more!"
Because as soon as you think you have their relationship figured out, you realize that Amy and Nick are not quite Dunne. (Har har; this pun occurs a handful of times throughout the book. Hilarious, right?) Nick may be a little stiff, but is he a bad guy? And Amy's definitely gone, but is she a stiff? (Okay, sorry, no more puns. Promise.)
The problems I had with the book were few. I thought that at times, the detailing of character backstories seemed to slow the progress of the mystery, but after I realized how essential the characters' personalities and histories were to the story (and how little this book resembles your typical mystery), I could understand why the novel is written as it is. As noted previously, I occasionally found the writing style irritating, but I can excuse those sorts of things in a first-person story.
I think the biggest issue I had was that there were moments (though rare) that I found the characters (or their actions/dialogue) a bit unbelievable. Characters would periodically do something that didn't fit their profile at all (no matter what you knew or didn't know about them at that point). And sometimes, I could so clearly see the dialogue as an episode of Criminal Minds that it made me wonder how this book was supposed to be packaged. A clever and literary psychological novel? A battered-wife mystery? An edge-of-your-seat thriller? A Spy vs. Spy comic? At its worst parts, Gone Girl was a touch confused. Rather long and somewhat confused.
All in all, though, I found the book a really excellent reading experience. As the title indicates, it's tough to discuss this book without revealing anything more about the various twists and turns it takes, and to be totally fair, I don't think mentioning any revelations even ruins the enjoyment of the story. But to err on the side of remaining spoiler-free, I'll simply say that the various shifting character dynamics throughout the book as Nick discovers the secrets of Amy's past and disappearance are compelling enough to keep you reading until the bitter end.
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 4/5 Stars
TL;DR: Less a mystery and more a psychological thriller that details the very compelling dynamic between a perfectly complementary husband and wife, Gone Girl drags a bit in places, but will keep you springing from side to side and wondering which way the story will swivel.
Since moving to New York, I do most of my reading on the subway, which means that I read most often between the hours of 8-9 AM and 5-6 PM. Exhaustion tends to overtake me on either side of my workday, so I regularly feel compelled to plug into a podcast and relax instead of focusing my eyes on a page, where the words are shaken up by the motion of the train (I here give a nod to that beautiful cover, pictured above).
This book was the cure for that too-frequent subway laziness. I refuse to rave and call any typical thriller/mystery a "page-turner" unless it impresses me beyond belief, but this book did a good job of coming close. It was the sort of book I couldn't imagine stopping in the middle of, never to know the ending. It was the sort of book that made me actually want to keep reading even after my daily commute, curious to find out what happens next.
In the first several pages, we are introduced to our main first-person (present tense) narrator, Rachel--an ex-wife, an alcoholic, an unreliable witness--but first, to us, an observer. She hops on a commuter train at the same time every day, heading to a job that she no longer has just so that she can keep up a pretense of regularity. She sips from cans of gin and tonic (the first major clue that the story takes place in the UK) and stares out the window of the train at the houses and people below. She imagines the lives of the perfect couples she sees on their back patios; she gives them names and histories and jobs and wonders what it would be like to be a part of these worlds that she has been locked out of since her own failing relationship.
This observation/imagination is likely a familiar scenario for any regular user of public transportation. People-watching has a certain charm to it that, when combined with trains, makes me think warmly of my first time reading Murder on the Orient Express. I felt like I'd been waiting for a story like this, where our narrator finds herself woven into the tapestry of a mystery because of a chance sighting from a distance.
And that's exactly what happens. Because one day, Rachel looks out her train window and sees the woman from one of the "perfect" couples kissing a man who is definitely not her husband. And a short while later, when that woman goes missing, Rachel finds herself desperate to build up her credibility and aid the police in spite of her alcoholism, her rubbernecking, and the huge gaps in her memory. Because she definitely saw something else the night that the woman went missing--something bad--even if she can't quite remember what.
I try desperately to make sense of an elusive fragment of memory. I feel certain that I was in an argument, or that I witnessed an argument. Was that with Anna? My fingers go to the wound on my head, to the cut on my lip. I can almost see it, I can almost hear the words, but it shifts away from me again. I just can't get a handle on it. Every time I think I'm about to seize the moment, it drifts back into the shadow, just beyond my reach. (43)
Although the story is excellent in so many ways, there were a couple lacking elements, mostly in the narrative. Rachel's unreliability as a witness is essential for supporting the mystery element of the novel, because if she remembered everything right away, then case closed. We can all go home. So her memory gaps are a necessity, and that works effectively as a storytelling device.
But unfortunately, Rachel's self-pity streak and reliance on alcohol sometimes makes it difficult to actually care about her. Yes, her husband left her. Yes, she's a drunk. Yes, the police think she's insane, because what the heck is she doing, traveling on a train she doesn't need and spying out the window on people she doesn't know? Of course these things put her in a bad place. But does she have to be so miserable about it?
On the train, the tears come, and I don't care if people are watching me; for all they know, my dog might have been run over. I might have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I might be a barren, divorced, soon-to-be-homeless alcoholic. (50)
I'm being insensitive, and I realize the author is just trying to be realistic about Rachel's character. I, for one, usually like the unlikable narrator. A narrator doesn't have to be likable to be good, and I understand that Rachel's personality suits her situation. And by the end of the story, I agree it works. Sometimes it was just tough dealing with it on the road throughout. And the narrative does shift between three characters, which I normally don't care for, but in this case, I welcomed the occasional reprieve from Rachel's voice.
All in all, there was nothing remarkable about the writing itself either way; in the occasional scenes where we've flipped narrators and have two familiar characters speaking, there were even some moments I had trouble telling who was who. In terms of mystery novels, though, the writing was fine, up to standard expectations.
Overall, The Girl on the Train is a success of compelling storytelling, and it is not totally transparent in terms of mystery-writing, either. While the ending isn't necessarily blow-your-mind good, and while you might wager correct guesses as you venture into the final act, I wouldn't say the solution is obvious. As most of the story is told from Rachel's point of view, you'll stumble along through dark hallways with her as she illuminates the recesses of her memory, gradually discovering details about the men in the missing woman's life, and frequently changing your mind about the characters you trust--your narrators included.
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 4/5 Stars
TL;DR: The Girl on the Train is a must-read for lovers of the mystery genre who are seeking a departure from hard-boiled detectives and series regulars. Like her or not, the central narrator of the book falls into a rare "real witness" category that allows readers to journey with her to the solution of a crime that she observes from an outsider perspective and desperately (and at least semi-altruistically) wishes to become part of.
As a side note, this book is a Penguin Random House "Title Wave" pick, which means it was selected as an outstanding new novel worthy of a little additional attention. I think it lives up to that claim. It's a very satisfying reading experience, and I can't recall even a single a boring moment over the course of the story. I feel very lucky to have had access to advance copy of this novel, and when it publishes on January 15th, 2015, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy.
As a Jim Gaffigan fan who has never read his first book, Dad is Fat, I wasn't sure what to expect of his written comedy. For anyone familiar with Gaffigan's stand-up, you know it really benefits from his high-pitched, back-of-the-throat imitations of imagined audience reactions. "That's ridiculous," he mutters in his head voice. Sometimes he feigns offense on their behalf. And, particularly because he's a comedian who really doesn't have a lot of offensive material, it really works for him.
So, naturally, in book form, I was a little concerned. What was he going to write about in a book about food that he hadn't already covered in his stand-up? How was he going to deliver his trademark self-mocking sotto voce?
The answer is that in some ways, the book doesn't deliver well at all (unlike the much-revered pizza guy to whom Gaffigan devotes 3 pages of repeated stand-up material). Don't get me wrong--there's plenty of original comedy in this book, but I was really disappointed to see that certain bits were carbon copies of the stand-up routines they were based on (audience reaction dialogues included). From the Idea Guy (who suggests that kids will eat granola bars if you put chocolate chips in them, cover them in chocolate, and then take out that pesky granola) to the Hot Pockets theme song ("Hot Pockets!"), all of the Gaffigan greats are in this book. And, unfortunately, they're nowhere near as great when they're written down.
Now, I do want to note--there is a fair amount of funny new writing in this book, along with some real-life photos of Gaffigan and his kids (usually with mountains of food in front of them). The structure of the book is fun and interesting, presented as a country-wide tour de food, with Gaffigan describing what to eat no matter where you go. Where did the French fry burger originate? What kind of cheese is best? When is it acceptable to eat cake? Gaffigan answers all these questions and more in easy-to-digest segments that are perfect for reading on your train to work or while sitting on the bike at the gym (which is the only way to alleviate your guilt from the foodlust this book instills in you). I'll admit, I've been a little harsh, but I found myself laughing aloud at times. And really, how could I not like a book that's all about food?
All in all, it's easy to feel a little cheated if you're Obsessed* with Gaffigan and already know all his routines by heart. It's a 340-page book, and about a quarter or a third of that is regurgitated material. It's like when you're eating a container of ice cream and realize that the tub's bottom is secretly a lot higher than you thought, only giving you the illusion of a full pint. But it's important to remember that the ice cream that is there is still creamy and delicious, and if you're lucky, you'll find a few chunks of cookie dough along the way.
...What were we talking about again?
* This is hilarious because it's the name of his latest special. That's right, I'm a laugh riot.
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 3/5 Stars
TL;DR: Lovers of Jim Gaffigan and/or food will appreciate and chuckle at these quick-read essays on eating, but if you've memorized all of Gaffigan's comedy routines already, be prepared to recite them along word-for-word as they're peppered throughout the book.