Friday, October 24, 2014

Hello Kitty Must Die, by Angela S. Choi

I got this book as part of a BOGO offer from Audible, which may make me hesitant to fall for future BOGO deals. The first chapter, in which protagonist Fiona Yu takes her virginity with a dildo heavily smeared with Lidocaine, is about the most cringe-worthy piece of writing I've ever encountered. Fiona is a 28-year-old corporate lawyer who still lives with her parents--the low rent and the excellent mom-cooked meals balance out her parents' efforts to fix her up with a "nice Chinese boy." While one might sympathize with the conflict Fiona faces between Chinese tradition and 21st-century American culture, she is not a sympathetic character. Her screen saver is a slide show of serial killers and she wears high heels at all times because she enjoys the pain they cause. When she reunites with childhood friend Sean (now a plastic surgeon specializing in hymen replacement), her interest in serial killers becomes more than hypothetical. Ugh. DO NOT READ!!!

(Obviously, I've been a bit behind in my posting--I didn't actually read three books today.)

Amy Falls Down, by Jincy Willett

I have remarked before about the odd way in which themes suddenly and unintentionally emerge in my reading. Amy Falls Down is my third recent book about writing and authors--and it is by far my favorite.

Amy Gallup is a 60ish author who has not published a book for 60 years. She lives in San Diego and teaches on-line writing classes. She used to teach face-to-face workshops, but then one of her students started killing others in the workshop, and she gave those classes up; in fact, she seems to have little contact with other people.

One night she goes falls in her yard, knocking herself out on the birdbath. The next morning, somewhat balmy from the blow to the head, she is interviewed for an article in the local newspaper and she comes across so bizarrely in the story that it goes viral. People suddenly want her to be on their radio shows or make an appearance at their event. Although she initially resists, her recently reemergent agent Maxine convinces her to assent to a few appearances, and soon her sense of humor and no-nonsense approach have made her a sensation. Her new-found celebrity gives Amy a chance to rail against writers' conferences, agents, the literary publicity machine, and more.

At the same time, however, Amy has also begun to leave her house more often to engage with real people. She begins teaching a hand-picked group of aspiring writers whom her friend Carla has gathered around her in a "writer's retreat" that does not resemble any description you've ever read of MacDowell or Yaddo. She cannot enter a more active social life without thinking about the life she and her beloved husband Max, a gay friend she married so he could avoid the draft, shared . . . and about the betrayal she discovered after Max's death from AIDS. Perhaps most remarkably, Amy also begins to write again.

Amy's adventures as a media celebrity allow Willett to satirize the memoir fad, chick lit, endless conversations about the writer's process, writer's colonies, anti-intellectual talk show hosts, agents, drunken male authors, YouTube trailers for books, blogs (Amy has a blog titled "Go Away," on which the list of her own books is buried six levels down), and countless other aspects of the literary world and popular culture. At the same time, however, Willett defends the work of the writer as valuable and difficult, pays tribute to agents, and provides glimpses into one writer's process (Amy writes down unusual/intriguing phrases she hears in conversation, which she then uses as titles for stories that may have nothing to do with the context in which she heard the phrase).

Amy Falls Down takes place almost entirely in Amy's head, and it is a very entertaining place to be. Willett creates a unique voice and gives that voice some wonderful ideas, sentences, and phrases to express; I will not soon forget the term "irony klaxon" or the description of a hotel lobby as "aggressively rectangular." I was sad when this funny and yet somehow touching book ended.

Favorite passages:
Fiction, when it's done right, does in the daylight what dreams do at night; we leave the confines of our own experiences and go to common ground, where for a time we are not alone.

Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark

Fleur Talbot is an aspiring novelist, living in post-war London (specifically in 1949-50). She's writing her first novel, Warrender Chase (which she refers to endlessly in the novel), but must find a job to support herself. She finds a job as secretary to Quentin Oliver, who runs the Autobiographical Association. Fleur is assigned the task of typing up the memoirs of the association's members, and she quickly decides the memoirs are too dull and begins to embellish them.

Here is where things get sticky. The memoirs and Warrender Chase begin to resemble each other--but it is unclear which is the source, which the copy, and who is responsible for the "plagiarism," if that is what it is. Certainly, Quentin and the members of the Association (with Quentin's urging) accuse her of libel and plagiarism. Then some of the fictional events Fleur wrote about actually happen, causing even greater confusion (at least for this reader). Fleur becomes convinced that Quentin Oliver is plotting against her, as well as his mother--the (perhaps) demented Edwina--and the eccentric members of the association. Fleur is forced out of her job, loses her publishing contract, and finds that all the copies of her novel have been destroyed or stolen.

The story is narrated by Fleur from a distance of some years; she has become a successful novelist and is reflecting on the months in which she completed her beloved Warrender Chase, so we know the events of 1949-1950 did not deter her. Fleur is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator; I also found her to be an obnoxious one. I enjoyed Fleur's ruminations on writing, although not her obsessive regard for her own work, Warrender Chase (I feel every paragraph of this review should reference the title, since Spark mentioned it so often in the novel). Of the book she says, "All day long when I was busy . . . I had my unfinished novel personified almost as a secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did." That may be quite lovely for a novelist, but it doesn't make the novelist that interesting as a character (at least to me).

Loitering with Intent (what a wonderful title) was short-listed for the Booker and reviewed glowingly; one review I saw even called it "perfect." From another review, I learned that the book is chock full of literary allusions I simply didn't get. I am more aligned with the reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor, who called it a novel to "amuse, baffle." I was from time to time amused and quite often baffled. But, I will not, as several reviewers noted they had done, read it over and over--I shudder at the thought.

Favorite passage:
I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work. (maybe not my favorite passage but perhaps indicative of why I found Fleur obnoxious)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm is the second Cormoran Strike mystery novel by Robert Galbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling). In this new adventure, private detective Strike and his assistant Robin investigate the disappearance and subsequent death of author Owen Quine. Hired by Quine's wife Leonora (with little hope of remuneration), Strike is drawn into the intrigues of London publishing--which are more twisted and violent than one might suspect. When Leonora is arrested for murdering her husband, the pressure on Strike picks up, just as his amputated leg is bothering him and his ex-fiancee is marrying someone else. Meanwhile, Robin's fiance continues to object to her career choice. Nonetheless, they solve the case when the police can or will not.

The Silkworm is not as enjoyable as the first book in the series, The Cuckoo's Calling. The crime is outlandish (and grisly) and the police incompetent. Strike's commitment to Leonora, who is neither sympathetic nor paying, seems unlikely; while this commitment might make one admire him, his willingness to sleep with a young woman in whom he has no interest simply to get information from her undercuts any such admiration. And the Moonlighting-style sexual tension between Robin and Cormoran isn't very compelling.

If there's a third Cormoran Strike novel, I'm not sure I'll read it. I'm actually struggling with the question of why I continue to read series mysteries when they are so unsatisfying--but at least most of them are quick reads. At 455 pages, that can't be said of The Silkworm.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

Jun Do, the protagonist of Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, grows up in an orphanage, a shameful heritage in North Korea. Despite being (or thinking he is--one cannot be sure) the son of the institution's director, Jun Do is not spared the hard labor that the orphans must do. And, when he reaches maturity, he is forced into low-level jobs: he is a tunnel fighter and is then "promoted" to being first a kidnapper who snatches Japanese people and takes them back to North Korea and then a "listener" who accompanies a fishing boat to listen to enemy (i.e., U.S.) radio transmissions. When things go bad on the boat, Jun Do is forced to endure a shark attack so that a false story of heroism can be constructed to cover up what really happened. As the hero, Jun Do is taken on a secret mission to the United States; this mission, too, goes poorly. Much is grim (and surreal) in this first section of the book, told entirely in the third person from Jun Do's perspective, but things get much worse, as Jun Do has been sent to a prison camp at the end of this section.

In the second part of the book, Jun Do is being interrogated. He has not been assigned to the "torture first" team but to a group that claims to be writing biographies of North Korean citizens, using subtler forms of coercion until greater force is required. This section of the book has three narrators. Jun Do, who tells of his time in the prison camp, as well as his escape and subsequent impersonation of the powerful Commander Ga, whose wife (a famous actress Sun Moon) and children have disappeared. Kim Jong-Il emerges as a character in Jun Do's story. The second narrator is the interrogator who is attempting to write the biography of Jun Do/Commander Ga; his first-person narration provides not only a description of his work and why he thinks it is important, but a description of his own severely circumscribed life. The final narrator is the voice of the loudspeaker, heard everywhere in North Korea; in the hands of propagandists, Jun Do and Sun Moon's story becomes a serialized fable.

While Kim Jong-Il is rendered as a comical figure, the lives of North Korean people are certainly not funny; indeed, the continual betrayals and cruelties that the government visits on its people make reading difficult. Yet Jun Do develops into a compelling character--as does his interrogator--and their intertwined fates keep you reading.

Johnson relied on information from defectors, scholarship on North Korea, and a brief and highly managed visit to the country. Obviously, however, he relied on his prodigious imagination. Thus, one cannot really assess the degree to which his depiction resembles reality, a fact that troubles me somewhat. I am quite sure that, in time, Johnson's descriptions will become reality in my mind. This may not be fair to the real North Korea, but it is a tribute to the author's construction of a grotesque but memorable world.

Favorite passage:
The hallway was lined with photographs of the Senator's family, always smiling. To move toward the kitchen was like going back in time: the graduation photos becoming sports photos, and then there were scouting clubs, pigtails, birthday parties. And finally there were pictures of babies.   Was this what a family was? How it grew? Straight as the children's teeth. Sure, there was an arm in a sling, and over time, the grandparents disappeared from the photos. The occasions changed, as did the dogs. But this was a family, start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons. Without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Divorce Papers, by Susan Rieger

Budding criminal defense attorney Sophie Diehl has no interest in divorce law but, mostly by happenstance, gets roped into handling the divorce of Mia Durkheim, the daughter of an important client at Sophie's firm. Through what the author calls "epistolary 2.0"--a mix of letters, memos (and numerous attachments), and emails--we see not only the details of the process of divorcing but also the machinations of a law firm's operations as well as how both Sophie and Mia mature over the course of a year. And we laugh a lot while doing so--Rieger has given both Sophie and Mia a sharp wit.

Although I don't see the need to write a lot about the book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to my friend Colleen for recommending it.

. . . you may be thinking like a lawyer, but you're writing like a self-indulgent alternative-newspaper feature writer.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

Lena is the last transcriptionist at the New York Record, a newspaper clearly modeled on The New York Times, where the author had that same job for several years. Lena, a grad school dropout, spends her days alone in a room, transcribing tapes of reporters' interviews as well as stories that have been phoned in to the paper. The one reporter who treats her like a human being calls her by the wrong name. She lives in what is essentially a women's hostel--no men are allowed in the women's rooms, but they are able to check out a key to Gramercy Park, where they can spend a quite hour (if they are late getting the key back, the "housemother" chastises them severely). She hasn't dated for years and relies on literary quotations as conversation. She seems totally disengaged from "real life."

On the bus one day, Lena has a brief encounter with a blind woman. When she reads in the paper that the woman, a court reporter, has been killed after climbing into the lions' cage at the zoo, she becomes obsessed with learning more about the woman, Arlene. Chasing down information about the woman, she uses many of the somewhat questionable reporting tricks that she has witnessed journalists on the paper use--yet the process and the similarities between her life and Arlene's begin to draw Lena out of her isolation.

The Transcriptionist has an almost dreamlike quality--or perhaps it is that Lena inhabits her life as though it were a dream. Some aspects of the work environment at The Record are surreal--the paper buys survival masks for employees in lieu of a holiday party, Lena gains admittance to the room in which an elderly man sorts through obituaries by singing lines from "Now the Day Is Over." Yet Lena's gradual steps toward reclaiming her life are moving, and I recommend this book.

Favorite passage:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.