In a recent interview, Lou Gallo told me that nostalgia is a disease and that he is a “complete, woebegone nostalgician.” He may as well have told me that the sky is blue, for I’d already read two of his new poetry collections.
Halloween and Omens are both so thick with the past that the idea of a year 2010 once again becomes the stuff of futuristic sci-fi. These poems takes the reader into Gallo’s New Orleans childhood of the ’50s, into his wilder ’60s and ’70s, and dip their toes into the ’90s, but rarely do they venture into present day. Which is for the best, because Gallo is a born storyteller, an unabashed sentimentalist who moves forward only by looking back. … Continue reading »
Author: Reinaldo Arenas; translation by Dolores M. Koch.
1993, Viking Penguin
Filed Under: Literary, Biography, Nonfiction
C4 Ratings.....out of
When a friend of mine gave me an English translation of the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, Before Nights Falls, he insisted that the book was an effortless and riveting read–which was precisely the case. I finished reading the book as early as I could despite a couple of deadlines in my office and my one-year-old son going berserk.
The book is eminently readable and Arenas pins down the reader right from the word go. “The End.” This is how the book starts. He was sure in 1987 that he would die very soon but managed to survive although he had no medical insurance. He had to finish his Pentagonia and his memoirs before the night of death fell upon him.
Arenas’s father had abandoned his mother after only three months of marriage, something fairly common in Cuba in that era. He grew up in abject poverty, eating dirt and learning to hate his father. One day when he was six, he saw some boys of the neighborhood jumping in the river. The next day he masturbated for the first time. Life in the country was close to nature and therefore close to sexuality. Hens, goats, sows, mares, dogs, and even trees were used to satisfy his huge and eccentric sexual appetite during his boyhood. But the first time he went to a whore he was unable to have an erection. According to his own careful estimate, Arenas had fucked 5000 men by 1968. … Continue reading »
Do not read: I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson
Petterson’s latest novel has been gushed and fawned over endlessly in the past few months, praised for its starkness and cold austerity. I did not like Curse at all, because it’s stark and coldly austere. I suppose I should’ve seen that coming, but it’s possible to portray depression and malaise without boring the stuffing out of your reader. Petterson chooses to bore you.
Curse is an atmospheric novel about a recently divorced 37-year-old Communist who doesn’t get along with his mother, though he loves her. There, you’re done. There are nearly zero other surprises left in store in the rest of the book, and no complexities in the main character makes for a pretty boring character study.
Read this instead: You Lost Me There, by Rosecrans Baldwin
Baldwin’s first novel has likewise gotten some press, and likewise concerns the ruminations of a man whose life has not gone well. In this case, it’s a sixty-something scientist whose wife died a few years back. He finds notes she wrote to her therapist and agonizingly relives his failures as a husband.
Lost is nuanced and complex, heartbreaking and richly textured. Although it’s not an outstanding novel, it’s compelling. And that, quite simply, is what I’m looking for, atmospheric character study or no.
Like everybody else born in the ’80s, I loved Roald Dahl when I was growing up, and I still harbor fond memories, no matter how many books a creepy Johnny Depp ruins. I had no idea, though, that Dahl’s famous writing hut was necessary because his house was full of doctors and nurses caring for his brain-damaged son and his stroke-ridden wife, who was “written off … as a badly battered vegetable worth keeping alive simply because of the foetus she was still carrying.” I also didn’t know he was such a complete jerk. Hughes’s review takes a caustic, unblinking look at Dahl’s life, and shares a few of the juicy details to be found in Sturrock’s fascinating-sounding (but slightly softer) biography.
Ape House, by Sara Gruen, reviewed by Ron Charles (Washington Post)
Zero History, by William Gibson, reviewed by Scarlett Thomas (New York Times)
Gibson’s new book is intricate real-world sci-fi, about “coolhunting,” trends, and what gets people excited. Familiar modern sci-fi themes, in other words, but delivered with a wealth of inventiveness by one of the genre’s best writers. Thomas describes Gibson’s prose as “thrillingly tight,” and her own prose is, too. It’s a very sharply written review of a book that’s easy to get excited about. Thomas’s own recent novel is also on my list.
[To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
I moved back to New York City in 2007 after an absence of five years. Shortly after my arrival, during one particularly bad insomniac fugue, I noticed The Pushcart War sitting forgotten on a distant shelf in my room, a relic of my elementary school reading days. I devoured it anew in about two hours. A few months ago, I read it again. I loved this book when I first read it in fourth grade, I loved it in 2007 and I love it now.
Its enduring appeal has much to do with what it means to me as a New Yorker. The Pushcart War is one of the quintessential New York books in children’s literature, on a par with Stuart Little and The Cricket in Times Square, doing for my hometown what Madeline does for Paris and Make Way for Ducklings does for Boston. It meant a lot to a 9-year-old just beginning to make sense of the city’s stew of sights and experiences and also to a 22-year-old finding that his city had changed a lot during an extended absence.
The New York that Jean Merrill presents is one easily familiar to its inhabitants, both in 1964 when it was originally published and even now. It is a polyglot, multicultural city, a bustling conurbation filled with colorful characters and encounters, many based at real locations around Manhattan, from the Upper West Side to Little Italy. It’s a place filled with cranks and raconteurs and folks with names like Morris the Florist, Harry the Hot Dog, Moe Mammoth, General Anna, Papa Peretz, Harry the Hot Dog and Mr. Jerusalem. … Continue reading »
You Lost Me There is an atmospheric novel, in the same vein as Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time—only Lost is affecting and layered, where Curse was spare and unenjoyable. Baldwin writes smoothly and well, and though he occasionally hiccups, he still delivers a nuanced, wrenching character study.
The character being studied: Victor Aaron, a 60-ish research scientist living on a tiny island in Maine. His wife, Sara, died a few years ago, and he’s been gripped, since even before her death, in the fist of a formless depression.
Victor and Sara had a vibrant, loving marriage, one that lasted decades, and that made the sting of its downslide all the more painful. He realized that he was a neglectful husband a few years before Sara’s death, and tried to change unsuccessfully. Then she died in a car accident, and left Victor with an awful mix of grief and regret.
The novel is primarily an exploration of that regret, which sharpens when Victor discovers a box full of index cards, dozens of them, on which his late wife detailed for her therapist her unhappy marriage. Baldwin pads the story with some interesting twists and characters, and he makes the ride an entertaining one, to an infinite degree more than Petterson did. But Lost is not, as its cover claims, very funny, or charming, and you should know that before you decide whether to read it: at its core, and at its best, this is a book about a man being sad.
[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]
The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, reviewed by Dwight Garner (New York Times)
Hawking might be the smartest man in the world, and his A Brief History of Time is a book everyone should read, even if they have only a passing interest in science and philosophy. Hawking’s newest book takes on religion, as a consequence of asking how the universe began. A ballsy book that could probably only be pulled off successfully by this man, whose “body has been wasted by Lou Gehrig’s disease, while his mind is utterly intact, a pinging black box amid the physical wreckage.”
Ape House, by Sarah Gruen, reviewed by Amy Canfield (Miami Herald)
This is a novel about a house full of apes. These are bonobo chimps that can talk to people with their hands. This quote from Canfield’s review makes me want to read this book: “Gruen sets up her premise with wit, using a couple of quotes. First we hear from Nim Chimpsky, a real-life chimpanzee who learned sign language in the 1970s: ‘Give orange give me eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.’ That statement is followed by a message even more succinct: ‘Gimme, gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more’ — Britney Spears, 2007.”
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, reviewed by Troy Jollimore (Chicago Tribune)
I know I pointed to Freedom in last week’s installment, but this time I included it because I really liked Jollimore’s review. I just powered through this 550-page book in two sitings; it’s very good and you should read it too. I’ll be writing my own review for next week that will surely be the definitive take on the novel, but in the meantime, I like Jollimore’s ability to admire without leaving the faults unidentified.
The McNewspaper isn’t the best place to be looking for quality book recommendations, but this one seems pretty intriguing. Though to be honest, I picked this one because poor O’Brien’s author portrait made me chuckle. Click the link to see it; might as well read the review while you’re there.
Bonus! This weeks best book trailer. The Room, by Emma Donoghue:
Nearing the end of JNR Season 1. As a matter of fact, we haven’t yet pinned down a reader for round 8. So if any intrepid C4 readers/lurkers/passersby feel brave enough, shoot us an email at email@example.com saying you’re interested. We’ll draw a name out of a hat and send the “winner” a crappy novel stuffed with stickers, a koozie, and maybe some other swag–put “JNR” in the subject line so it doesn’t get misplaced. In the meantime, vote below for which of the remaining bad books C4 co-founder Eric Markowsky must read and review.
When I saw Tess’s Tree on display at The Blue Bunny, the local independent bookstore in Dedham, I grew excited. Here, I thought, was an opportunity to satisfy my interests on many different levels. A relative newcomer to Dedham, I’ve been making an effort to read books by local authors. I started with Peter Reynolds, an author, illustrator, and bookstore owner. The first book of his I purchased was The Dot. This was a wonderful story that my entire family enjoyed, and a book that I have since purchased to give as a gift. The illustrations were lovely, the character was both feisty and adorable, and the themes of the genesis of the artist and overcoming the fear of trying new things were compelling and well executed.
I purchased Tess’s Tree in the hopes of not just another great reading experience for me and my children, but one that would hold a special place on their bookshelf. I would be supporting the work of a local bookstore, a local artist, and I could do my best to advocate for it with a lovingly and spectacular review. My enthusiasm was doubly buoyed because I recognized the name of the author, Jess Braillier. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I worked with Jess, but I knew Jess from the days when our former employers shared an office space. Jess was the publisher of Planet Dexter, and among other books, he brought us the New York Times Bestselling title Grossology, by Sylvia Branzei, another book I consider special.
So I walked into The Blue Bunny and bought a signed copy of Tess’s Tree and everything was set for a great night. I removed the dust jacket delicately just before settling down into my glider and then plopped my daughter down on my lap and planned to be amazed.
My expectations were set too high. Tess’s Tree is a solid, well-illustrated book with an original story line and a wonderful message. However, I felt somewhat disappointed. Though I couldn’t quite figure out why. … Continue reading »
Three things helped me fight the urge to employ Tao Lin’s style in reviewing this book:
I’d likely have ended up with an incredibly dull and unimaginative piece of writing
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I feel no need to flatter Tao Lin
Tao Lin imitators (“Linitators” —mine, I think) have sprung up all over the Internet, and all of them suck. This is because nobody can truly capture Tao Lin’s style. Except Tao Lin.
Richard Yates is, at its core, a romcom for the digital native crowd, delivered to us through Gchat, email, text, cell phone and, in an inspired move, by sometimes actually putting the lovers together in the same place. The lovers are 22-year-old Haley Joel Osment (not the cloying actor, but an NYU grad who writes poetry, shoplifts what he needs, and sometimes thinks “about the next three to eight years of his life,” often while wearing “a neutral facial expression”) and 16-year-old Dakota Fanning (not the cloying actor, but a Jersey girl who works at McDonald’s and looks at people with “a sad facial expression,” or sometimes with “a concerned facial expression”). The book’s tagline reads “What constitutes illicit sex for a generation with no rules?”—but don’t expect much to be made of the fact that Dakota Fanning (the characters are always referred to by their full names) is underage. It’s an odd tagline, really—Lin is so deft at making the relationship seem perfectly acceptable that, outside of the occasional reference to the cops, the reader forgets that the young couple is breaking the law.
So, if not a racy Lolita-type narrative, what should the reader expect? Well, if you’ve read Tao Lin before, you already know what to expect—a lot of this: … Continue reading »