Thursday, May 30, 2013

Warm Bodies (Isaac Marion)

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this. I have to preface my review by saying first that there is no way I can't spoil this book, so don't read to the end if you don't want to get all spoiled.

This book is about zombies, and before I review Warm Bodies, I need to rant a little bit about this subject. I hate zombie things--zombie movies, zombie books, zombie TV shows--because there are basically two ways it's going to end: 1) you try not to become a zombie and then you do or 2) you die trying to avoid becoming a zombie. This is the eventuality of living in a zombie apocalypse, and it's frustrating to patiently sit through them if you know this is going to be the outcome. Of course, there is the occasional piece of zombie art that tries to create a new alternative, but usually these "escapes" are deus ex machina and don't make much sense.

So I was a bit hesitant to read Warm Bodies since I knew I didn't like zombies. But I was willing to give it a chance because it was a zombie romance (between a human and a zombie, no less)--it seemed different and for that reason I tried. It started off pretty great and then it tanked. The best part of the book is the beginning. R is a zombie living in a colony that has taken over an abandoned airport, but he is a zombie that is different: he wants more from life (everything about this sentence is a bad pun). He doesn't want to spend eternity stumbling around and moaning. He is capable of pretty advanced speech and deep thought. Spending the opening chapters with R was an absolute delight--his sentient existence allowed for a fresh, interesting perspective that managed to be philosophical without being annoying.

Unfortunately, it quickly goes downhill. R one day has a powerful, inexplicable craving for the flesh, so he gathers a band of zombies and raids a pack of humans. He kills one of the boys there, Perry, and begins to eat his brain, which causes him to experience tiny flashes of memory (which is a poignant, sad image that I really enjoyed). He falls in love with Perry's girlfriend, Julie, based on the memories he experiences--this is the first plot point I find a little improbable. Why hasn't this happened before? Why Julie? She doesn't even seem that remarkable a person. The descriptions I got in this section did not convince me that Julie is the one for R or for anyone. Anyway, he kidnaps her and takes her back to the zombie colony.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk)

Based on my own understanding, Chuck Palahniuk is one of those writers that really "cool, edgy" people latch onto. He writes about weird subject matters with characters that are all sorts of damaged and fringe. Fight Club was the author's first novel, but it's not the first I've read. That would be the bizarre, bad-but-also-badly-good Snuff, a book about shooting a porn that involves one woman and six hundred men--I selected it with the intentions of reading Palahniuk's worst book and then his best according to their Goodreads ratings, an "honor" which belong to Snuff at the time of my decision but now belongs to Tell-All (curiously, it would appear that the author's ability to write has only decreased since his first novel, as the ratings on Goodreads, which I'm clearly trusting as accurate, show a markedly downward trend).

Even before I decided three years ago (which shows you how good I am at getting around to reading things) to dabble in Palahniuk, I had wanted to read Fight Club. I knew a lot of people who were really into the movie, so I figured that the book would by extension be better and therefore really good. And I liked it, I really did. The premise of the novel is that the narrator, who goes unnamed, has feelings of worthlessness and emptiness in his life. He begins to attend therapy groups for things like brain parasites and testicle cancer survivors, illnesses he's never experienced, because being so close to death make him cry, and when he can cry, he can sleep: insomnia is a nightly battle for him. He notices a woman coming to these meetings, too--Marla Singer--and they agree to split the meetings in order to both achieve the closeness to death.

Eventually, he meets a man named Tyler Durden. Shortly thereafter, his apartment is destroyed and he moves in with Durden on the condition that the narrator punches him as hard as he can. It's not long after this that the two men create Fight Club, where men go to hit each other. There are rules--the famous "The first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club", etc.--that govern this club, and in the meanwhile Marla involves herself with Tyler and Tyler starts a soap company. Eventually Fight Club stops being enough for some people, so Tyler creates Project Mayhem as a more powerful outlet and it's at this point that things get a bit dangerous. Which is a lame way to end my plot summary but I do not even know how to explain the plot.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki)

I want to embed a sound clip of myself sighing. This is frustrating. When I started reading this book, I was really into it--I was engaged and sucked in and all those other really positive things people say about books. But before I was even a third of the way done, the book was dragging: I was bored and inventing reasons not to read it. By the end, I was really unhappy and a little bit horrified. Where was the book I loved at the beginning?

Ruth Ozeki's novel has a rather elaborate set-up. The main character (also named Ruth, which is a thing that writers do that I don't like) is walking on the beach and finds a plastic bag with a lunch box in it; inside that is an old watch, an English diary written by Nao Yasutani, and a series of letters written in Japanese and a French diary. The book alternates between Nao's diary and Ruth reacting to what she has/we have just read.

Nao's diary is by far the most interesting; not only is Nao a delightful, vibrant character, but her writings manage to be educational and interesting. She provides a fascinating insider/outsider perspective on Japanese culture--her parents moved to the United States and had her, and in her teens, they move back to Japan. Her detailing of Japan as someone who should belong to its culture but does not is heartbreaking--she is cruelly rejected. She finds solace in her nun great-grandmother, Jiko, who is also a fun character because, I mean, she's a spunky 104-year-old Buddhist. What's not to love about that? To add to the concoction that is the set-up, it appears that Ruth has annotated Nao's diary, as if she's published it. What?

On the other hand, Ruth's sections were insufferable. At first, I was attracted to them as much as I was to Nao's, but it didn't take long for me to grow incredibly weary of her. I can't tell if we're not supposed to like her, but I certainly didn't; this is a problem because I don't believe that we were supposed to dislike her. Her sections are filled with pointed ravings (there's a section where she and her husband/boyfriend/what are freaking out about greedy capitalism and the environment)--I can understand wanting your book to have a strong message, but thinly veiling it by putting it in the mouths of your characters (especially one that shares the author's name) is not the way to go. This is Happy Feet syndrome, which was an adorable movie about dancing/singing penguins that suddenly got awful when it was like "blah blah the environment", a cause I support. Don't be so obvious with your motives, okay?

I am a self-professed fan of magical realism, but not when it awkwardly appears in the story more as a deus ex machina than as an actual plot device. Actual use: One Hundred Years of Solitude. Deus ex machina: Jane Eyre. Actual use: The River of No Return. Deus ex machina: A Tale for the Time Being. I'm not even sure it's a deus ex thing here, just bizarre and annoying. I don't want to spoil what happens, but there appears to be some entanglement with Ruth the reader and the events of the diary and it's very puzzling and abstract and unresolved. I was upset with the technique because it was confusing and obviously unnecessary.

In general, the book was a giant problem for me. I had to struggle through it, often feeling like things were too trendycool for their own good. The book was certainly an experiment, but it wasn't necessarily a good one. Nao's diary on its own would have made a fantastic, interesting, exploratory novel, albeit a short one; it's clear that Ozeki is a talented writer because I occasionally forgot that no one actually found the diary. But she apparently loses control with the section with the other (the same? This is why I hate this device) Ruth, trying to go big when she ought to have gone home. What a shame.

My rating: 2/5
A Tale for the Time Being on Goodreads
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Sunday, May 5, 2013

The River of No Return (Bee Ridgway)

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this book! I'm obviously quite terrible at reviewing the book before it comes out, and I evidently have a secret thing for time travel. Can we make a new genre called "literary time travel" that books like this one, Life After Life and The Time Traveler's Wife belong to?

The River of No Return certainly has an interesting premise: Nicholas Falcott, a marquess and soldier in 1812, accidentally time travels to 2003 in the middle of a battle. He is intercepted by something called The Guild, which claims to be an organization created to help these accidental jumpers--people who have unintentionally fled to the future to escape a life-threatening situation. They teach him to adjust to modern society and tell him that it's impossible to go back in time, to just forget the idea of ever returning to that life because it is gone to him.

Until, of course, it's not. Fast forward ten years and  Nick is being summoned by The Guild for a special mission to travel to 1815, three years after his disappearance, to do some reconnaissance involving a faction of rogue time travelers called the Ofan. Meanwhile, his neighbor Ignatius Percy has just died, putting the life of his granddaughter, Julia Percy in danger--she, too can manipulate time, and it just so happens that Nick has been harboring romantic inclinations for Julia during his ten years in the future.

What ensues is a veritable mash-up of genres--romance, conspiracy thriller, historical fiction and sci-fi mystery. Ridgway is incredibly ambitious in combining so many different elements; one of the great joys of reading the book is seeing how successful she is in mixing together so many seemingly disparate types of narrative. But seeing the experiment succeed is not the only reason to read the book; in fact, it's probably lowest on the list.