Last Man in Tower (Adiga)

The spark was definitely there in The White Tiger, but I thought Adiga’s format (the letters) boxed him in a bit. Here, he has his full repertoire in hand, and the result is wonderful. At first, I feared that there were too many characters, but Adiga does such a superb job of characterization that it didn’t take long for me to really know and imagine each one. His prose is sharp and funny. Consider (225) –

“Storm-swollen, its foam hissing thick like acid reflux, dissolving gravity and rock and charging up the ramps that separated beach from road, breaking at the land’s edge in burst after burst of droplets that made the spectators, huddled under black umbrellas, scream.”

Not only does Adiga present great characters here, but he’s after something larger – the story of the last man in the tower who resists the overtures of an ill, but greedy developer. There’s a familiar quality here – the individual against the group – but Adiga keeps it fresh. Who develops a conscience? Who doesn’t? I was genuinely unsure about what would happen in the end (and who would be responsible for it).

Adiga’s greatest ‘character’ may be Mumbai. The city, in all of its warts and glories, is presented here with such detail and poetry. Could anyone not named Adiga get away with this? Probably not. So what?

I just want to talk with the idiot responsible for putting the blurb from USA Today on the cover. I cringed each time I saw it. “If you loved the movie Slumdog Millionaire, you will inhale {this] novel.” Idiotic on so many levels.

Great writer; another great book.

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Collected Stories (Garcia Marquez)

It took me a long while to get into magical realism. It was Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits that convinced me of the legitimacy of the genre. Garcia Marquez’s work has long been a challenge for me. It took me a few tries to get through One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I am glad I persevered. I had fond memories of a few of Garcia Marquez’s short stories when I picked up the collection.

This Harper Perennial edition is arranged chronologically by publication date. The stories are presented in the way they were originally collected for their publication in Spanish. The initial stories are intimidating in their obscurity, but either Garcia Marquez’s style evolved or I got into its rhythm enough that I found myself having some ideas about the stories and enjoying them as I went along. Still, it did not surprise me when I felt most comfortable with his most recent work.

Moonwalking with Einstein (Foer)

Ever since Nickeled and Dimed, authors with a good magazine story are doing what they can to stretch their idea into a book. Foer takes the same approach. Having covered the World Memory Championships, he allows himself to be talked into trying to compete the following year. There are entertaining ‘characters,’ and interesting (if lengthy) digressions. But my central problem is Foer is constantly trying to defend his project, and I just fundamentally disagree that “[progressive education has] brought with it costs for us as individuals and as citizens. Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture” (208). While I agree that the distance we’ve moved away from asking students to know things is, at times, too far, it’s not rote memory – the kind Foer trains to improve – that transmits a shared culture, but memories and stories, which are, by their very definition, hazy around the edges.

He goes on to claim that “[h]ow we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory” (269). This is Foer, even in his Epilogue, trying to hard to intellectualize his year-long effort – to make it larger than a stunt. Yes, internalized memories help us drive, use keys, eat, etc. – much of the basics of our lives – but to say that no work of art was ever produced by an external memory? How would he know? And, to me, such a claim doesn’t make sense. Monet’s internalized memory made it easy for him to paint, but it was externalized memory that allowed him to craft those haystacks.

Foer’s work is not without ambition. He challenges the status of a savant who comes across as a charlatan. And he’s not above making fun of himself either. For all of his work to improve his rote memory, Foer returns from dinner on the subway one night only to remember that he’d driven to the restaurant and can no longer remember where he parked his car.

Recommended, but only if you take it in magazine-sized bites.

Train Dreams (Johnson)

This novella, not that I’m certain what that word even means, is in Cormac McCarthy / William Faulkner territory, in terms of style and content, though Johnson’s story is one of the American West. Johnson recounts the life of one Robert Granier in ways both funny and heartbreaking. He has a way of rendering scenes in so few words but with a great deal of power – the death of Kootenai Bob, the dog who shoots Peterson, the fire, Eddie’s marriage proposal, the dream about his wife, Gladys.

Having only read Johnson’s Jesus’ Son before this (I’m not counting an ill-fated attempt to listen to Tree of Smoke in the car), I’m amazed at Johnson’s versatility. This is a great American story. All of the elements are present – trains, the West, progress, relationship with the land, anti-immigrant sentiment (see memorable opening scene), religion, etc..

Appropriate for school? Probably. Though I don’t envy having to deal with sophomore boys who want to snigger at a few moments about a cow as well as the probably modern perception of the line, “No beating around the bush.”

A quick and memorable read. The moment when Gladys drops the Bible. . . Absolutely amazing.

The Night Circus (Morgenstern)

I love the circus. I used to go a lot as a child, though I’m not sure that’s the reason. Perhaps I romanticize the life? I read Water for Elephants and liked it more than I expected. But Morgenstern’s book far surpasses that one. The atmosphere here – suggested by the details, the second person passages, and the behind-the-scenes moments – is stunning. For about 400 pages, I felt like I was there or at least certainly wanted to be there. The only flat scenes (those between Marco and Celia) were as awkward as they were inevitable. And when things fill apart, the prose does as well. It’s not surprising that a first book falls apart near the end (starting about page 400). In this case, the first 80% of the novel more than makes up for it. I adored the setting (Morgenstern’s also an artist) and the minor characters. I also finished the book in 4 days. I just wanted to be in Morgenstern’s world. I am tempted to look up some of it to see what, if anything, was based on a true story, but I prefer to leave it all to my imagination and Morgenstern’s. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

http://erinmorgenstern.com/about/

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/ongoing/talking_volumes/

A Dance to the Music of Time: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant – 2nd Movement (Powell)

In this installment, we find Nick and his circle thinking, with their sense of “aristocratic idealism,” about the Spanish Civil War. Closer to home, the talk is of marriages and “the judgment of terrible silences” that often dooms them. Speaking of silences, our narrator’s wife, Isobel, has something akin to a cameo here. I can’t figure out what Powell is doing here. Why does she have such a small role?

Time is definitely passing here. Two characters die. Several have clearly grown older; others are on their second or third marriages. The sense of nostalgia is embodied in the title, as many characters remember a night at the restaurant which featured a long conversation about different kinds of lovers.

Miss Weedon absolutely steals her one scene.

What’s new here is a haunting sense of momentum. Time is definitely marching on in a way that seems as frightening as the Ghost Railway image evoked at the end of this section.

Wise Blood (O’Connor)

I’ve long been a fan of O’Connor’s short stories, so I was intrigued by the prospect of reading this, her first novel. Many of the familiar elements are here – religion (though it’s a vast oversimplification to see that this – or any of her work – is just about religion), the south, remarkable characters. There’s a Carson McCullers feel here, since the action is all set in one place, and the perspective shifts.  O’Connor’s writing is as sharp as it is sometimes strange. There’s violence not only in the physical sense, but in the way her characters live her lives. O’Connor writes so that you can see her people, not that you’d want to have anything to do with them. I really wonder how this was first received in 1949. After a quick search, I can’t find any original reviews, but I am curious to see the movie version (directed by John Huston). In the end, I prefer the short stories; this is a puzzling, foundational novel. You can see O’Connor trying things out, ideas she’d go on to refine in her short stories.