Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

Spoiler-free summary:
Fay McLeod, a folklorist studying mermaids, wakes up one morning to quite simply realize that she does not love her partner of three years. Tom Avery, a late-night radio host who was raised by 27 mothers, has been married and divorced three times. Both, despite their infinite connections to the city, are alone, drifting through the familiar streets of Winnipeg, surrounded by a complex web of acquaintances and memories. Carol ShieldsThe Republic of Love chronicles their tumultuous paths toward love and happiness, which may or may not go hand in hand.


I am so surprised (and somewhat ashamed) that I had not heard of Carol Shields or The Republic of Love before receiving this ARC from Open Road Media. Apparently a movie was made based on the book and Shields won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries. After beginning the novel, it really did not come as a shock to learn that Shields was such a revered writer. This book definitely stands out from other books I've reviewed. It is polished, amazing, beautiful, astounding - I could go on and on. I loved this book.

This novel, I've decided, is what I will hand out when and if people ask me, "What is love?" Love is a wordless, messy, nonsensical thing that, somehow, Carol Shields has been able to describe in a beautiful, witty novel. How? I keep asking myself, "how?" I want to pass this novel out to my friends, my family, my ex-boyfriends, everyone, with the hope that they will understand me better when they're finished.

It's sweet and romantic, but it is also devastating and disturbing. Shields does not sugar coat things that we are accustomed to being sugary sweet. People do things in this novel that make no sense and they hurt one another and it's fabulous because it's true. Shields spends just as much time describing the dark underbelly of love as she does describing the beauty and happiness of it. I liked that. A lot.

I loved the language - the novel is written in beautiful, rhythmic prose. Moments of complete incomprehension and unhappiness are described with succinct grace. Tom and Fay both had their own clearly defined voice, which I appreciated.

Please, read this novel.

Buy The Republic of Love in ebook format from Amazon today.

Photos: Open Road Media

Monday, January 27, 2014

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Spoiler-free summary:
Scott McGrath, a down-on-his-luck investigative reporter living in New York City, has something of an obsession. Years ago, McGrath became entranced by the reclusive horror director Stanislas Cordova. Shown in abandoned subway tunnels and catacombs at viewings organized by a cult-like group of fans, his films push viewers to their psychological limits. Cordova has been hidden for 30 years, but bits of his bizarre life keep floating up to the surface, reminding McGrath and the faithful "Cordovites" that the mysterious mastermind is still out there, hoarding his secrets. When the director's stunningly beautiful daughter dies, McGrath's passion reignites and now he is determined to find Cordova and rebuild his career and life at any cost. McGrath's journey to find Cordova and to learn about his daughter's final days is a mystical, but horrific tale.


I was really, really excited for this book. In fact, it was one of my "most anticipated books of 2013" (I just decided this, there is no list, unfortunately). How can you not be excited for this book? There's a reclusive horror director with a horrible secret, a free app that you can download and then use to interact with the pages in the book (holy cow), and everyone was hailing this as a literary success (as in, y'know, the writing was actually good). I heard it being compared to Gone Girl (which I enjoyed) and House of Leaves (which I loved), so it sounded like a done deal.

Unfortunately, I found this book just so-so.

The premise is interesting and I genuinely did want to see where this was all going, but I feel that it was executed poorly. I know Pessl can write better than this. I know she can. The plot felt watered down, the writing was iffy, the characters were mostly boring and unbelievable. I felt let down. I think that when you're dealing with a plot that has the potential to be incredibly cerebral and magical, your writing can't be anything less than literary. Instead, the writing felt overly-simplified. I don't know why, but it did. I get that this is supposed to be a thriller, not the next great American novel, but, thrillers can be literary, too. The plot just seemed wasted...

Furthermore, there was a weird abundance of italics and I couldn't figure out why. Is there a secret code? I sure hope so, because they were really, really bad. I couldn't figure out Pessl's reasoning behind them.

I had to make some major leaps of faith in order to take the plot seriously. Characters magically seem to know things they have no right knowing, motives are muddled and unexplained, Pessl refuses to let any doors close and does weird, nonsensical things to make sure that all possibilities are still possibilities on the last page. Much was sacrificed in the name of mystery and sadly, it just didn't do it for me.

And to top it all off, I couldn't get the app to work. This is probably my fault, though. I just purchased a new phone and I seem to be having some internet issues and I just couldn't get the damn thing to install. That being said, though, I've downloaded 10+ other apps, and they seem to be doing just fine.

Despite all that, I did have fun reading this book. The pages were silky smooth (seriously, this is some nice paper), the fake Times articles and forum posts were neat, and the app probably would have been cool, if I could get it to work. This wasn't an earth-shattering read, and, honestly, wasn't particularly memorable in any way, but it passed the time, I guess.

And Pessl is hot:

Buy Night Film today in hardcover from Random House.

Images: Random House

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Spoiler-free summary: 
Harriet Burden, an artist of strange and wonderful works, has shed her identity. Realizing that there is gender-bias (and money-bias, and fame-bias, etc. etc.) in the art community, Harriet (or Harry as she is known to her friends) selects men to present her artwork as their own. Each man she tries on is a mask - some are famous and established artists, others are meek and, until Harry lays her hands on them, undiscovered. Her story is told through letters, interviews, snippets of the artist's journal, and anecdotes told before and after her death. Through examining these pieces of her life, we view Harry as she sees herself, as her family sees her, as her lovers see her, and as the public sees her. Though all of these viewpoints differ, there is one unified idea: Harriet Burden was a monstrously passionate creature. Disguised as a non-fiction account of an eccentric artist, The Blazing World, like so many of its characters, is a novel caught in the shifting and burbling eddy of identity.


I have always been drawn to stories told in unconventional ways. The Blazing World definitely fit the bill.
At first, I longed for more chaos from the form; I wanted House of Leaves, not academia. Soon I found, however, that there was more than enough chaos and anxiety hidden within the art criticism and interviews Hustvedt has offered us.

At times, the form is tedious. It took me a good hundred pages before I truly felt invested in Harriet's story. Often, I found myself wondering, "What's the point? Where's the plot? Why do I care?" Some contributors are harder to read and connect with than others. However, it is important to understand that this is a story about a person's identity, not a person's life or achievements. It felt like a biography, but less focused on their life, and more focused on who exactly they were. And, weirdly (and somewhat paradoxically) enough, we need outside and distant interpretations of a person, no matter how dry, to truly understand them.This is not an action-packed thriller. It is a study in personality - an emotional, electrified glimpse into one woman's existence.

Hustvedt is a master of emotion and personality. I felt as if I knew Harry even though I was seeing her filtered through the eyes of many others. Though we do get pieces directly from her journals, one cannot help but wonder if those too are performances. Surely, with the level of planning put into her journals, these notebooks were intended for something more than quiet self-reflection. That is what is incredible about this novel - though we see Harry through the eyes of the fictitious editor of the book, the contributors of the interviews and articles, Harry, convoluted and distant, and finally through Siri Hustvedt, I felt as if Harry herself spoke to me, shining through the murky layers.

I didn't know I liked this book until, a few days later, I still couldn't get Harriet out of my head.

Buy The Blazing World March 11th in hardcover, audio, or e-book format from Simon & Schuster.

Monday, January 6, 2014

On Rereading

When your "To Read" list is just about as long as your "Read" list, the prospect of rereading a book just for the pleasure of it is troubling.

On one hand, reading should be about enjoyment - you should read whatever you want to read when you want to read it. You should read the same book fifty times if it makes you happy. 

But on the other hand, reading is about exploration and discovery, accruing knowledge and gaining a new perspective. You should read as many books as you possibly can because the next book just might be the book - the one that changes your writing and mindset and makes you smarter.

Personally, I am stuck in the second camp. I have a very hard time rereading anything, even if I absolutely loved it. I am almost paranoid in my desire to read, and have read, everything. It's impossible, but that's what makes it desirable for me. I want to know everything there is to know about literature. This has proven to be very troublesome. For example, despite having an intense need to write, I am reluctant to write until I've read every novel ever written so that I may get my bearings and understand what has worked, what hasn't, and what's already been done. Yeah. It's a very stressful and silly position to be in, but I just can't shake it.

I was so adamant on not "wasting time" on rereading that when I moved last fall, I left a majority of the books I had already read at my parents'. That way, I wouldn't even be tempted to set aside the new maybe-not-so-good book for a familiar, comfortable favorite.

I think that the only time I've ever really reread a book was when I was assigned the same novel for class in two different years and was worried that I wouldn't pass the tests and complete the essays without a fresh read-over... (It seems so sad when I put it that way.)

But as I read more and get older and fill my head with more useless ephemera, I realize that the books, quotes, characters, settings, and phrases I once loved are slipping away. Slowly, ever-so-slightly, I am forgetting just why I like the things I like. I need to reread these works if I want to remain comfortable in my understanding of them, but, I know that this will just open another can of worms... I'll want to reread everything so that I may know everything all the time. Maybe I'm crazy.

Anyway, if I can ever convince myself to reread something, here's what I'd like to reread:

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling
Blankets by Craig Thompson
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Most of them are sentimental, some are because I read them too young to fully understand. I guess there are fewer than I thought, so I guess that's encouraging. We'll see what happens.