Month: March 2014

2014 Book #19: The Inverted World

invertedworldWait, you ask, You just said you were reading A Dance with Dragons, so where’s that review? I know, I know. I suffer from a common library curse: as soon as I start reading a long book, my ILL requests come in. It happens all the time. Most of the time, that means that the ILL book gets sent back before I can read it, but sometimes it’s worth it to interrupt perfectly good books.

Because The Inverted World is amazing. It’s the most interesting, entertaining book I’ve read in a long time. I read it so quickly because I could not stop. It’s crazy and delightful and entirely addictive. I don’t know how I’d never heard of it (or Christopher Priest) before. Maybe it’s because I don’t read much sci-fi.

If you haven’t read it, you should skip the summary below, find the book, and read it now. Anything I say will be a spoiler because this book is such an experience that you should just read it. So. Go on. It’s okay…

The plot is kind of complicated. I tried to explain it to Palmer yesterday, and said explanation didn’t work too well. Luckily, the internet has graphics. It’s about Helward, a young man who lives in a city on top of a series of railroad tracks. The entire city is moved one mile every ten days. The young man finishes school, gets married, and joins a guild. As an apprentice, he experiences what every guild does: he helps move and lay the tracks, helps with the power supply, fights with the militia, and barters for labor (and women – 75% of the children born in the city are male, but women from outside have females more often) in surrounding villages. He learns about his city and his world through experience. optimumHis last task as an apprentice is to return three “transferred” women to their villages, now south of where the city has been moved by about forty miles. As he gets farther away, everything starts to change, and he discovers why the city has to move: everything stretches out due to extreme centrifugal force. Turns out, according to the guildsmen in the city, the planet is shaped like a top with a pole in the north, and the land constantly slides toward the south, where the centrifugal force eventually spins it into nothingness. The city wants to stay in between, a place called optimum. Once Helward joins his own guild, he ventures farther toward the optimum to survey the land for the city’s future movement. He meets a woman who is better educated than most villagers, and Things Happen.

I’ll stop there, but it’s so hard because this book is mind-blowing! I hold it responsible for my not sleeping two nights ago. I made myself stop reading around midnight when I was halfway through, and I didn’t get to sleep until at least 3am because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Which means that I spent lots of time yesterday reading the rest of it so I could go back to A Dance with Dragons and sleep.

As with The Master and Margarita, a Google image search reveals some cool covers of The Inverted World:


This is another case of Goodreads recommendations being spot-on. After I read The Slynx and enjoyed it so much, I browsed through the “Readers also liked” slider and found The Inverted World. I immediately ordered it through ILL when I discovered that my local library (somehow) doesn’t have it. It’s also another case of NYRB Classics being predictably awesome. I’ve loved every one I’ve read so far.

2014 Book #18: In the Night of Time

inthenightoftimeI’m usually not one to read historical novels, but I kept running into In the Night of Time, and when I saw that the library happened to have it, I gave it a try. The book’s size is daunting at roughly the size of The Goldfinch. It’s also much more dense: words are packed onto pages in small type with very few paragraph breaks and almost no dialogue. Near the beginning, at least, it reads a little like Autumn of the Patriarch, and it took me a hundred pages, or so, to catch on. The language is meticulous, beautiful, and flowing, which is how I kept reading. I almost put it down a few times, in fact, before things got more interesting.

It’s about an architect, Ignacio Abel, and what happens to him during events leading up to the Spanish Civil War. His parents were poor, but he got an education and married into a wealthy family who helped him progress in his career. He has two children with his wife and is now considered a gentleman. At a speaking engagement, he meets Judith Biely, an American student, and instantly falls in love with her. He purposely finds her afterward, and they begin an intense affair while the war is beginning around them. The novel details what happens to them, to Ignacio Abel’s family, and to Spain.

About halfway through In the Night of Time, I realized that almost all of my knowledge of Spain comes from Monty Python, Gabriel García Márquez, and Ernest Hemingway. Which means that I know almost nothing about Spain. Reading about the Spanish Civil War from a perspective that wasn’t foreign and Hemingway’s, in particular, was interesting. Hemingway seems to tell about it from a distance, but Antonio Muñoz Molina doesn’t, though the latter couldn’t have actually experienced it. The writing style made the violence feel immediate and, at times, terrifying.

In the Night of Time is really worth a read if you can make it through the first hundred pages, or so. It takes patience, but it’s rewarding. The language is beautiful and evokes García Márquez at times, and the detail is so meticulous that you can’t help but feel immersed. Mainly, though, be patient.

When books are this big and somehow slip past my tl;dr pile, I usually read them on my iPad because I don’t like lugging around and holding heavy books for an extended period of time. In the past, I’ve had more success finishing long books on my iPad. This one, for some reason, didn’t bother me. I guess reading a paper book was refreshing because most of what I read, now, is digital. Which is funny because I have a whole room full of paper books in my house, and I’ve only read a little more than half of them.

Now, it’s time to catch up with George R.R. Martin. Yep, A Dance with Dragons. It’s been a while since I read the last Game of Thrones book, and since the 4th TV season (which I won’t watch) is about to start, I need All the Spoilers. I’ve put it off for as long as I could since God knows when Martin will finish the sixth book, but It Is Time.

A Really Long Post about Don DeLillo, which mentions 2014 Books #16 and 17: Mao II and Point Omega

The more I read (and reread) Don DeLillo‘s work, the more convinced I become that, in his lifetime, he has come up with one plot idea. That’s one reason I’m lumping these two books together. I’ve read both of them before: Point Omega twice, now, and Mao II four times. (Yes, four. And it’s not even DeLillo’s best novel.) They’re basically the same story, just at different parts on the continuum.


Talking about the general subject of my thesis was not the plan, but here’s how DeLillo seems to work. I’ve summed it up at least once on this blog, but I’ll expand more because I’ve discovered that they aren’t all exactly the same story, just a bunch a of stories that follow the same plot. Which is essentially the same story.

Keep in mind that I’m writing this post off the top of my head and without any of these books in front of me.

It started with Americana. A young man in advertising decides that he wants out of the visual consumer culture in which he has been immersed since childhood, so he takes a road trip across the country to escape it. Some interesting things happen, and he ends up back in New York, probably doing the same thing. He hasn’t changed much, just realized that he can’t escape media culture.

End Zone, DeLillo’s second novel, only occupies a vague back corner of my head, but an up-and-coming college football player continually flunks out (or gets in trouble or something) and ends up at a small college in the desert (along with motel rooms, DeLillo’s favorite place). He escapes the limelight, but I don’t really remember what happens after that. I’m sure he returns to it.

Then there’s Great Jones Street, considered by many DeLillo’s worst novel, but one of my favorites. Bucky Wunderlick, a 25-year-old but old and strung out musician gets tired of being spun on the media-driven market like the records he produces, so he holes up in a hotel, hiding from the world. He accidentally gets mixed up in what basically amounts to a mob war, in which he keeps a superdrug in his hotel room, then ends up being forced to take it himself. It takes away any language in his head, but eventually everything comes back. He returns to media-saturated culture.

Then there’s a string I haven’t read, including Ratner’s Star, about science, which I think I should have liked but that I couldn’t finish…but I digress.

There’s The Names, which I didn’t like, but it’s about the power of language. Someone escapes ye olde media-saturated culture and ends up in Greece, where there’s a language cult. Things go badly. I remember about as much about The Names as I do End Zone, so I’ll stop there.

Then there’s White Noise, arguably DeLillo’s best novel, about a professor at a small college on the run from an Airborne Toxic Event caused by a train derailment. He and his family evacuate and then return, and they’re affected by the media response to the event. There are gas cloud drills, and such. The sunsets in his town are amazing and beautiful because of what they’ve done to the environment: which essentially means that it’s artificial and not authentic, another of DeLillo’s favorite themes. And the lists! White Noise contains some of DeLillo’s best lists. You can read examples from White Noise and Americana in this very early blog post. That’s only grazing the surface of White Noise. If you haven’t read it, get a copy.

Next is Libra, about Lee Harvey Oswald killing JFK and the conspiracy surrounding it, commercialized and commodified by guess what? media-saturated culture. Are you seeing the trend? Media drives him crazy.

MaoII.lg.img_assist_customAnd good ol’ Mao II, which I’m pretty sure I’ve read more than any other novel ever, about a writer who is tired of being commodified by the media, so he goes into seclusion for a couple of decades before he starts to feel trapped and wants to put himself out there again. In his case, his efforts are too little too late, and he ends up dead on a ferry between Cyprus and war-torn Beirut. That’s the third book in the thesis.

I’ve only gotten through about a quarter of Underworld (I’ve tried twice and just can’t do it), another contender for DeLillo’s Best Book. It involves the desert, at least.

I really disliked The Body Artist and have apparently repressed any memory of it, but I’m sure it’s the same thing. I just broke down and ordered a copy, though I was sure I owned it.

Then, there’s Cosmopolis. You might have seen the recent movie starring That Sparkly Kid from the Twilight Movies. I didn’t, and I have exactly zero interest. I didn’t even like the novel. But it follows the trend! Here’s how I summed up Cosmopolis in a previous blog post: “A guy (always a guy: DeLillo writes Man Novels) experiences some sort of postmodern angst related in some way to the media. He runs away from his life or otherwise destroys it. Sometimes he attempts to return and is unsuccessful in reintegrating himself.” Another one I’ve repressed, but it’s about a young man in New York who goes crazy because of media-driven culture and rides around in a limousine (not even to the desert!) for a while, and then things go south quickly.

Next (I’m almost done!) is Falling Man, about how a man reacts to the media’s reaction to 9/11. Same thing again.

Point OmegaFinally, there’s Point Omega, which I just reread. Here’s where the continuum idea comes in: In Americana dude goes on a road trip and ends up in the desert, then back because he gives up. Mao II picks up at the attempted reintegration into consumer society, and the writer in that book fails miserably. In Point Omega, the protagonist was fairly good at reintegration – he was a professor, went out to the desert, came back, and worked for the government for a while. He ended up back in the desert, but not dead – yet. This time, he isn’t hiding: he has a cell phone and has allowed a filmmaker to make a documentary about him (yes, totally reminiscent of Americana and Brita’s photo shoot in Mao II). This time, the world comes after him. His daughter comes to visit and then disappears. He doesn’t deal well with said disappearance, and he withdraws into himself, a sort of final withdrawal that will end in a death similar to but at the same time very different from Bill Gray’s in Mao II. Here, the attempt is not to return to society: the protagonist here is done, but even after he’s put his time in, he still can’t escape his culture. He ends up going back to New York without his daughter, but he’s withdrawing, not reemerging this time.

(There’s also a collection of short stories that’s very spotty, called The Angel Esmeralda, which I’m not going to address because in most cases, DeLillo’s stories are too short to fit the mold, and that’s a good thing.)

That was certainly a spiel – and certainly not what I intended. It reminds me of why I like writing on this blog and why I hate writing for any other purpose: I can just spew out what I want to say without having to prove specific statements or even organize it very well. What I hope you take away is that I’ve expanded my view of DeLillo’s books. It’s still all one big story, but at least he seems to be progressing to later parts of said story. It’s just taking him multiple books and a lifetime to do it.

2014 Book #15: The Slynx

slynxWell, The Slynx certainly was…interesting. I’m not quite sure what to think of it, though I liked it. It’s been on my TBR list for a year or two (I even included it in my TBR Pile Challenge!), though I’m not sure how it got there. I’m pretty sure it has to do with Skylark and NYRB Classics. Anyway. The Slynx.

It’s a dystopian novel about a post-“Blast” civilization. An atomic bomb blew up something like two hundred years before, and the few survivors banded together. There’s a little town, but most of the survivors have died. Some are a few hundred years old. Most of the citizens are relatively young, and they’ve lost most technology and the ability to think. The vast majority of people have Consequences, products of radioactivity. Benedikt, the protagonist, has (well, had) a tail, his wife and her family have claws that grind the floor, and one of his coworkers has an ever-increasing number of cockscombs growing all over her body. The poor (including, at first, Benedikt) eat mice and whatever they can find that isn’t known to poison you. They all live in horrible conditions. Benedikt’s job is to copy works of literature, whether good or bad, onto scrolls. Most of them know how to read, but language has changed a lot over that long period. Benedikt marries well and is introduced to a small library. He is entranced and reads through all the books within a couple of years. He can’t get enough and becomes an addict. His whole life revolves around acquiring and reading books, and increasingly terrible things begin to happen as a consequence.

The Slynx is a strange book. It’s postmodern and Russian, written sometime in the 1980s. The name comes from a mythical creature in the book:

[box type=”shadow”]The town of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk spreads out over seven hills. Around the town are boundless fields, unknown lands. To the north are deep forests, full of storm-felled trees, the limbs so twisted you can’t get through, prickly bushes catch at your britches, branches pull off your head. Old people say the Slynx lives in those forests. The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl – eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx-a-leeeeeennnxx! – but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth – crunch – and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, you’re never the same again, your eyes are different, and you don’t ever know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: they’re asleep, but they’re standing on their own two feet. People will find you and take you inside, and sometimes, for fun, they’ll set an empty plate in front of you, stick a spoon in your hand, and say “Eat.” And you sit there like you’re eating from an empty plate, you scrape and scrape and put the spoon in your mouth and chew, and then you wipe your dish with a piece of bread, but there’s no bread in your hand. Your kinfolk are rolling on the floor with laughter. You can’t do for yourself, not even take a leak, someone has to show you each time. If your missus or mother feels sorry for you, she takes you to the outhouse, but if there’s no one to watch after you, you’re a goner, your bladder will burst, and you’ll just die. (5)[/box]

That paragraph really is The Slynx in a nutshell. It’s about how people in this new society treat one another and the tactics they use to keep each other in line. I thought I was getting some kind of variation of 1984 or We, but it’s really nothing like either of them. It seems more similar to the Koyaanisqatsi film series than anything I’ve read.

Which means that you should get a copy and read it. It’s not the usual dystopian rehash. That’s what I like about this NYRB Classics series: I haven’t read anything that wasn’t absolutely amazing. I guess The Slynx hasn’t gotten the same kind of attention that We has because it’s so weird. But that’s what makes it interesting and worthwhile.

2014 Fail Pile #2: The People in the Trees

peopleinthetreesRemember how, after I read The Magus, I noted that, while I don’t mind challenging books, I don’t like books that are entirely, unequivocally, effed up? Yeah, well, note that I at least finished The Magus. I’m not finishing Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees.

Here’s the blurb on Goodreads:

“In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub “The Dreamers,” who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.”

Interesting! you might say. Intriguing! even. Except the blurb-writer forgot to include one little tidbit: CHILD RAPE.

Wait? What? you say. Shouldn’t that be…mentioned? I certainly think it should be, especially since it happens more than once and is a major part of the novel. I was reading along, minding my own business, enjoying myself when, about 50% in, the protagonist witnesses a tribal custom in which nine village elders rape a 10-year-old boy. Yes, indeed. I kept going, though, until at the 52% mark, the protagonist is wandering around the woods, runs into a child from the village, and said child apparently tries to seduce the doctor. I stopped reading when hands cupped genitals because that was more than enough, thank you.

Again, I don’t mind a challenge, but I want to enjoy what I read, not be traumatized by it. So I put down the book, and I don’t plan to read it again. I’m not even getting into various Goodreads reviewers’ moral relativism arguments. Nope. DONE.

That is all.

2014 Book #14: At Night We Walk in Circles

atnightwewalkincirclesUntil about the halfway point in At Night We Walk in Circles, I had a recurring sense of deja vu, but I couldn’t place it. I’ve read a lot about Central and South America and the prisons there, and the closest I could think of was Kiss of the Spider Woman or All the Pretty Horses. Eventually I got to a chunk of Alarcón‘s novel and said to myself, Wait. I’ve read this before. That’s when I realized I had read it before, or at least parts of it, recently even, in the New Yorker. Two seconds of research told me that parts of At Night We Walk in Circles has appeared twice there: “The Idiot President” (2008) and “Collectors” (2013 and behind their paywall). I read the latter just a few months ago and had forgotten about it when I picked up the novel. I was relieved, as I was beginning to think I’d gone crazy.

The main plot is about a young man, Nelson, who joins a touring theater group called Diciembre. They go off into the countryside performing The Idiot President, a play about a dictator who hires a new servant every day and kills him by the end. They end up in a village identified by Alarcón as T—, and Nelson ends up involved with the family of…well, here’s where the other major plotline comes in. Two other characters, Henry and Patalarga, were original members of the troupe. Henry had been arrested for terrorism because he wrote and directed this politically charged play, and he spent several months in a Peruvian prison called Collectors, where he met and fell in love with Rogelio, who died in a riot shortly after Henry was freed. It’s several years later and the political climate has changed, and he wants to tour again. He and Patalarga hire Nelson to play the president’s son. Along the way, Henry realizes that T— is Rogelio’s hometown, and he wants to meet his family. He does, and mischief ensues, involving Nelson, who ends up playing an entirely different role.

That’s a super-simple rundown of the plot. It gets complicated.

I really liked At Night We Walk in Circles. When I picked it up, I had no idea what I was getting into, and that was a good thing. I enjoy reading books blind. That’s certainly the only reason I picked up The Goldfinch in the first place: I heard that it was good, and I read it. Unlike The Goldfinch, though, Alarcón’s novel is my kind of book, though I might not have read it if I’d bothered to read a plot summary. That said, choosing a book out of the blue is always a crapshoot. This one was worth it.

After this novel, I tried to get into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but 50 pages in, I gave up. There were so many similarities to The Lord of the Rings that I was distracted, and, try as I might, I just couldn’t get interested. That series has been on my tl;dr and way-too-hardcore-nerd lists for years. I’ve broken the tl;dr barrier, for the most part, and I generally like fantasy, so I don’t know what my problem is. So many people like Wheel of Time that I somehow think I should, too. Maybe now just isn’t the time.

I also tried Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, who I generally like. Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are both fantastic. Black Swan Green, though, is a non-magical realist bildungsroman, and I just couldn’t catch on. Maybe another instance of right book, wrong time.

2014 Book #13: Cosmicomics