The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

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The 150-word Review: Heads.  Heads.  Heads. Tom Stoppard’s tragicomedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, opens with one hundred fifty-two coin flips that land “heads” each time, prompting Guildenstern to posit that they are “held within sub- or supernatural forces.”  In a way, they are.  The improbability of the coin flips—and also of the duo’s fate—is written.  They are held within Stoppard’s brilliantly absurd lines and, ultimately, within the titular line originally spun by the Bard.

And so, too, is the protagonist of The Unnamed held within the sub- or supernatural force of Joshua Ferris’ invention.  Tim Farnsworth suffers from a heretofore unimaginable disorder:  the irresistible compulsion to walk and walk and walk to the point of exhaustion.  When his affliction strikes for the third time, Tim and his family are plunged into a remarkable struggle to hold onto to familiar ties and find order amidst a world that artfully has none.

You will like this book if you’re a fan of: entropy, Then We Came To The End, the countryside, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ambitious prose, The Myth of Sisyphus, and beating the sophomore slump.

Cliff Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): You know Norm, Joshua Ferris is a graduate of the UC Irvine MFA Writing Program, along with notable alumni Michael Chabon and Richard Ford, to name a few.

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Serena by Ron Rash

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Buy it at Amazon.com

The 150-word Review: Tennyson wrote, “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” to evoke the merciless indifference of the natural world—the violent struggle for survival among animals.  It would’ve also been an apt description of Serena Pemberton, the title character in Ron Rash’s historical novel, Serena, whose drive to impose her will on nature, fueled by unrepentant ambition and greed, cuts a swath through the Appalachian highlands and enemies alike.

Although Serena’s villainy serves as the narrative center for Ron Rash’s historical and ecological tragedy, it is the glimpses into the lives of those around her that give the novel its remarkable heft.  From George Pemberton, her vain and weak-willed husband; to the superstitious cutting crew, whose folksy banter pushes the plot forward like a Greek chorus; to the teenaged mother of Pemberton’s illegitimate son, whose determined struggle to protect her child from Serena’s wrath serves as a counterpoint to her ruthless single-mindedness.

You will like this book if you’re a fan of: Lady Macbeth, John Muir, Appalachia, lumberjacks, southern gothic, laissez-faire capitalism, one-armed assassins, nascent environmentalism, rugged self-determination, Greek choruses, blind clairvoyants, and just desserts.

Cliff Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Ron Rash is currently the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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Buy it at Amazon.com

The 150-word Review: With Slumdog Millionaire’s explosion into the world’s zeitgeist, modern-day India with its unrestrained energy and its arresting pastiche of colors, textures, and sounds has become a microcosm of globalization.  It’s a bridge between the old world and the new.  Much like Slumdog, Booker-winning The White Tiger captures this same dynamic, but through the idiosyncratic mind of one unforgettable character.

In a series of letters to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Balram Halwai describes his life’s journey from a peasant lost in the Darkness of rural India to a chauffeur in Delhi to a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore.  In a remarkably unrepentant voice (reminiscent of Meursault from Camus’ The Stranger), Balram pontificates on the indignities of the caste system, the shackles of the traditional Indian family, and the chasm between the Haves and the Have-nots–and the horrific means he’s taken to control his own destiny.

You will like this book if you’re a fan of: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, outsourcing, a Honda City, chandeliers, Murder Weekly, political corruption, and moral ambiguity.

Cliff Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Aravind Adiga was formerly a journalist for the Financial Times and TIME magazine.

Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

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Buy it at Amazon.com

The 150-word Review: To anyone who’s read Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs or his Esquire articles, it’s obvious:  Chuck Klosterman knows pop culture.   Under his lens, it’s as essential-and mundane-as breakfast cereal.  But what if Klosterman turned his eyes on a place untouched by popular culture?  You’d get Owl, North Dakota.

The residents of Owl aren’t much different than the rest of us.  They have the news, soap operas, sports heroes, and entertainments; but instead of CNN, it’s 3PM at the coffee shop, instead of Carrie Bradshaw, it’s the new history teacher at Owl High, instead of John Elway, it’s the local legend (and “the play”), and instead of the WWE, it’s Grendel (the oafish giant) vs. Cubby Candy (the town psycho).  Mixing equal parts Garrison Keillor and Raymond Carver (with a dash of David Sedaris), Klosterman proves that downtown Owl is as fascinatingly banal, otherworldly familiar, and glibly violent as anywhere else.

You will like this book if you’re a fan of: the etymology of nicknames, extreme libertarianism, snow, gin and tonics, hypothetical fisticuffs, cassette tapes, George Orwell, mid-western ennui, coffee, and 8-man football.

Cliff Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm, Chuck Klosterman grew up in rural North Dakota and chronicled his experience growing up there as a heavy metal fan in Fargo Rock City.

2008 National Book Award Finalists

Click to read descriptions of each finalist.

The finalists for the 2008 National Book Award for Fiction have been announced. They are:

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (Riverhead)
Rachel Kushner, Telex from Cuba (Scribner)
Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country (Modern Library)
Marilynne Robinson, Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Salvatore Scibona, The End (Graywolf Press)

I’ve just started reading Home. It’s a companion novel to Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead, which is one of the most beautiful, affecting novels I’ve ever read. Jack Boughton, a central figure in both novels, is a powerfully heartbreaking character. Robinson writes with such measured grace that the mastery of her prose does not sink in until long after you’ve finished reading it. I’ve found myself, on numerous occasions, thinking about a passage in Gilead, pulling the book from my bookshelf to re-read it, and marveling at its understated greatness.

The winner will be announced at the 59th National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner on November 19th in New York City. To read full descriptions of each finalist and the finalists for the Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature categories, check out the National Book Foundation website.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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The 150-word Review: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line: a geometric ideal unattainable by human hands alone.  Try drawing the trajectory of your life, free hand, from Point A to Point B.  A straight line is impossible.  Even in the steadiest hand, it would contain a multitude of veers, tremors, and digressions.  Among these, and their accompanying corrections, lies the richness of life.

The Lamberts are anything but steady hands.  Enid, at once suffering and insufferable, struggles to maintain a sense of Midwestern propriety in an empty house with Alfred, distant and cold, as his mind slowly succumbs to Parkinson’s.  Their three children have escaped to the East Coast (and beyond) for the calamities of their adult lives.  In this brilliant novel, Jonathan Franzen sinks into the mistakes and corrections of each, proving with great authenticity, that the most interesting distance between two points is not a straight line.

You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of: advanced metallurgy, railroad engineering, Lithuanian politics, academic dilettantism, chemical dependency, haute cuisine, Midwestern propriety, luxury cruises, and Family Christmas.

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Funny thing Norm, Franzen publicly lamented the fact that The Corrections was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.

The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter

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The 150-word Review: I once took a humanities course titled, “Ethics and Media,” in which we compared classic literature with modern cultural tropes.  For example, we compared Thomas More’s Utopia with Advertising.  That sort of thing.  Our examination of Plato’s Symposium and Playboy Magazine was particularly compelling.  Socrates’ nuanced treatise on the love/lust dynamic made Heff’s statements on love glaringly one-dimensional.  I wish I had read The Feast of Love at the time.

The Feast of Love is a meditation on the permutations of love and sex in the contemporary world.  Through a series of interrelated first-person narratives, and artfully considered prose, Baxter crafts insights that remain, at once, idiosyncratic and universal.  There’s the hapless in love, Bradley; the cynically cold, Diane; the metaphysically ruined, Harry; and others, each with their own twist on love.  Among these, the spirited Chloe is love’s champion, emerging as the goddess, Eros, reborn with unbridled youthful optimism.

You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Midwest, pitch-perfect voice, subtle post-modernism, Love and Lust, Sex and Companionship, Yearning and Contentment, Young and Old, Soren Kierkegaard, and dog thievery.

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm, Charles Baxter currently teaches at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the oldest low-residency MFA in the United States.