A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I’ve read this book before. I will read this book again, probably many times. Writing an overly positive review without sounding too schmucky is hard, so I’ll keep this one pretty short. If you haven’t read Eggers before, I highly encourage you too. His style really sticks with you, be it fiction or non. His most recent book (A Hologram for the King) came out last summer and was on plenty 2012 top ten lists. This book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG), is still my favorite. And I admit, I’ve read pretty much everything he’s ever written. I’ve bought books based solely on the fact that he has written the forward. So, recognize my slight obsession, and on the one hand, take this glowing review with a grain of salt. On the other hand, READ THIS NOW.

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St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

Karen Russell likes kids. She likes them to be lost, hurried, confused, afraid. Have you read Swamplandia!? In that story, our heroine is Ava, proud member of the Bigtree clan, brave alligator wrestler and frightened little girl. Here, Russell offers ten stories that include similar themes. And like Swamplandia!, (a book I really, really loved), Russell deftly and somewhat subtly shimmies between the real world and fantasy. I think a mark of good fantasy is that when you read it, you don’t think “this some good fantasy! what a weird, wacky world we are visiting!” (or, alternately, “what the hell is going on?”). Instead, you think about the characters and the emotions that drive the story, accepting the constructed world appreciatively. Russell hits that nail on the head.

There are ten stories here, and I won’t go into all of them. The first, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” is what led to Swamplandia!, though it differs a bit. But we are again treated to a muddy world, filled with ghosts and lizards and a man wearing feathers. In the end, Ava has to wrestle a lot more than a silly alligator. The books title comes from the last story in the book. Here we find young girls, pulled away from their werewolf parents (that affliction skips a generation) and put in reform school. They must learn to be bipedal, to stop urinating everywhere, to stop chewing. Can they truly adapt? You know what they say—home is where the heart is.  The second story is my favorite. Two brothers, mourning the loss of their little sister, find a pair of swimming goggles that allow them to see all the ghosts under the sea. It’s heart-wrenching and magical, full of glorious images.

Ideas and images like this abound: singing an avalanche down from a glacier, a minotaur father pulling his family’s wagon westward, lupine girls running, howling, biting. There are monkeys on ice skates, an old woman feeding stingrays instead of ducks, and a mentally-disabled man, dancing on the beach in Christmas lights and tinfoil, pretending to be the moon. Russell paints all these images with flair, and these seemingly odd moments fit right in and carry us through stories that, at the core, are about desperation, confusion, wonder, and love.

One more thing to note is the setting. Russell connects a handful of these stories through place (and sometimes through people). The ones that share a setting take place in Florida. We see the same motel, the oddball amusement parks, mangroves, swamp, beach. The Bigtree clan. The sea feels ever-present, hauntingly so at times. The stories set elsewhere, most notably “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” feel a tad disconnected (to me at least), but Russell writes with such raw skill that it’s impossible to feel lost for much more than a sentence.

A collection of stories is a good way to mix it up after reading a lot of novels, and it’s pretty nice to read while involved in other books. I love a good short story (it’s what I struggle to write myself sometimes) and I’m really glad this is the book of them I chose. I can’t wait for her new collection (Vampires in the Lemon Grove). It comes out sometime in 2013 I believe; check it out.

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number9dream by David Mitchell

I’ll preface this by saying I read Cloud Atlas last fall, avoided the movie, and am pretty enamored with David Mitchell. I’m already fiending to read more of his work. Cloud Atlas unreels its nested narratives artfully, and Mitchell’s transitions between very diverse voices is unbelievable to witness. number9dream offers much of the same literary craftiness.

Unlike Cloud Atlas, this story has one central narrative told through the eyes of our hero, Eiji Miyake. He has come to Tokyo from his rural island home to find his father, whom he has never met. The book is divided into 9 parts, which unspool chronologically. We follow Eiji from his early days in Tokyo, broke and distracted, living above a video rental store, to his two odd jobs in a city he can’t quite understand, and onward into frightening adventures and travels back to his birthplace. Each section has a sort of sub-plot (if you can call it that) that arises from something Eiji reads or interacts with in the chapter (e.g. an author’s fantasy manuscript, his great uncle’s journal from WWII). These intertwine with the immediate events and lend a fantastic element to what could have a been a very straightforward story. The story benefits hugely from these apt side stories.

The search for his father is the central driving force of the book, but Eiji obviously has much more going on: an absent mother, grumpy bosses, a crush on a waitress, encounters with the fiercely savage Tokyo underworld, and a long-dead twin sister. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Murakami connection. Like Murakami, Mitchell weaves together a narrative from various interconnected pieces. Eiji himself admits almost finishing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (what happened to that fellow in the well?!). And nearing the end (this isn’t really a spoiler), a dreamed of John Lennon tells Eiji that #9 Dream (the song) is a descendant of Norwegian Wood (the Beatles song). It can’t be coincidence that one of Murakami’s most popular books in Japan is called Norwegian Wood and this number9dream is descendant in kind.  Not to say Mitchell is stealing from Murakami—there are innumerable similarities, but this book is all Mitchell. The writing is brilliant (not that Murakami’s isn’t…), and like Cloud Atlas, the various voices and dialogue is all crafted elegantly as can be. And the story itself is terrifyingly compelling. Ready yourself for moments as savage as those in Murakami’s WWII scenes.

I’m starting to ramble, but don’t let my nonsense influence the quality of this book. I urge you to pick it up, especially if you enjoyed Cloud Atlas (read this now if you haven’t) and are a Murakami fan. It’s another breathtaking piece of work by one of Britain’s best.

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A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Ignatius J. Reilly is a madman. His hat is green, his stomach is bulging, and his mustache is black and often crumb-filled. He makes me laugh really, really hard. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. So funny in fact, that, while I was always eager to read it, I usually had to put it down after a while because of abdominal exhaustion. Continue reading

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Americana by Don DeLillo

Most books fit into some basic genres (mystery, historical fiction, self-help (privileged white women eating Indian food and claiming inner peace), etc.). Americana was a tough one for me to classify. Most simply, I could stick it into two genres. The first half is a Henry Miller-esque rant against corporate America and the second half is, somehow, a road trip story evoking Kerouac. I won’t claim that really makes sense, but bear with me and listen up: this book is worth a read.

Narrated by our hero David Bell, the novel kicks off in New York City where Bell works as an executive at a television network. Think “Mad Men,” but for wacky TV shows instead of ad campaigns. Bell is quite similar to Don Draper in fact (sorry to the 3 people that still haven’t watched “Mad Men”). Divorced, absurdly handsome, respected at work for oddly creative and intuitive ideas, but all the while haunted by rotating girlfriends, flings with his ex-wife, and the ever-present gnawing discomfort hovering somewhere deep in his noggin. Bell is a bit crazy to be sure—one of my favorite moments occurs as he leaves a frustrating party early in the book. Just before departing, he secretly pulls the ice cube tray from the freezer, spits on each cube, and replaces it carefully. Thanking the host, he waltzes out, carefree.

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CannonBall Read #5

I often find myself reading a pop-culture site called Pajiba. While much of it is pretty silly, it’s very funny and keeps me informed of important things (like when Arrested Development is back on the air and how stunningly awful movies released in January tend to be). One thing they sponsor is an event called the CannonBall Read. It’s basically a group that tries to read 52 books in a year (or 26 or 13 if you want be a bit more mellow). For each book read, you must post a review on their blog (or link to it on your own site). For each person that finishes 52, the site makes a nice donation to the college fund of a young child whose mother passed away from cancer midway thru the first CannonBall Read. So if you read a lot, or want to read more (and be sort of held to it), sign on up. January is already a few days old, so get cracking. I’ll post my reviews here, and link to them off the main CBR site. Good luck!

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BenML’s #CBR5 Review #01: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Image Pick up this book—it weighs little. At under 200 pages, I suppose novella would be an apt description, but crammed into its pages are endless glowing descriptions, painful moments, and tidbits of perfect clarity. The Sense of an Ending is riveting, meandering, and pretty damn good.

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Boat Posts

Obviously, I’ve been lacking on the blog lately. Summer is busy. At the moment I’m sailing a boat to Florida. Check out a tumblr I made for the trip:

The Bon Voyage Chronicles

One of these days I’ll get some more writing going here, stay tuned, but don’t get over eager. I should return home by the holidays.

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In the Morning

I’m most selfish in the morning. When the rim of the bright burning ball first breaches from the waves like a smooth, gray whale aflame, I go mum and stare until my eyes ache with bloody reds and warm glowing oranges that ride the clouds across the sea as the waves below reflect it all back and it seems there are two sunrises in one; I’m gobbled up by the harshness of the first—it’s rays get harder and harder and the deep red turns to orange and yellow and gold, suddenly free of the clouds and the horizon and just swallowing the gray mist rising off the beach; the second is constantly broken into tiny crystals that stretch back across the undulating sea and over the tan sand towards my window. The blind is cracked an inch and my eyes are pressing towards the gap, unblinking, watery, alone—no one else in the house budges, no matter the cawing of the gull or the slap slap slap of the waves below the porch—this morning every bed is full and the kids are hanging off the edges of cots on the screen porch,  sheets askew, sand everywhere, salt rimmed shorts scattered across wicker furniture, towels wet with dew getting crisp with dried salt. I never wake them, wake anyone; somehow I think this moment is mine…my uncle is here, he very nearly preached the sunrise to me when I was young, but he doesn’t stir these mornings either, somehow…I don’t know how they sleep, but I steal this moment each morning and burn its rays back deep in my memory and know that maybe I’ll speak of them later, but that later won’t be for years and years and years.

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The Cabin (Part VI/The End)

(Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, and Part V)

Darkness. I’m not so much worried as sick. My stomach is boiling into a storm of helplessness and my heart is pounding harder and faster than I should let it. I try to stay focused, but as I turn back to the woods, the hospital room where my wife died floods into my mind. It wasn’t cold there. It was hot and stale and the lights flickered sometimes when one of the machines keeping her conscious clicked on every few minutes. It wasn’t cold, but her face turned a dull blue at the end and the smile that wasn’t hers anymore froze me to my core.

“Paul!” Lucy shouts through my daze of sickening nostalgia. I want to remember the good times, but all I can do is picture that room, white and sterile and empty but for me, the machines, and what was left of her. We’re already out of sight of the cabin again and I don’t even know which direction I walked to get here. Lucy points toward another set of tracks—no luck. A stump, days old dust scattered across the snow.

What can we do now? The search seems futile. The grove is huge and dark—how many trees has Sarah cut? How many sets of tracks curving between trunks black and still in the night? I zigzag past trees, Lucy on my heels, screaming Sarah’s name into bitter darkness. Step after step, stump after stump. My sense of direction must be tired after years of wandering. Suddenly we’re in the far corner of the tract and I can see my house out across the lea. The lights are still on at home.

Off to the left I see piles of fresh sawdust and a newly falled tree. Sarah couldn’t have been cutting here today; I would have heard the whine of the saw from my desk. But the sap is raw and running still in this deep cold and I plunge through an icy drift to get to the stump. It’s a jagged mess—the notch is obvious, but where it should have hinged gently, it cracked violently. In the dark, with my weak light, the snow is deep red. Where the tree kicked back and drove itself into the snow, I can see Sarah’s leg, buried by wood. Pinned down, blue in cheek and lips, Sarah is still. The saw is in the snow beside her. I can see the spot where the exhaust spit fumes and melted ice until the fuel tank ran dry. Without gas, I can’t cut the log away and free her—the log is too big to roll. Besides, it’s too cold and I’m already sobbing into the red snow and Lucy is standing stock still beside, her face empty and bone white. All around us the trees creak and crack in the cold and the wind whips. The snow is too icy to blow around, but a cloud of sawdust spins through the night air.

Two days later Lucy leaves. She takes everything from the cabin and stuffs it into that little car. The next night a new storm comes in cold and fierce and I burn the cabin to the ground. The smoke and heat pouring forth melt and blast the white flakes heavenward. I can see the glow on the snow as I slip back into the grove, my pockets stuffed with the little items Lucy forgot—a tin of tea, an old paperback, a bastard file that brings out a fine edge on any axe. The snow covers my tracks.

In the morning I return on my snowshoes, plodding through the fresh, light snow in the grove. When the limbs above me shake, little puffs of white drift lazily down and wedge themselves between my coat collar and my neck, chilling me steadily. There is little left to see, but thirty or so people stand around the black crater in the snow. In the middle, among piles of still smoldering scraps of wood and melted tin pots, are the woodstove and half its stovepipe. The chimney is pointing straight up at the now sunny sky.

No one ever knew who set the fire—how could they. An old tinderbox like that could go anytime, especially with a woodstove inside. All I did was walk through the open front door and pile some newspaper in front of the woodstove. One swing of the iron door, a quick raking of the ever-present coals, a puff of breath, and the house is warm. Warmer than it should be, but still not as warm as it felt during those few nights I spent there, sipping tea and speaking of the wood and the world.

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