Monday, May 30, 2011

Pulse by Julian Barnes

Pulse, by Julian Barnes, is a collection of 14 short stories about "longing and loss, [and] friendship and love".  Barnes is a quintessential British writer who has been short-listed for the Man Booker prize three times. 

This collection of short stories starts with a terrific opener, "East Wind", in which an Englishman courts a Eastern European waitress and tries to uncover the root of her unusual behavior.  Suddenly, the Englishman and the reader are jarred with the waitress's story.  Four of the stories, entitled "At Phil and Joanna's", form a single narrative in parts.  It is essentially a drunken conversation among four friends ranging from sex to politics (very left wing) to loss.  One story, "Sleeping with John Updike" is a funny (and sad) story about the relationship between two female writers who did not quite make it to the top of the literary world.  Two of the stories are set a few centuries ago.  A few of the stories read more like essays than short stories.

Barnes captures conversation beautifully.  For example, the "At Phil and Joanna's" cycle of stories is just a long conversation between four characters.  There are few indications of who is actually speaking but it feels very real.  While the writing was magnificent, the point of that cycle of stories was lost on me.

Some of the stories were simply amazing.  Others, such as Phil and Joanna's and one or two of the essays, were well written but didn't capture me.  Based on the reviews I've read of his other works, this is not his strongest book.  Barnes is obviously an excellent writer but this is not his finest piece.  If you want to give him a try, I would start with one of his Man Booker finalists: Flaubert's Parrot, England, England or Arthur & George (a fictional story about Sherlock Holmes' creator).  The last one is on my "to be read" list.

The Paris Review interview with Barnes here.

Barnes talking about how the business of publicity for writers works.

Monday, May 16, 2011

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

22 Britannia Road, by Amanda Hodgkinson, is a first novel about the struggle of two-Polish ex-patriots readjusting to life after WWII in England.  In this ambitious novel, Janusz, Silvana and their son Aurek are split up during the war while Janusz goes to fight and Silvana and Aurek try to survive.  It is a good (not great), readable, sentimental novel. 

The novel proceeds with three story lines -- Janusz's experience fighting against the Nazis; Silvana's struggle to take care of her infant; and their attempt to reconstruct a family and rebuild a life in England after the war.   At the outset, Janusz goes to battle and ends up joining the English military.  He has difficult war experiences.  Silvana and Aurek flee Warsaw and survive in the forests and on the benevolence of peasants.  When the family is reunited in England after the war, Aurek, who grew up in the forest, must learn to cope in civilization (a slight hint of Room by Emma Donaghue here).  Silvana, who is fiercely protective of her son, must rebuild a relationship with her husband across the chasm of horrific experiences and choices they each have made.

Hodgkinson develops the main characters reasonably well (the supporting characters are very stereotypical) and delivers a few interesting plot twists.  That said, Silvana's development is a bit predictable and while Janusz has hard experiences, he does not make hard choices.  While the novel is a very good debut, the story does not hit it out of the park. 

There have been several highly favorable reviews.  Waterstones (the Barnes & Noble of Britain) picked this as one of their favorites of 2011.  Amazon picked it as a Best of the Month Selection.  Several bloggers have gotten behind this book (see Lemuria Bookstore Blog here, Gillian Hamer here and Burton Books here). 

If you liked Major Petrigrew's Last Stand (my review here), The Invisible Bridge, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or other similar books, you probably will enjoy this one. If those are not quite for you, you should pass on it.

The book's promotion site is here.

Author interview here.  Sorry, I couldn't find any videos with the author.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Great Frustration by Seth Fried

Seth Fried's short story collection, The Great Frustration, is funny, well-written and extremely difficult to put down.  With this collection, Fried displays his imagination and skill.

In the first story, “Loeka Discovered,” a group of scientists discover a prehistoric man, whose release from a deep freeze unfreezes emotions among the scientists.  As the narrative of the prehistoric man's life changes based on further discoveries, the scientists' moods swing wildly, creating entertaining results.  If you want to read this story on the web and get a flavor of Fried's writing, click here.   In the second story, my favorite, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” a town wonders aloud why everyone attends an annual picnic that year after year ends with a massacre.  In a third story, "Life in the Harem," an unattractive male clerk shares his tale of living in a sultan's harem.  (A preview clip for this story is below).

Each story is creative, credible and engaging.  This book (under 200 pages) is difficult to put down and will make you laugh out loud.

Fried has been published in several prominent literary journals (McSweeney's, Tin House etc.) and is the selection this month for the online book club,  You can get a taste of Fried's humor on his blog

Read The Great Frustration, laugh and enjoy.

"Interview" with Seth Fried:

Preview for one of the short stories, "Life in the Harem":

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson

The Dewey Decimal System is a fun, noir murder mystery by first time novelist Nathan Larson.

Sometime in the not too distant future, New York has suffered from another terrorist attack, 2/14 as it is called, and a total collapse.  The protagonist,  Dewey Decimal, has taken up residence in the New York City Public Library.  He is a germ freak, is obsessed with Purell TM, has a "system" (he must travel according to specific algorithms), appears to be a former soldier (his memory seems to have been erased) and lives "off the grid."  Decimal is assigned by the New York District Attorney to hunt down a man.  Rapidly, Decimal finds himself caught in a violent conflict between the DA, the FBI and former Eastern European thugs.  Alliances shift, people die and Decimal tries to stay faithful to his internal ethical compass.  Throughout, Decimal whirls through post-apocalyptic New York

The narration is strong, allowing Decimal to come across clearly.  The narrative style reminded me of Ken Bruen's mystery series.  While it is clear that "bad things" happened in New York, Larson never conveys exactly what happened.  It is effective to keep the reader engaged and avoids the author from artificially entering the story with an explanation.  Larson has a firm grasp of New York City, which ends up being one of the key supporting characters in the story.  My only critique is that Decimal has a significant surgery early in the book and has a miraculous (and not plausible) recovery.  Aside from this slip, the book worked.

I came across this novel because my friends at the Mysterious Bookshop got behind this author and printed a special edition of the book.  If you are looking for something light and engaging, this is a good choice.  Be aware, like books of this genre, it is appropriately violent.

I couldn't find an author interview video but came across Cookie Monster in the Library and it made me smile.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bright Before Us by Katie Arnold-Ratliff

Bright Before Us is a first novel by Katie Arnold-Ratliff, published by the literary house, Tin House.  With this novel, Arnold-Ratliff, an assistant editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, forcefully enters the literary world.

The novel's narrator, Francis Mason, is a twenty-something, progressive second grade teacher in San Francisco.  On a field trip to the beach with his class, Mason discovers the body of a suicide victim.  The trauma of the experience unravels Mason, who becomes lost in memories of his childhood love, Nora, who lost her parents in a car accident, and forces him to contend with marital unhappiness and anxieties about his wife's pregnancy.  Mason rapidly unhinges and becomes slightly paranoid, mixing reality and fantasy, while he contends with choices and understandings about love and loss.  Mason ends up on a road trip (see a cool map documenting the trip that Arnold-Ratliff put together here) and addresses his fears.

While Arnold-Ratliff uses simple and approachable language, there is nothing simplistic about this novel.  Arnold-Ratliff paints a vivid and believable portrait of San Francisco (an excellent choice of back drop for this novel) and paranoia.  At one point, Mason's paranoia becomes so intense that the novel begins to feel more like a murder mystery than a literary novel.  Arnold-Ratliff effectively switches narrational approaches in each chapter as a way of marking two separate but interlinked story lines.  The risk with a novel that explore the inner-psyche of its characters is that the plot stagnates (if there is one at all).  Throughout the novel, Arnold-Ratliff maintains authorial command and convincingly propels the narrative forward. 

I approached this novel with an open mind, was immediately engaged and could not put it down.  I was pleasantly surprised by how caught up in Mason's character I was.  Bright Before Us is a thoughtful and worthwhile book, which I would recommend reading.

For an author interview, click here.

If you happen to collect books (and not just read them), Powell's terrific IndieSpensable program is featuring this title in a special printing as its current installment.  Click here for details. (No promotional consideration received for this endorsement).

Monday, May 2, 2011

Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman

If you like Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union) or Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction (see clip below) among others), you'll enjoy the debut novel by Ned Beauman, Boxer Beetle (available in the US in August 2011; available from the UK now at this link).  It is a fun, eccentric and well-executed novel with a wild cast of characters.

First, there is Kevin "Fishy" Broom, a modern day dealer in Nazi memorabilia, who suffers from from trimethylaminuria: a rare condition that means he smells of rotting fish.  Fishy stays at home and traffics in Nazi items over the internet.  Then, there is Philip Erksine, a 1930s fascist and entomologist, who is trying to apply eugenics first to his study of beetles and then to humans.  There is also Sinner Roach, a five foot tall, nine-toed, Jewish, homosexual boxer, who Eriskine determines is a perfect subject for his studies.

The novel moves between two story lines.  The first plot line leads Fishy to a crime-scene and then a hunt for rare Nazi items and a murderer.  The second plot line is in the 1930s (the bulk of the book), in which Erksine pursues his eugenics experiments and Roach.

The book is witty, fun and well written.  Like Chabon's works, the book has a comic book feel but is excellent and well-paced literature.  Beauman was recently selected by the Guardian newspaper as one of Britain's 12 best new novelists.

A key document from the book:

A clip with Beauman:

Another review from Paperback Reader.
Pulp Fiction Clip:

To The End The Land by David Grossman

If there was ever a compelling story to be told with authority, this should have been it.  David Grossman, one of Israel's premier literary writers, suffered the horrific tragedy of losing his 20 year-old son who was serving in the Israeli army during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict.  At that time, Grossman was engaged in writing his latest novel, To The End Of The Land, which explored the psyche of an Israeli mother, Ora, whose son reenlisted to serve in the army for a major offensive action just as he completed his three years of service.  This should have been a great book.  It was a disappointment.

Ora had planned a celebratory hike with her son to mark his return to civilian life.  She was shattered by his decision to reenlist and could not keep it together.  After leaving her son, Ora fled her home so the "notifiers" (i.e., the military officials charged with notifying families of deaths) will not be able to let her know if her son dies, thus prolonging his life.  She forces her former lover, Avram, a psychologically damaged war veteran, to go on the hike she was to have taken with her son.  While Ora and Avram are hiking, we learn about Avram, Ora's estranged husband, Ora's family and Ora. 

I could not finish the book.  It is nearly 600 pages, and it was just too much.  I knew of Grossman's reputation and loss before reading the book and was eager to read it. The book became too difficult to wade through, and I set it aside.  Grossman needed a more aggressive editor to hack away at the surplus, which made the beautifully written prose cumbersome and difficult to tackle.  I have no doubt that Grossman was pouring out his own grief in these pages, which makes not liking this novel difficult.  As a work of literature, I did not enjoy the novel.

After writing this review, I attended a discussion about this book led by an outstanding presenter.  She identified some of the significant themes Grossman tackles: immortality, the effect of a constant war on the psyche of the warrior and shifting reality, to name a few.  She also shared some of the significant plot developments that happened deep into the book.  While she agreed that the book needed a lot of editing, the themes of the book she identified may make tackling this book worthwhile for the truly persistent, dogged and determined.  For me, I was just satisfied with a great discussion and moving on to another book.

Other reviews: Boston Bibliophile (far more positive).

The novel was a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award as well.  (Goon Squad won that award).

A discussion with Grossman: