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.

Neologism: to go “Full-Halsey”

From an actual email thread with my brother yesterday:

I think Tyra Banks might secretly be the worst human being who ever lived.

Sneaky-pure-evil. [Matt’s wife] will tell you that I have an immediate and involuntarily visceral response to her voice. She opens her mouth, and I am no longer “electric brain.” I go full-Halsey.


So what does it mean to be “Electric brain,” and what does it mean to go full-Halsey? Let’s start with the latter, since I believe it will enter my vocabulary.

From 3,000 mi (2,600 nmi; 4,800 km) away in Pearl Harbor, Admiral Nimitz had been monitoring the desperate calls from Taffy 3, and sent Halsey a terse message: “TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS.” The first four words and the last three were “padding” used to confuse enemy cryptanalysis (the beginning and end of the true message was marked by double consonants). The communications staff on Halsey’s flagship correctly deleted the first section of padding but mistakenly retained the last three words in the message finally handed to Halsey. The last three words—probably selected by a communications officer at Nimitz’s headquarters—may have been meant as a loose quote from Tennyson’s poem on “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, suggested by the coincidence that this day, 25 October, was the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Balaclava—and was not intended as a commentary on the current crisis off Leyte. Halsey, however, when reading the message, thought that the last words—”THE WORLD WONDERS”—were a biting piece of criticism from Nimitz, threw his cap to the deck and broke into “sobs of rage”. Rear Admiral Robert Carney, his Chief of Staff, confronted him, telling Halsey “Stop it! What the hell’s the matter with you? Pull yourself together.”

This quotation prompted my brother to ask if Halsey had “syndromes,” because throwing your hat and sobbing in rage isn’t behavior he envisions in an Admiral. I pointed out that Halsey was at one point was viewed extremely favorably (being named to the unusual 5-star rank of Fleet Admiral after the war), but his star has been in decline among military historians lately, and opinions of his counterpart in the Fifth Fleet, Raymond Spruance, are on the rise. It was said of Spruance that:

Spruance was nicknamed “electric brain” for his calmness even in moments of supreme crisis…

Making him Halsey’s antithesis. But to me “electric brain” sounds derogatory, as if was manly and proper to have a rage stroke on the flag deck of a battleship if someone questioned your tactics.

Maybe things have changed since the 40’s.

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!

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the latest novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, was released yesterday.

I first read Murakami in the early 2000’s, the last time I decided I was reading too much old fiction and solicited suggestions for good, recent books (I believe I specified books written after 1950, that time). There was probably a list somewhere I could have consulted, but I was part of a big active web community then, and I wanted to know what the people I looked up to liked. A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami’s third novel, was suggested to me by a 17-year old girl from Oregon, and of all of the novels I read that year, it resonated with me the strongest. I dove into all of his novels that I could get my hands on (there are two tricky ones that it took me a few years and the money a real job brings to track down. Now of course you can torrent digital copies of Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 trivially, but I first read them in little paperback editions shipped over from Japan for an enormous sum), and he quickly took pride of place as my favorite author.

Since that binge, four novels of his have come out in English: Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, 1Q84, and now Colorless…. It’s tempting to divide these four into parallel categories: Kafka and 1Q84 are long, sweeping, excellent works; After Dark and Colorless are short, limited, somehow lesser works. With a kindle download, of course, I never really bother to work out the length ahead of time, so when I picked up Colorless yesterday, I made big plans to clear my life. I have an opera Saturday night and a birthday dinner Sunday for my Aunt, but my plan was to disappear into this new treasure as soon as I got home from work Tuesday and re-emerge god-knows-when. Obviously, that didn’t happen, or I wouldn’t be writing this now.

I got home at around 6 and started reading, and I took an hour to do some chores and get groceries in there, and maybe half an hour to shower before bed, but I finished the book at Midnight, and turned out the lights. And had trouble getting to sleep.

At first I felt like I was disappointed with the book. It ends mysteriously, or at least with a number of mysteries unsolved, and it would be easy to think of it as half-finished or half-written. But a day on, I think it finished where it needed to. I want to know what else happened because I care about the characters, but you don’t always get to know everything about everyone.

Now I think i was unsettled because I anticipated, during the four or five hours I read it, a certain kind of criticism that would be leveled against the story. Some characters express unenlightened and insensitive opinions, and what’s more, they don’t ever get corrected. There’s no wink from the author that says we’re all sharing the knowledge that these people are wrong and bad. So of course, if you read the negative reviews of the book, people get angry, and assume that this means Murakami espouses these troubling ideas. And maybe he does. He’s a generation older than I am, and he comes from a very different culture, why would he hold trendy American beliefs in 2014? But I think what made me uneasy was the feeling that I was going to have to defend him, since everyone who knows me well knows that Murakami is my favorite author.

And I suppose I will defend him to this extent: if you want to read a book where every character is a mouthpiece for the author’s ideology, Ayn Rand wrote a lot of books. Of course, her politics might not be your politics, so you may still hate it, but if what you want to read is some writers version of “the way it is and the way it should be,” you can start there. I hope you enjoy it, though the writing is pretty poor and she doesn’t trust her audience, and bludgeons you with her philosophy. Let’s allow the rest of the world to write without having to also pass judgement on their characters, so we know they’re on the good side.

(I find it very hard to write about this without spoiling plot elements.)

In the end, I got out of this what I expected to: for the time it took me to read it, I didn’t want to do anything else. I was absorbed into the Japan of Murakami’s creation and felt things at his whim. Not every book reaches me that way, but his universally do.

Of course I am recommending it