Best of the 00’s – The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Terror, The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is Dog Breeder Hamlet. I genuinely mean that. “No one has written about the heart wrenching world of puppy breeding,” Wroblewski must have thought to himself, “and that’s the only life I know. But I’m not a professional writer. How could I possibly plot and outline a novel of my own?”

“Why don’t you lift all that,” asked his super intelligent German Shepard Eggshell, using dog sign language or maybe telepathy, “just straight up steal it from old Willie Shakes?”

“Cool idea, Eggshell,” D-man screamed, “but I’ve only read Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.”

Look it’s a fine book but once you see the parallels you know exactly how it will end

The Terror by Dan Simmons is a fictionalized account of a failed expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. There are true-to-life elements, such as the final fate of the ships and crew, and some delightful make-em-ups, like an enormous white murder-demon that French kisses Eskimos. 

I was cold the whole time I was reading it, which I think is a testament to Simmons’ facility with language. It was also suspenseful and fairly engrossing. 

It wasn’t perfect, of course. A character is suddenly revealed to have a special ability about halfway through, for no really good reason except foreshadowing. 

The main flaw I found with the book was the passages of period writing, the overall sense that we were reading a period novel or account, but which contained some frank sexuality and other topics which never would have been written about in the 19th century. It was jarring.

Good, but long

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger has been a movie, so do you need me to explain it? Henry is an inadvertent time traveler who periodically warps back and forth in time, and Claire is the long-suffering title character. The premise is strong and interesting. The writing is solid. The central romance is a little sappy but not to distraction. 

The only thing I found off putting about the writing was the narrative structure. It is written almost as a series of diary entries, though they are not. It is almost in chronological order from Claire’s point of view, though again, not quite. When you put the two techniques together, it becomes obvious at every moment that these sections are fictions, and that their presentation order was chosen for emotional effect. 

The worst thing about this book is its format, though. There is no kindle edition. There are a couple of articles about the book becoming available as an ebook on some new, third party ebook service, but frankly this is a stunningly bad decision. Niffenegger said some things once about waiting until ebook a were mature and beautiful and holding her masterpiece against that happy day, but I read the book in paperback, and there isn’t a god damned unique or special thing about the typesetting. It isn’t full of pictures or tables, or crazy House of Leaves style annotations. You could read this as a .txt file without losing anything. Net result: instead of an ebook sale like everything else on this list, I checked out a beaten old paperback from the library. Enjoy your no dollars, Audrey. 

It’s fine but the author is a real piece of shit

Best of the 00’s – Gilead, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Never Let Me Go, and The Road

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of the outliers on this list. It takes the form of a letter from an old man, married late in life, to his young son, to be read after he is dead. The author is a preacher in the midwest, and the letter is a recounting of his life, his father’s life, and his grandfather’s life in the context of the abolitionist movement before the civil war, all the way through the depression. Gradually, something like the story of a novel emerges in the letter, having to do with the family and family friends during the writer’s life.

I spoke of the text as a letter, though it is written as a diary, over the course of several weeks or even months, and the attitude of the author changes with his health and with time. It makes the text challenging at times, as does the author’s choice not to break up the text as chapters.

The context of the story is one of race relations, but the theme that emerges is one of forgiveness. It’s a charming theme and the author’s voice is charming also, and I think that’s why people love this strange little book. It is written by a character you like and who holds likeable viewpoints. The themes are big but the action is small. Everything stays believable and real.

A little tough to read, but worth it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a story about the revival of magic, which is really real, in Georgian England. It’s well written and fun.

But it’s not about much, at least compared to the other stories on this list. It doesn’t tackle big themes. One character gets into a little trouble when he sacrifices his principles for career advancement, and then another character works with him to get him out of trouble. Maybe it’s about students and teachers. Maybe it’s about the quest for knowledge. But it isn’t revelatory. It’s just a nice fun fantasy novel that’s well executed.

But this list is “Best of the 2000’s,” not “Most Edifying of the 2000’s,” so maybe there’s a place for that here.

Most people liked it and I liked it too.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a dystopian future novel… set in a slightly alternate present… where only one small aspect is dystopian. It’s kind of… bummer sci-fi?

The story revolves around the lives and education of clones bred for organ harvesting, from the point of view of one of them, in a society that half-heartedly tries to give them human dignity before ultimately requiring them to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of real, full humans.

It’s well written, and moving. The reader has mounting horror about what will happen to the characters while they themselves remain willfully ignorant of their fate, avoiding thinking and talking about it the way we all avoid thinking about our deaths.

It’s not going to be a pleasure to read, of course, because of its subject matter, but it was a good book, and I recommend it.

It was a good book, and I recommend it.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a post-apocalyptic survival story, in which a father and son team trek down to the coast to survive the winter, on the run from the worst aspects of the surviving human race.

The cheeky book review I could give is “just play The Last of Us,” and it applies, but I think we can do better.

First, I don’t care about this genre. I liked Alas, Babylon well enough when I was in middle school, but survivalism and disaster preparedness aren’t particularly interesting to me. The general idea of all of these books is “you do what you have to do and try to stay a good person in a world where some people won’t try at all.” Even in zombie versions of this scenario, everyone knows the real monsters are the other humans. Humans are the worst.

Second, this is a book about emotions and not about ideas. That’s fine. The emotions feel authentic and worth exploring, but I’d rather read about ideas.

In the current climate, where post-apocalyptic survival is the single biggest fantasy concern of the culture, these stories are going to keep coming up. Most will be a lot worse than this. Maybe one or two will be better, but I won’t be the guy to ask about that. I won’t be reading them.

Fine for them that likes the genre.

Best of the 00’s – Empire Falls and Fortress of Solitude

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo, is a story about a foundering small town in Maine and its important families. It’s class struggle, small town politics, family dysfunction, and mental health. It’s a very real story, good-hearted without being preachy. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

But here I am, a month later, and I don’t find I have much to say about it. It didn’t leave me thinking about anything. I had the sense of completeness that I always get from reading something well-crafted, but I don’t imagine I’ll read it again, and I am a re-reader.

But then again, how is that any different from any of the other things people read or watch or listen to? Why do I need it to be more than that.

I immediately went to goodreads and rated this book 5 stars. I think that’s the most important takeaway here.

The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem, is proving even trickier to get my head around. Of course, I finished it last night, not a month ago, so it hasn’t had the same amount of time to bounce around, but I expect that in the end it will still be a puzzler.

A lot of the reviews of this book make the same point; the first half is very strong, the second half falters. The half that everyone who enjoyed the book likes is about a white boy growing up in a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1970’s, his parents in the initial wave of a purposeful gentrification effort, and struggling with the rules of the street. It’s kind of a tough road, making you empathize with privileged people playing at social equality while slowly changing the climate in ways that will push out the poor, and there are a couple of reviewers, inevitably, who think Lethem failed at it, but in the end, I think the character of young Dylan Ebdus, and even his parents, are sympathetic. The villainous architect of the renovations leaves the story early on, and none of the remaining white characters has any idealogical axe to grind.

The half that people seem to mostly hate is about the same character, in his 30’s, as a freelance music writer aimlessly drifting through late 90’s Berkeley. Even this half is full of flashbacks and reflections on the first half, which makes it much less different from the half everyone likes than the reviews make it sound, but it’s hard to argue with the overall result. The second half is just weaker.

Possibly it’s supposed to be this way. There’s a sense in the writing that Lethem is attempting something here, and it’s just possible that the weaker second half is deliberate assonance with the stronger, purer feelings of the young character against the uncertain, qualified emotions of the older character… but I guess I mean it’s just possible. It’s a charitable read. Probably the book is just uneven.

There’s an element of magical realism that I don’t understand, an artifact that’s too powerful to be of as little consequence as it is in the story. There’s an obsession with comic books and pop culture that makes this a semi-parallel with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao from this same reading list. There’s some adolescent sexuality that doesn’t really jibe with the way my friends and I came into adulthood, though all of my friendships were different than the ones in this story.

All told, I’m pretty sure this book is something. And if you were a Brooklyn kid from the 70’s with a comic book background, maybe it would be everything to you. But for me, it was vegetables. I read it because I thought it would be good for me, and now that it’s done, I’m not sure whether or not I was sold a bill of goods.

It was fine, I guess. Polarizing.

Quick Hits: Wolf in White Van

John Darnielle, of the Mountain Goats, put out his first novel this week, called Wolf in White Van. I read it on the train in this morning (It’s on the short side at around 220 pages), and while I found it excellent, it is difficult to recommend without explaining who the Mountain Goats are, what their music sounds like, why it’s good, what the aesthetic is, the kind of mood it puts me in, and just how like a Mountain Goats album this book is. But probably some of you will know all about the Mountain Goats, and more importantly, whether you like them, whether you’re open to their messages.

So while I liked it enough to give it 5 stars on goodreads, and I’d love to give it an unqualified recommendation, I’m going to qualify it in the following way: if you know what you’re getting into, check this out.

Best of the 00’s – The Corrections and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Next on my big list was The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. Of all of the big name books I’ve read this summer, I spent the longest on this one. A small part of that was due to the release of the new Murakami book, because that was two days I was reading without making any headway here, but by and large it was just because this book is a cover-to-cover depressing slog.

It’s the story of a family of which each member has crippling personality problems that threaten to destroy his or her life. Even the family member with Parkinson’s disease is shown to have been a rigid asshole when he was healthy. And although things sort of work out in the end, or we are led to believe that they are going to work out in the end, it isn’t really because people overcome their issues and change, it’s really just because now things are working out again.

This is the first of the books on this list whose presence I question. I don’t know what’s supposed to be revealing or instructive about it, and I don’t find it to be charming or insightful. It certainly wasn’t a delight to read.

I’d say go ahead and pass on it.

When I told my wife the next book was Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, she made a face at me. She may have even made a groaning sound. It is even remotely possible that she gave a thumbs-down, then surrounded the down thumb with the fingers of her other hand and let it fall away while making a raspberry noise. She’d read it, and she was not a fan.

The story is a tale told by an autistic boy (or maybe something else. It isn’t clearly spelled out in the text, but that’s the impression I think we’re supposed to get) about his investigation into the death of a neighbor’s dog, and the bigger revelations that come from that investigation. Because of the nature of the narrator, the structure is unusual, although I think the author makes considerable concessions toward traditional story structure by giving his narrator a love of mystery stories and a desire to imitate them.

I find it unlikely that the character we get is a good representation of the inner life of a young autistic man, but it’s possible that it is a fair description of what it’s like to live with and care for one.

I couldn’t figure out, when I had finished, what my wife objected to so strongly, and she read it long enough ago that she didn’t want to or couldn’t remember well enough to give specifics. But I both thought it was a good book and enjoyed reading it, which makes it, I suppose, the antithesis of the other book in this post.

Go for it!