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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

What was I thinking?

This is exactly the kind of book I really dislike: sitcom-style quirky, hyper-verbal, endless prose fireworks to cover the complete lack of substance… I guess I was having a really open-minded day.

The experience of reading this book is similar to that of having a coked-up mensa member cornering you at a party and trying to impress you. For seven hundred and thirty-six pages.

Insult to injury, as the cliché goes, three-quarters of the way through (probably because she didn’t know what else to do) the book suddenly turns into a thriller/murder mystery. Oy vey!

Addendum: I do not understand why people think “New York Times Bestseller” is a good thing to have on the cover of a book. It’s more like a deterrent. Have a gander at the “number 1″ titles for the last 60 years. It’s awash in hack writers. The appearance of a book that’s actually good comes as a bit of a shock.

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Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

“Why am I reading this?”

A unfortunate thought to have on page 251 of an 800 page novel. And for the reader to be noticing page numbers…

I knew a kid in high school who used to agonize over reading assignments. He always knew exactly how many pages an assigned book had and what page he was on. He would formulate various complicated mathematical comforts: “I read three eighteenths already. So, nine more pages and I’ll be seven forty-thirds of the way through.”

Then he would put the book between his palms and squeeze hard while peering with one eye (like a mad cockatoo) at the location of the bookmark. Was he aiming for a more accurate assessment of the bookmark’s location? Or was it a physics-defying attempt to will said bookmark closer to the end? Other humans sure are mysteries.

Unfortunately, I can see how someone reading “Human Traces” might be driven to this sort of behavior.

But I digress. (This was supposed to be a mini-review! “Where’s the mini?” you’re probably asking yourself. “Hell, where’s the review?” Well, the review part will be mini. I’m just avoiding it. I’m still uncomfortable saying negative things about live authors.)

Okay, here we go. I picked this book up because of the subject: the early days of psychiatry, Charcot’s lectures, madness… sounded like something I’d quite enjoy. Sadly, not.

I read somewhere that the author spent five years doing research for the historical backdrop of the book. Shame he didn’t put an equal amount of time into the characters. They’re clichéd types without any discernible character arcs.

There’s another problem here that I’m finding in so many modern novels these days. I call it the “chummy effect”. The main characters are all painfully chummy. It’s unearned and unbelievable. Their relationships have no complexity. It’s like bad television. Plus, they all speak in the same voice: they don’t speak from their own history, point of view and agenda. (John Dufresne has a wonderful section on how to write good dialogue in his book: “The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction”.)

Throughout the whole novel there’s a distinct feeling of putting in time. Like being stuck in traffic. We plod through scene after tiresome scene wherein no one has anything very interesting to say and nothing very interesting happens. Time passes, your fingernails grow, the earth’s magnetic pole shifts ever so slightly to the left.

Then there are the little careless blunders that always make me think the author may in fact be watching television while writing. Things like: “She wiped her hands down the front of her dress…” Two pages ago, the character put on a “plum-coloured silk dress with a tight bodice and a full skirt”. That’s some fancy hand towel!

Another example:

“…managed to extend a yellowish, choreatic hand to the decanter on the sideboard and pour another glassful for the guest.”

Choreatic is in the OED as “archaic, no longer in use”. It refers to St. Vitus’s dance. Would it have killed him to say “shaky”? What is the point of yanking out a word like that here? Maybe if it was in dialogue, used by a doctor. But from the narrator?

The author can produce the occasional pleasing physical description — a hand on the bark of a tree, the smell of dusty upholstery in summer — that feels precise and hypnotically calming. As for “the early days of psychiatry, Charcot’s lectures and madness”, you’d be much better off reading a non-fiction book on the subject. Sadly, “Human Traces” is just time-filler. Plodding, pseudo-literary historical fiction.

Life is too short. (Life is probably too short for this length of amateur book review as well. Thanks for reading to the end!)

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My troubled relationship to the greater part of current fiction

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Every few years I get it into my head that I should feel bad for not reading more modern fiction.

Beside the computer is a stack of I don’t know how many modern efforts I gave every effort to. Perhaps I chose badly. Perhaps most recent fiction is largely crap. Perhaps I am hopelessly prejudiced against it. Impossible to say which is true, quite possibly, they all are.

Well, one of the cats sent the pile cascading onto the hardwood floor earlier today — thus reducing their resale value due to slightly dinged corners — and I chose to take this as a sign from the gods. Write short reviews and have done with them, say the gods. Who am I to argue? Besides, I’m plain old tired of looking at a huge wobbly heap of disappointments.

So, bunched together or individually,  I’m going to do a series of mini-reviews; then I can trade them in at my favorite second-hand bookshop and get something good.

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Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

You won’t hear me say this too often: “Don’t read the book, see the movie.”

The movie wasn’t perfect, but was obviously making an effort to examine the characters and ended with an interesting ethical question. When I saw that it was based on a book, I couldn’t resist. I should have. Especially since it cost me 11 euros 40. Which is, for me, a fair bit of time in the salt mines.

It’s my own fault. A dreadful prejudice of mine: that no matter how good the film was, the book must be better.

I’ll admit right up front that I’m not a fan of mystery/thriller novels. That’s being polite. But in the spirit of “what the hell, you never know” I gave it a go. Unfortunately, I was deeply unimpressed. (Re-enforcing that prejudice.)

So why was I so deeply unimpressed?

The first thing that struck me were certain descriptions. They were so bad I kept thinking: “I must not be getting the joke”. The author wasn’t joking. He wasn’t going for a surrealist effect or parodying anything. Brace yourself, here’s a few examples picked semi-randomly:

[four men at a bar] “One of them, a busted heap of red veins and yellowing skin named Lenny, said,…”

How a human being could possibly manage to look like a “busted heap” of anything is utterly beyond my imagination. And I think I have a pretty good one. Now throw in the veins and the skin and what you have here is the aftermath of a really nasty industrial accident.

Here’s another one:

“…with a wide body that seemed as if the thick flesh had wrapped itself in layers over the bone as opposed to expanding organically as the body grew.”

Now the writer is obviously at pains to make a point here, but what that point might be… Frankly, I can’t picture a person whose flesh is “layered”. (Almost sounds like a cellulite treatment from the film Brazil.)

And it continues:

“Big Dave had a bushel of beard and mustache around his lips…”

A “bushel”? Why the word bushel? The whole thing just sounds weird. A line missing at this point in the narrative might be: “He’d just kissed a puddle of super glue and then applied his face to an unswept barbershop floor.” Why not? At least it would be a little clearer.

What is this about? Is it sheer, unbridled laziness? Lack of talent? Early prototype of a novel writing program? Am I missing something?

Anyhow, it just went on and on with descriptions like this. Plus a lot of clichéd dialogue, chummy/hard-assed characters and unbelievable scenes.

Life is short, see the movie.

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