The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky
genre: fiction (young adult)
This is a book that has been, I think, talked about a lot on the internet - a book that strikes a lot of chords with a lot of people, but I think I'm just a little too old for it; my roommate recommended it to me as a book that she really connected to when she was a teenager. One thing about this book - a contemporary coming-of-age novel - is that it's really kind of a bait-and-switch: the protagonist isn't much of a wallflower at all! He's actually quite sociable and engaged, if maybe a bit reserved about some things - a fine way to live one's life, I'm sure, but it doesn't necessarily make for riveting storytelling. Anyway, regardless of that: this book certainly has its strong points, but I can't help but feel that I've read several more compelling, relatable and intimate coming-of-age narratives.
sum-up: Not for me...
Travels in the Scriptorium
by Paul Auster
Auster is known for writing philosophical/metaphysical mystery stories - stories where a literal mystery ties into an existential mystery, perhaps reflecting on the nature of truth, fiction and reality itself. This book begins with a man known as Mr. Blank, who awakens in a strange room with only a vague sense of who or where he is, and must piece his identity together from the available evidence. It's a good hook, but the story more-or-less stalls and sputters all the way. Much of the book consists of drab details of Mr. Blank's minute-to-minute travails (he sits down, he gets up, he goes to the bathroom, etc.), which could've been interesting but feels basically pretentious, and the book eventually shuffles off into a conclusion which I found predictable (especially bad for me because I'm usually not good at predicting endings) and, honestly, pretty childish. Better luck next time...?
sum-up: Totally unsatisfying
Gun, With Occasional Music
by Jonathan Lethem
Lethem is known now for his ambitious and kinda-hip literary works which combine poetic description, emotional intimacy and an abiding respect for popular culture in order to tell the tales of graffiti writers, teenage superheroes, rock bands, things like that. Interesting, then, about his first novel: cheeky hard-boiled noir in a dystopian sci-fi future; a hard-drinking private-eye must solve a brutal murder in a world of cryogenic prisons, "evolved" human-like animals and memory-erasing drugs. Lethem has a smart-aleck-y literary sensibility which can be both a blessing and a curse, here - the book can start to feel like a game or an exercise in pastiche, lacking honesty. But whatever: there's a lot going on, and the book never stops being, at the least, entertaining, interesting and full of ideas.
sum-up: Good, if not a masterwork
In Persuasion Nation
by George Saunders
genre: short fiction
Saunders' approach tends toward a sort of satirical science-fiction: he imagines an America where people are legally required to meet a quota of advertisement-viewing, or one where children are raised in conference-room campsites with commercials fed directly into their brains. We also get earthy slice-of-life vignettes, a couple of predictable (but still pretty good) post-9/11 parables of compassion turning to violence, and an earnest (and quite funny) pro-gay-marriage story. This book, published in 2006, may go down in history as a trenchant document of the countervailing attitudes of the Bush epoch: there's a commingling of national and consumer identities, a seething undercurrent of violence. In time, these stories may lose their relevance (they already feel somewhat dated), but they're certainly worth reading now. Even when the stories don't work, there's a sense of critical acuity and honest humanism - these stories have a soul, and you feel enriched and lucky for having read them at all.
sum-up: Not perfect, but feels somehow essential
by Imre Kertész
The Nobel committee put it a lot better than I could when they gave Kertész the prize in 2002: his writing "upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history." He's also one of my favorite writers, thanks mainly to his remarkably personal novel "Kaddish for a Child Not Born" (it feels remarkably personal, anyway). "Detective Story" is an earlier work, and I didn't think it was as strong as the other stuff I've read of his - there's maybe more of a sense of remove, here. Still, this is a smart excursion into realms of nested realities, contested orders and mutable truths - it gave me something to think about.
sum-up: Not great, but worthwhile
No One Belongs Here More Than You
by Miranda July
genre: short fiction
So far, Miranda July's career has been totally amazing: she's had her artwork exhibited in major museums and galleries, recorded spoken-word albums for respected indie labels, staged performances everywhere from punk clubs to famous high-art venues, wrote, directed and starred in a well-received feature film, had her writing published in major magazines, and put out a popular and highly-praised short-story collection (this one), among other things, of course. I think that part of the reason for all of her success is that July has a handle on a very resonant, very contemporary sensibility: an intertwined sense of love, confusion and pathos - stories of people who feel beaten-down by life but want to love the world as best they can. As a writer, July has a knack for sparkling, off-kilter turns of phrase; her writing can be overly-affected at times, but not enough to corrupt the genuine compassion at the core of her multifaceted, multi-media project (of which this book is one important piece).
sum-up: Very good and very contemporary
Lightning on the Sun
by Robert Bingham
A while ago, I read and liked Bingham's short story collection "Pure Slaughter Value" - Bingham wrote with subtlety and wit about nihilism, pathos and self-destruction among the educated upper-class. It seems that Bingham was maybe a bit too familiar with his subject matter: born into privilege and having earned multiple Ivy League degrees, he died of a heroin overdose in 1999, at age 33. With "Lightning on the Sun," his first and last novel, we get hard-partying expats, oversexed journalists, a Harvard-educated stripper, clueless drug-runners... Bingham seems to be making a pretty risky bid, trying to build characters that are both sympathetic and lightly despicable. It works at times, but at other times the characters (and the book) become annoying or, even worse, boring. Bingham had a keen eye for the foibles of his own milieu - I think that maybe one of the problems with this book is that parts of it feel like a big inside joke.
sum-up: Interesting but not particularly recommended
three more entries to go..