Thursday, January 31, 2013

Super-Review #1

I have been reading a lot of books lately that fall into the "not contemporary literary fiction" category: a graphic novel, two plays, and two books written before 1900. I am not sure that I can write full reviews of any of these things, so have decided that I will be writing a bunch of mini-reviews and compiling all of them in one post. Sorry if that's cheating.

Hark! A Vagrant
Hark! A Vagrant is a humor/historical graphic novel written by Kate Beaton, based on her webcomic series of the same title. The book was almost always consistently hilarious, trotting out tons of historical figures recognizable and not-so-familiar (I consistently struggled to understand with the comics about Canadian famous people, but I think this is part of the joke--there's one comic about how there aren't really any notable figures from Canada), and I put most of the comics I didn't find so funny down to my own ignorance of history. Beaton is a very intelligent woman and it shines through in her comics.
My rating: 5/5

The Glass Menagerie
My first-ever Tennessee Williams play. I wasn't sure what to expect; I hear a lot of really good things about the playwright, so I was excited. This one was about the Wingfield family: Amanda, the traditionalist, Southern belle mother; Laura, the shy "cripple" with an obsession for glass figurines of animals (the titular glass menagerie); the narrator, Tom, who wants to be a poet and see the world; and the father of the family, who left to explore the world years ago and never returned. The play culminates in a dinner date with a suitor intended for Laura, and it is ultimately a very heartbreaking text (in the best way, of course). My only problem with the text is how thickly laid-on the pretension--I know that this is an early work of Williams', but come on. The concept of the play is that it is recalled from Tom's memory, and so there are some interesting ideas scattered through the text--having light focus on characters not so important in the scene, for example, or thick curtains to mask characters in the way that memory becomes foggy. But there are also some bad ideas, like having slides projected on the stage to "illuminate" the scene, or the several monologues about the nature of memory. Overall, I was impressed by the powerful sadness that Williams manages to convey, so I'd recommend it.
My rating: 4/5

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple)

I read somewhere (dang, I really ought to be saving these articles...I am a terrible blogger) that Where'd You Go, Bernadette was the fun version of Gone Girl, by which the author meant they are both books about a woman disappearing. Where Gillian Flynn's book is dark and serious, Maria Semple's is funny and warm. It's a pity I didn't like Where'd You Go, Bernadette as much as Gone Girl.

Bernadette is a MacArthur "genius" grant winner, known for her innovative architecture. A "horrible event" happens, one which devastates Bernadette and drives her to Seattle. Eventually, she and her husband (who becomes a big-shot at Microsoft) have a daughter, Bee (real name Balakrishna). Bernadette suffers from a severe set of social anxieties and withdraws further and further from the real world, eventually going to the extreme of hiring a "virtual assistant" from India to coordinate everything that might require Bernadette to interact with other people, including the plans for a trip to Antarctica with her family.

This book straddles the line between "novel" and "humor novel", and this is problematic. If it's a novel, I'm not necessarily expecting it to be funny, but if it's a humor novel, then obviously I am expecting to be at least chuckling pretty frequently. Without a doubt, the best part of this book is Bernadette. She is devastatingly funny, throwing out "mean" comments that often come off as funny. My favorite (look, I did write something down to use in this post! yay!): "So why did I switch schools? The other good schools I could have sent Bee to... well, to get to them, I'd have to drive past a Buca di Beppo. I hated my life enough without having to drive past a Buca di Beppo four times a day." The other characters are pretty amusing, too, but Bernadette runs circles around them with her biting sarcasm.

There are two problems with the jokes: 1) some of them feel pretty inside-jokey for people who live in Seattle (and I do not, therefore I didn't get it) and 2) much of the humor disappears when Bernadette does. To take your funniest character out of the book does not mean that the book will fall apart (and it certainly doesn't!), but it's a big risk that has the potential to shift the mood of the book (which it does). The book just isn't as funny once Bernadette is gone, which is a shame: Semple superbly straddles the funny and the serious so excellently in the first half of the novel. Watching the book lose its comic tone is a disappointment.

Nonetheless, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a vibrant novel filled with characters that are simultaneously unique and recognizable. With a first half packed with laughs and a second half that manages to be heartwarming without being sickening, I strongly recommend it.

My rating: 4/5
Where'd You Go, Bernadette on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Age of Miracles (Karen Thompson Walker)

The Age of Miracles was a book that I wanted to get to in 2012 that I just couldn't fit in, so I squeezed it in at the very beginning of the year. Julia is an average preteen girl in what is a fairly modern-day California. One day, the earth's rotation slows a little bit--it there is an extra ninety minutes before the planet makes a full rotation. Each day, the slowing continues, with increasingly strange effects: gravity increases, birds fall out of the sky, people become mysteriously ill/dizzy.

I was enchanted by the premise (and promise!) of this book the moment I heard about it. I am not a very big fan of "hard" science fiction (or "hard" fantasy, either), so this seemed to me to be the perfect amount of realism and science fiction (which is, I think, why I enjoy a lot of the dystopian fiction out there so much). I noticed that a common trend in the negative reviews of the book centered on the lack of explanation/"real science" involved, and I have to say that it didn't bother me in the slightest. An in-depth discussion of the how and the why would be something I'd expect in 1) a science textbook or 2) Dune or Ender's Game or something (I've read neither of those books so am not sure how technical they are in their explanation...oops), and so I didn't feel myself yearning for the explanation. I don't feel like anything was lost from the book.

As a writer, Karen Thompson Walker is pretty phenomenal. I'm awful at blogging, so I didn't write down a single example, but the book is full of sentences that are technically astounding. On that same note, I found myself frequently annoyed by the sentences that begin and end the chapters; too often are the final sentences gratingly grandiose and the opening sentences too forcefully pensive. But these amount to two sentences per chapter against the hundreds of others that were magical. I can let it go.

The Age of Miracles is a short book, at 270 pages. I remember when I first found out about the book's length, I was disappointed. "Surely such a fascinating idea could create a book at least 500 pages long!" I thought. After finishing the book, I found myself wishing that it had been shorter. There's a Q&A at the end of the book with the author where she mentions that the idea for The Age of Miracles came from a short story she wrote, and that feels quite apparent in the middle of the book. There are ~75 pages in the middle where we get chapter after chapter about the new effects of the earth's rotation slowing, eventless moments that feel very empty and dull. The beginning and the ending are quite fantastic  (well, except for the very end where the narrative jumps ahead quite a few years--the book is narrated retrospectively from 20-something Julia), so the middle lags and looks less interesting by comparison. I couldn't help but feel that Miracles would have been better suited as a novella.

Nonetheless, Walker has created a book that is quite stunning. At times, I could feel real-life dread setting in. I started worrying about the days and nights getting longer. The fact that I was so immersed in the book is proof of how good it is. But it's marred by an overall feeling of fluff that left me feeling the tiniest bit let down.

My rating: 4/5
The Age of Miracles on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!