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.


Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

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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.

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.

Some Things I’m Currently Loving… The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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Just started The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen last night.  After a tepid few weeks of reading, this one’s turning into a real treat.  It took a while for me to settle into Franzen’s prose, but now I’m loving it.

The opening description of the Enid and Al Lambert’s home in “St. Jude” reads awkwardly, but I think — after the fact — it is purposefully written as such to capture the stagnant yet precarious nature of the household.  It takes a few pages to accept the “guerilla warfare” metaphor used to describe Enid’s silent battle to keep the household finances out-of-site from an excitable and semi-lucid Al, but ultimately it works.

Things really start popping in “The Failure,” when we meet Chip, the Lambert’s 43-year-old disaster of a son, a disgraced former liberal arts professor, now scraping by as a writer in New York City.  Chip’s flashback, reliving his comic tryst with a seductive undergrad, Melissa, and subsequent flameout at D—— College, is one of the most hilariously sharp set pieces I’ve read in a long time.  Franzen is rolling during this section and having a blast while at it.

Some of my favorite lines thus far:

It’s the fate of most Ping-Pong tables in home basements eventually to serve the ends of other, more desperate games. (p. 7)

The space between Al’s “I am-” and “packing my suitcase,” (p. 11) is a wonderfully flashy digression.

“They’re leather.  They’re like a second skin.” (p. 18)

Did you grow up here?” (Or do you come from a trans-Appalachian state where people are warmhearted and down-to-earth and unlikely to be Jewish) (p. 23)

Soft curves in thermal knitwear spilled out on either side of her overalls’ bib, Chip noticed.  (p. 49)

The VCR made a dry, thin choking sound.  Air; need air, it seemed to say. (p.51)

… each image recalled him to the unfunny raw comedy of what he’d done to her.  The jismic grunting butt-oink.  The jiggling frantic nut-swing.  (p. 58)

The last one’s my favorite so far.  More to come.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

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The 150-word Review: When I think of magic realism, I think of one book:  Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. This book is a conjuring – a cacophonous explosion of sounds, flavors, colors, and textures – and a chronicle of India during its nascent independence.  All of which could only be accurately described with magic realism.

Saleem Sinai is the first of the one-thousand-and-one “midnight children,” born at the stroke of midnight during the first hour of India’s independence, with a gargantuan nose and a unique gift.  Saleem is a telepath.  He can communicate with all of the midnight children, each who have magical abilities of their own.  Saleem appreciates the significance (and the burden) of his birth and sets to tell his life’s story to his wife.  Thus Saleem becomes Rushdie’s Scheherazade, weaving together the miraculous tales of the midnight children and serving as witness to the tumultuous events that envelop the sub-continent during his life.

You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of: a polyglot of languages and local dialects, the crystal blue skies of Kashmir, cheroot and betlenut, historical fiction and allegory, old Bombay, chutney, One Thousand and One Nights, and following one’s nose.

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm, Midnight’s Children has twice been recognized as the “Booker of Bookers.”

Watchmen by Alan Moore (Illustrated by Dave Gibbons)

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Quick survey:  how many of you have actually watched Citizen Kane end to end?    Experts have lauded Citizen Kane as the most influential (and greatest) movie ever made.  But is it your favorite?  For us – the uninitiated – the greatness of Citizen Kane is obscure.  It takes effort to get inside it, requires a breadth of technical knowledge to appreciate its brilliance, to understand its influence.  I’ve had this exact experience with Alan Moore’s seminal comic Watchmen.

My knowledge of comic books is limited.  I was never a comic book kid.  I was more of a baseball card and video game kid.  Ken Griffey Junior’s Upper Deck Rookie card and Tecmo Super Bowl are touchstones of my adolescence.  As such, I’ll leave the technical analysis of Watchmen to the wealth of experts out there on the Web.  Much like Citizen Kane, the technical mastery of Watchmen was not readily apparent to me.  What was apparent, however, was the depth of Alan Moore’s character development and the subtle complexity of his story.

Originally published in 1986 as a 12-issue series, Watchmen transcended the common opinion of comic books:  from lowbrow juvenile frivolity to a serious medium of literature and art.  It virtually established the “graphic novel” genre.  Watchmen is still the only graphic novel to win a Hugo Award.  Alan Moore’s attempt at creating a “superhero Moby Dick” changed the comic book landscape forever, paving the way for later works like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which demonstrate a similar psychological depth.

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The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

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The 150-word Review: With any obsession the pain is part-and-parcel with the pleasure.  Mario Vargas Llosa’s obsession is with Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, whose inimitable spirit has captured his imagination throughout his literary career.  In The Bad Girl, Vargas Llosa recreates Madame Bovary, bringing her into the late-twentieth century, preserving her defiant independence and the pain of loving her.

Ricardo is a good boy with simple aspirations: to move to Paris and live there forever.  The bad girl is a capricious and charismatic “Chilean” girl, who captivates Ricardo’s desires and quickly vanishes.  When Ricardo achieves his dream, working in Paris as a translator, the bad girl reappears, only to deny ever knowing him and, once again, is indifferent to his love.  Throughout Ricardo’s life, she reappears, again and again, each time under a different guise, but he cannot mistake the fire in her “honey-colored eyes” nor the hopeless passion for her in his heart.

You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of: A Sentimental Education, post-war Paris, swinging London, perverse Yakuza, social chameleons, Holly Golightly, doomed love affairs.

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm, Marion Vargas Llosa’s novel, The Feast of the Goat, is based on the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (the Suaron-like bad man chronicled in the footnotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) and takes place in the Dominican Republic.

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