Month: July 2011

2011 Book #35: Lullaby

lullaby-chuck-palahniuk-hardcover-cover-art.jpegLullaby is the second Chuck Palahniuk novel I’ve attempted and the first I’ve finished. I picked up Haunted a couple of years ago, and, though I remember liking it well enough, I didn’t finish it. It either freaked me out or bored me. I’m not sure which. I read Lullaby because Jacob told me about it, and I thought it sounded interesting. It’s about a feature writer investigating cases of random baby deaths who figures out that lots of the parents had copies of a book called 27 Poems and Rhymes from Around the World. There’s a poem in it, which he calls a culling song, that kills people. And he kills some people, then begins a quest to destroy every copy of the book. He meets a real estate agent who has problems with amusingly haunted houses, who also knows the culling song, and they band together with a young couple in search of the rest of the books. Then Things Happen. (Just wait for the scene involving a cryogenically frozen dead baby. That one’s a kicker.)

I enjoyed most of Lullaby, but at the end it gets a bit preachy. Palahniuk yells at the world, “THIS BOOK IS ABOUT POWER! YOU HAVE NO FREE WILL BECAUSE YOU’RE BEING CONTROLLED BY OTHERS! LIKE THE GOVERNMENT! AND THE MEDIA!” It was a bit much for me. Toward the end of the novel, he can’t stop talking about it. He even throws a “you” in there:

Oyster occupies Helen, the way an army occupies a city. The way Helen occupied Sarge. The way the past, the media, the world, occupy you.

Meh. I made it clear when I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I hate being preached at. It’s like the second half in Sartre‘s Nausea when he’s preaching Existentialism. I get it. Enough already.

A year or two ago, some well-known publication (I don’t, of course, remember which) had a website that said it could tell you to what author’s style your writing is closest. I don’t write much anymore (besides on this blog, of course), so I plugged in a chapter of the novel I’ll never finish. It said my style is similar to Palahniuk’s, and I can see that. And I like his style, so it’s certainly not an insult.

So, in sum, I enjoyed Lullaby except for its preachiness, and I’m open to giving Haunted another try. Palahniuk also wrote Fight Club, and I hear the novel is better than the movie, though that’s usually the case. I’m not even sure I’ve seen the whole movie. I just hope that he doesn’t pound his message into the readers head with his other books. It was almost violent.

2011 Book #34: The Lake

the-lake-banana-yoshimoto.jpegI’m generally a fan of contemporary Japanese fiction. I’ve read and liked a few of Ryu Murakami‘s novels, and Haruki Murakami is one of my very favorite authors. A few years ago, I read Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, and I generally liked that one, too. That said, Yoshimoto’s The Lake is a total waste of time. The only novels I’ve read this year and actively disliked are Things Fall Apart and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The Lake is fluff fiction with some of the latter novel’s annoying-as-hell preachiness. Generally, my rule is that if, 50 pages in, nothing interesting is going on, I can scrap it. This one was so short that I didn’t. I figured something interesting was bound to happen. I was totally wrong.

The Lake is about a girl whose mother has recently died. She lives alone in a big city in Japan, and she’s lonely. She meets the guy whose window faces her from across the street, and they begin dating. He moves in. She’s not sure what it is, but there’s something wrong with him. He’s damaged in some way. He asks her to go with him to see two of his old friends who live near a lake, and she agrees to go. They arrive at a little cabin occupied by one nice guy and his bedridden sister. The friend puts his hand on his sister’s head, and she speaks through him. Fine. So the couple goes back to the city. Long story short, it turns out that (spoiler!) the boyfriend had been kidnapped and brainwashed by a cult when he was a kid, and he has problems forming relationships. The End.

This book was a total waste of time. I read it quickly simply because I wanted it to be over. The translation is terrible, too. Here’s an actual sentence:

Stacks of incomprehensible books about biochemistry and genetic engineering and so on would be stacked up next to him, their pages marked with Post-its.

Really? Mr. Translator, couldn’t you have tried just a little harder?

I’m glad I didn’t waste too much time on this one. I’ll move on to something more interesting, though I’m not sure what that is, yet. Shouldn’t be hard to find: I do work in a library, after all.

2011 Book #33: O Pioneers!

o_pioneers.jpegI don’t really have much to say about O Pioneers! I generally enjoyed it, but it’s entirely forgettable. When I was in college, I reluctantly read My Antonia, also by Willa Cather, and thoroughly enjoyed it though I expected to hate it. O Pioneers! is the same type of novel – you know, pioneers and things, and I thought I’d like it more than I did.

I only finished reading it yesterday, and I’ve forgotten most of it. It’s about a family of (what?) pioneers, the Bergsons, in the Great Plains, trying to survive and add land to their farm. The father dies and leaves his land to his two sons and one daughter, and they quibble about what happens to it. Then, there’s a Steinbeck-type tragedy (a la Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath), and, as in another Steinbeck trend, Life Goes On. That’s about it. It’s short.

Again, I liked it well enough, but I think O Pioneers! might go into the Wait.-I-Read-That? pile with Franny and Zooey and other novels I’ve totally forgotten I’ve read. If you’re trying to choose between this one and My Antonia, go with the latter. I need to read that one again.

In Cather’s defense, there are lots of DeLillo-ish quotes that make me want to work on the DeLillo Project again and expand it.

The great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.

A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.

We’ve liked the same things and we’ve liked them together, without anybody else knowing.

It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security.

This kind of language is what I like best about O Pioneers!

 Everything is vast and wild and mysterious because you're ten years old and America is wide as all the world and twice as invincible.

2011 Book #32: Sweet Thursday

sweetthursday.jpegI’ve done it again! I waited too long to write this blog post, and I’ve forgotten what I want to talk about. I used to have a rule that after I finished a book, I had to write the blog post before I started a new one, but, at some point, that rule went out the window. Now, I’m two books behind. But I’ve been busy!

My laziness aside, I really loved Sweet Thursday, even more than Cannery Row. In fact, I’m close to knocking Haruki Murakami down a rung and declaring Steinbeck my Favorite Novelist. His language is soooo beautiful, and lots of his stories, especially in these two novels, are lovely in a sentimental sort of way.

For what can a man accomplish that has not been done a million times before? What can he say that he will not find in Lao-Tse or the Bhagavad-gita or the Prophet Isaiah?

Sweet Thursday is a sequel to Cannery Row. This one begins after World War II, and Steinbeck spends a good deal of time talking what happened to the characters in Cannery Row – those who went to war and those who didn’t. Most of the first novel’s characters reappear here, and the focus is similar. You can read about Cannery Row in my earlier post.

In Sweet Thursday, the central plot line is similar to that of its prequel: Mack and the boys are trying to cheer up Doc. This time, instead of throwing parties that inevitably destroy Doc’s lab, they want to find him a wife. All of Cannery Row’s residents are involved, even the new ones. And, as in the earlier novel, Mischief Ensues.

Sweet Thursday is one of the best novels I’ve read in a really long time. Steinbeck captures the setting and time period amazingly well, and all of the characters are well-rounded. The only other Steinbeck novels I’ve read are Travels with Charley, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, which was my favorite before Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. I’ll read East of Eden soon.

2011 Book #31: A Handful of Dust

a-handful-of-dust.jpegA Handful of Dust is a strange novel. It’s also really good, though not nearly as good as Waugh‘s earlier novel, Brideshead Revisited. It’s strange because of the ending. The penultimate chapter of the novel was originally a short story called “The Man Who Liked Dickens,” which had been published in a magazine. Another American magazine wanted to serialize the whole novel sans that short story, so Waugh wrote an alternative ending, which is wildly different. The short story part isn’t anything like the rest of the novel.

A Handful of Dust is a satire about English society. Brenda Last, Tony Last’s wife, has an affair with Mr. Beaver, a young London man who is basically a player and who has no money. Brenda falls in love with him and convinces her husband to rent a flat in London because she is supposedly studying economics at the university and can’t be bothered to go back to their family home in the country even though she has a son who is constantly asking about her. The kid is my favorite character in this novel and (whoa, spoiler!) Waugh kills him off before the halfway point. Brenda doesn’t really care and uses her son’s death as an excuse to divorce Tony. Then the story splits: Brenda continues her life in London, and Beaver eventually breaks up with her after the party season is over, and Tony goes to Brazil. Here’s where the endings split. In the actual novel, Tony goes with an anthropologist-of-sorts looking for a certain tribe around Brazil, ends up with a fever and hallucinates, and he and the anthropologist get lost. The anthropologist goes down a river in a canoe and gets killed in a waterfall. Tony, hallucinating, starts walking until he comes upon another tribe that’s run by an insane Englishman who keeps him captive and makes him read Dickens aloud every day. The End. Then there’s the alternate ending, in which Tony just went on a tour around the Americas, and when he returns to England, Brenda is there, and they (sort of) reconcile, except when Brenda asks Tony to get rid of the flat in London, he secretly keeps it for himself. The End.

The more I think about A Handful of Dust, the more I like it. It’s a good summerish sort of read, and it’s really interesting. The alternate ending situation is cool if for no other reason than its novelty. Waugh says it’s “included as a curiosity.” If I were one to sit on a beach and read, this would be the novel to take with me. It’s really light reading, but Waugh does a lot of interesting things that veer away from what you might expect of an English novel from the 1930s.

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