Monday, December 31, 2012

Class Warfare in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Silltoe

from here
There is a war coming. While a war between countries will grab the headlines, it is the war between the classes that is will do the most damage- because the lower classes are growing, the chasm between the bottom and the top is impenetrably deep, and the well-meaning middle class (because they want to avoid the war, or because they don't think war is really necessary) serve as tools of hegemony.

It's hard not to read Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner through the prism of our American fiscal cliff.

In story after story of this slim collection, the lower class Britons on the eve of the Second World War slouch from birth to death. They make terrible choices for lack of options across nine stories: robbery; a fight between a teacher and student; a man kindly assists his ex-wife in drinking herself to death; two boys beg, lie and steal to scrape together enough money to enjoy a fair; a man hangs himself with the help of a young boy; one man alleviates the misery of his life by beating his wife and children, while another exposes himself to little girls.

In the cruelest story of them all, "Uncle Ernest," the title character (a hard working upholsterer) finds joy in his hand-to-mouth existence by caring for two young girls. It's unclear if they needed his care: their mother has a job, and they go to school. When they first meet Ernest, they have the money for the bus ride home from a small cafe. Still, they accept his charity- he goes hungry and runs up debt to buy them tea and sweets. In kindness, he finds companionship and a hollow measure of happiness. The world, of course, punished him for that. A pair of coppers show up, responding to complaints or questions- some people thought the little girls were taking advantage of the old man's generosity. The police, acting on the best behalf of society, accuse him of untoward acts that have never crossed his mind, and they finally fling him into the street with orders to never contact the girls again. Uncle Ernest retreats to a bar, for the only escape society allows him.

This is how the world ends.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

from here
Running with Scissors, written and read by Augusten Burroughs, was one of the best audiobooks I listened to this year, though it was hardly one of the best books I read.

Much like hearing David Sedaris read his own work, Running with Scissors was well served by its author's practiced story teling style. If Portnoy's Complaint was Philip Roth stand-up, then this worked the same way- the larger than life exploits and the unfathomable relationships.

Running with Scissors is, in its own way, a worthy memoir. More than a collection of events, it tells the story of Augusten as a casualty to his mother's struggle with her mental health. It carries the usual defamation law suits associated with modern memoirs; but I'm utterly uninterested in its truthfulness- it's structure is what makes it worth reading. What kept me interested in Running with Scissors was how it functions as a bildungsroman.

Background: The bildungsroman is a novel about growing up;  the main character sets out from home, usually scarred by some tragedy and at odds with the world. Over time, he grows into a better version of himself, usually now comfortably a part of society and in a position to help others on their own journeys.

Book Review: Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

from here
I don't remember when I acquired my water damaged first edition of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. Just like I don't remember what made this the year of Philip Roth for me: first The Humbling, then Goodbye, Columbus. Both things just sort of happened (as Joe Poz recently pointed out, Roth books have a way of reproducing while you sleep).

The thing about memory is this: it shapes us, even if we don't understand how. And that's Portnoy's Complaint: down memory lane we stroll, privileged to (and trapped by) Portnoy's novel length monologue to his shrink.

Laugh out loud funny, I wouldn't say it's Roth at his best, but I can see how it kicked up a lifetime worth of controversy.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

from here
The end of the year seems the right time for nostalgia, and Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending nestles onto my reading list alongside Black Swan Green, Mary, and The Zeroes.

Like Black Swan Green and The Zeroes, we follow Tony, our first person narrator, through recollections of his adolescence, and then we return to him in adulthood. As a part of his midlife crisis, he tries to figure out what happened back then, why he and his closest friends drifted apart, and why (later) one of his friends killed himself.

The Sense of an Ending is a philosophical tract wrapped in a murder mystery. I should love it. I want very badly to love it because of the themes it treats, and because of the how deftly Barnes unravels the story; I am a sucker for layering.

Does it qualify as irony that I love everything except the ending? It's a little too much like real life.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

from here
I picked up Black Swan Green from our local library's annual book sale. I didn't remember much about it, beyond recalling the title on some "best books of Two Thousand whatever" from a few years ago. I didn't immediately make the connection to Cloud Atlas, also by David Mitchell.

So, it sat on a shelf, waiting to be read. When I needed a book for the flight down to Florida for my grandfather's memorial, I brought it along. And devoured it.

I rave about a lot of the great books I read. Of the books I read this year, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Let the Great World Spin, and The Monsters of Templeton all occupy space in a top tier above raving. It's a spot where the material and skill of the author is so strong that it makes spend several days afterwards telling everyone I know about it. They're great books, steeped in their own worlds and messy at the edges in the way real life is. Their stories are tightly woven, but told in a way that is so authentic that we can't see the seams where the author guides us along.

Add Black Swan Green to the list.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: The Zeroes by Patrick Roesle

from here
True story: I met Pat Roesle, author of The Zeroes,  in a diner in New Jersey a couple years ago. He had worked at a Border's with my then girlfriend, now wife.

Also true: While my wife chatted about hometown stuff with the other folks at the table, Pat and I discussed William Carlos Williams' This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

My position was, and still is, that the speaker is a prick, and that if your significant other ever eats the food in the fridge that he/she knows you are probably saving for breakfast, you have every reason to expect that person to drive you to the nearest diner and feed you.

Also true: My now-wife and I were not in the diner because one of us had eaten the other's potential breakfast.

Final true story: I'm a big fan of Pat's blog.

So now you know the background. You know why I read Pat's book, why I've spent a couple weeks thinking about what to say about it, and why I'm willing to admit to not being able to get beyond my biases. Still, from here on out, he's Roesle, the author. I want to talk about his book, which I think you should read. If I'm lucky, I'll even manage to talk about the things that The Zeroes made me think: about being young, about writing while young, about writing about memory.

Because I like The Zeroes despite its flaws.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

from here
It's been years since my sci-fi loving friend Diane told me to read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. It's been nearly two years since I picked up a copy from the fantastic used book store Ray & Judy's, near where I used to live.

What was I waiting for?

Sci-fi recommendations rarely work out for me, mainly because my expectations are too high. I want a novel, with characters I can believe and with a story that doesn't need a deus ex machina to reach the denouement. Basically, I want a great book that happens to be sci-fi. On top of that, I want great world-building.

Ender's Game delivers, as we would expect from a book that makes most Sci-Fi Top Ten lists (1, 2, 35, etc.), that won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award (sci-fi's top prizes).

Basic plot: A child genius, Ender Wiggins, is enrolled in Battle School, where other children learn military tactics to prepare for the dreaded Third Invasion, when aliens called "buggers" will attack Earth for a third time. Ender's Game touches on several themes that mean a lot to me- technological desensitization especially around violence, the social chasms separating people from connecting, the impossibility of living up to expectations.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut

2012 has been my year for Vonnegut. I've re-read 2 of his books (Breakfast of Champions, which was my introduction to Vonnegut years ago, and Man Without A Country), and I read a fun little book of Vonnegut criticism.

So on a recent roadtrip, I was excited to bring along the audiobook of While Mortals Sleep, the recently released, previously unpublished Vonnegut short story collection.

(A note:
These are stories that were never published while Vonnegut was alive, though many of them were submitted for publication. As with the works of JRR Tolkien that never saw the light of day, I think we have to approach them fully conscious that the author may not have been done with them, that the author may have even preferred [since there was ample opportunity to repurpose them into a collection]  that they never be published. That said, as with Kafka, while we recognize that the works are not as the author may have intended, they exist as the author created them.

So I can't read a posthumous collection and level against it the same criticism I would against one of the collections Vonnegut published in his lifetime. If there are flaws, at least some of the fault lies with the publisher and with the author's estate).