Icelandic Folk Legends

As you’ll have seen from the post below, I’m not updating this blog as frequently these days, the better to focus my attentions on learning Icelandic and getting settled in Reykjavík, my current hometown. Nevertheless, I won’t pass up the opportunity to post the occasional casual book review here, as well as what published ones I am able to write–keep an eye out here for my forthcoming review of Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (in The L Magazine) as well as Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me (on the website Three Percent).

I’ve been making frequent visits to the Reykjavík Public Library these days, and on my last trip ran across Icelandic Folk Legends, translated by Alda Sigmundsdóttir. Readers of this blog may remember Alda as the author of The Little Book of Icelanders and also the blogger behind the very entertaining and informative blog The Iceland Weather Report.

Icelandic Folk Legends was actually a much earlier project for Alda; it was first published in 1997 and then a second edition was published in 2007 (this is the edition I read). Although another print run doesn’t seem likely, Alda has now reissued the collection as an e-book, with two additional stories, as well as an introduction and “a “field guide” to the apparitions.” You can read more about the e-book and purchase it on her website, here. The collection also received a very positive review in The Reykjavík Grapevine when it was reissued in 2007; you can read that review here. Below you’ll find my own (casual) review of the collection.

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One of the strengths of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s short essay collection The Little Book of Icelanders is its intimacy, the fact that in reading you feel as though you are listening to someone relate the quirks of neighbors and friends over a cup of coffee. It seems no surprise, then, that part of what stands out about Alda’s translations in the concise and plainly-worded collection Icelandic Folk Legends is the immediacy of the stories. Right from the start, you’re told that some of the stories explain how places currently in existence were named, that there are differing accounts of what precisely happened in some instances, that certain features of the tale have led people to believe that it is meant to represent such and such a farm or mountain pass. An example from the last lines of the story “Þorgeir’s Bull,” which tells of a sorcerer who creates a menacing magical bull endowed with many forms and powers, the better to harass the woman who turned down the sorcerer’s offer of marriage, his neighbors, and eventually he himself:

“It is said that the bull outlived Þorgeir, for he had not managed to slay it before he died. Some say that when he was on his deathbed a grey cat–some say a black pup–lay curled up on his chest, and that would have been one of the bull’s guises. Some people claim that the bull was created at the beginning of the 18th century; others that is was near the middle of that same century.”

Public debates about whether a mythical bull had been created at the beginning or in the middle of the 18th century might not generally be of that much relevance to the author–or the reader. But in these stories, it very much matters, because while called ‘folk tales,’ these stories are really all being presented as truth. A further illustration of this is in the fact that most of the stories are about characters whose full names are known, but when it happens that the names of characters aren’t, no fake character names are inserted. The statement “their names are not known,” then adds to the sense of veracity overall–the narration is sticking to plain facts here, and not even making up names for the sake of simplicity.

There’s little to no embellishment within the text–no introduction to explain folk traditions to the reader, no real attempt to create follow more traditional patterns of Western narration–you’re not really going to find the exposition, rising action, falling action, and dénouement here. This is not uncommon of orally-based storytelling, of course, but the abruptness of certain tales may surprise those who are more familiar with retellings which attempt to round out story lines for contemporary readers. Instead, there is a sort of layering effect: as you read more of the tales and are more immersed in the rural village and farm settings, becoming more familiar with what kinds of occurrences are possible–such as hidden people taking humans into their homes inside of boulders; witches riding horses’ thigh bones for their annual Christmas meeting with the devil; charms which spirit away whole flocks of sheep–the happenings become less fantastical feel more true, more possible.

There is also a wry, underlying sense of humor that runs through many of these tales, with one–“Kráka the Ogre”–standing out the most in this respect. This story tells of “…a menacing creature…[with] a penchant for the masculine sex and an aversion to being alone.” As such, Kráka regularly kidnaps farmers and shepherds and takes them back to her cave for company. In two instances the abductee refuses to eat anything except some very difficult to obtain delicacy (12-year-old cured shark; fresh buck’s meat) and so Kráka goes on long journeys to find these foods only to discover that her ‘guest’ has escaped when she returns. (We’re told that while running after the first man she yells out to him, “‘Here is the shark, Jón; cured not 12 but 13 years,’ to which he made no reply.”) Later we’re told that this lonely villain “was planning a large Christmas celebration which she took great pains to prepare for. The only thing that was missing, in her opinion, was a bit of human flesh, which she considered the greatest delicacy.” It’s not said who was going to attend the ogre’s Christmas party, but just the fact of it, alongside the missing hors d’oeuvre of human flesh (I pictured an ogre in an apron), seems so wonderfully absurd.

The one thing that I think this collection is missing is an explanation of where the source material was derived from. Alda is listed as the translator, not the author, so these are apparently not her own retellings. I would be very interested to know from what source these stories were collected, whether they were brought together from many collections or one, and whether or not these are stories that many Icelandic readers are familiar with, or just representative of the folk tradition in Iceland.

(These questions might be answered in the new e-book introduction, of course.)

Spontaneous Reads: Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

As a rule, I am perilously bad at keeping up with periodicals, lit mags, and other regular media outlets–I can’t exactly say why, but even if the topic of a long-form essay really interests me (I’m thinking here of a recent New Yorker piece on IKEA that I still haven’t finished, some six or seven months later), I often will often start it and then let it languish in a basket on my living room floor, collecting dust until I finally give up and recycle it. This is not an aesthetic judgement on the state of journalism, or even a stringently articulated preference for fiction–I just tend to spend more of my time reading short stories and novels.

My partner, however, is an adamant and regular cover-to-cover reader of several periodicals and is generous about sharing tidbits here and there of  recently acquired, timely, and esoteric factoids from journalists whose work he reads regularly. I’m often rather impressed and entertained by his summaries of articles and essays he’s been reading, so it was nice for me to recently pick up a copy of Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink–a collection of food writing in that magazine from the 1930s to the early 2000s. I frequently enjoy food writing–I think cooking and eating make for very fertile and evocative springboards for other interesting topics (memory, history, socio-cultural analysis, etc.) and it’s just fun to read about delicious food. So this collection provided an ideal framework for me to dip into the journalism that I’m always telling myself I should read more of.

Overall, the collection is wonderful; a very interesting window into the development of The New Yorker, as well as the gastronomic topics and themes that were very of the moment in which they were written. I also very much appreciated that many of the pieces were as much about the people involved in the production of food/meals as the food itself.

Since I read the collection almost cover to cover (not counting the fiction section, which looked enjoyable, but wasn’t the point for me), I made some short observations on most of the pieces as I went through. The book was divided into several sections, which I’ve indicated in bold.

Continue reading

Spontaneous Reads: Loitering with Intent

One of the benefits of working at a university is that you not only have access to the library, you also get to keep books out for a whole lot longer than you do from the public library. So perched on one of my bookshelves at home, I have a rather large stack of books that caught my eye at one time or another when browsing through the stacks at Bobst, which I am slowly but surely making my way through. Loitering with Intent is just such a title, and my second Muriel Spark novel this year.

There’s a great write-up of the novel at The Complete Review here. Benjamin Anastas also wrote a really nice piece for Bookforum about it in 2002, which doubles as a truly comprehensive take-down of Ian McEwan’s Antonement. His piece is called “Rejoice, Stupid: The Novels of Muriel Spark,” which I’ll quote briefly:

“Woe to the writer with only hundreds of words at his disposal to describe the wonders, the wit, the seriousness of purpose applied with feather-light touch to be savored in Spark’s finest work

Duly noted. My own, less comprehensive review is below.

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Loitering with Intent is a delightful, effervescent sort of story, but hard to put your finger on. For one thing, (and here I’m generalizing on the basis of just two of her books) Spark is at once an extremely exacting author–with sharp observations about characters and situations and a really well-defined sense of narrative and prose rhythms–while also seeming to be a rather carefree one. She reuses phrases that catch her fancy to excess (the “English Rose” designation gets really tired out in Loitering) and seems to have no interest in maintaining narrative suspense, but rather drops in summary paragraphs mid-way through the book which reveal how everything is going to turn out in the end. (I actually rather like the latter quality, being a big skip-to-the-end-so-I-can-see-if-I-guessed-right sort of reader, myself, but it’s unusual for an author, to be sure.)

Loitering also flirts a little bit with po-mo narrative tropes without ever really following through on them (which I also appreciate). Fleur, the struggling but lighthearted author-heroine of the story, finds that after taking a job as a secretary of a private Autobiographical Association, the people she meets and the events of her life begin more and more to resemble things that she’s written in her novel. For much of the book, she maintains that any similarity between her life and her art is coincidental, until finally demurring,

“…even if I had invented the characters after, not before, I had gone to work at Sir Quentin’s–even if I had been moved to portray those poor people in fictional form, they would not have been recognizable, even to themselves…Such as I am, I’m an artist, not a reporter.”

Nevertheless, this overlap complicates things: Fleur’s book is stolen by her employer who begins quoting lines to her that her characters have said. He steals passages and writes them into the memoirs of his association members, as well as using her as a character in the invented sordid affairs that he includes in these “biographies” as well. In a late scene, Fleur’s employer tricks her in the same way that a character in her novel is tricked, and although she has an inkling of the connection, she doesn’t believe it: “It seemed quite unlikely that my own novel could be entering into my life to such an extent.”

Overall, however, what’s actually unusual about Loitering with Intent is how much fun it is. A lot happens–a lot of dramatic, heavy sorts of events and twists which in the hands of another author could have taken on an entirely different tone. Try out this summary: In the wake of World War II, a young, single, impoverished female author writes a promising novel, only to have it stolen by her devious employer who tries to use its very words and plot against her and ruin her chances at success.

It sounds grim, right? But it’s not. Spark makes this story an adventure, and even tells the reader intermittently that the bad guy is going to get what he deserves, that the heroine will triumph, and that above all, there will be joy. “What a wonderful thing it was to be a woman and an artist in the twentieth century,” Fleur notes several times, even in the midst of all her troubles. It’s all just so exciting to her: “I do dearly love a turn of events.”

But if there’s any one quote that will really give you the take-away of this book, it’s Fleur’s own catchphrase: “I go on my way rejoicing.” And so might we all.

Night Watch (Happy Halloween!)

Happy Halloween, everyone! Appropriately enough, my latest review is of Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch, the first installment in a tetralogy of novels about a parallel reality in which the agents of Light and Dark (read: vampires, magicians, shape-shifters, witches, etc.) must maintain a delicate balance or risk the destruction of the world. It’s a rather lot of fun.

My review was published on Reviewing the Evidence, here, and the full text is below.

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First published in Russia in 1998 and later adapted in a popular film in 2004, Sergei Lukyanenko’s vastly entertaining novel Night Watch introduces readers to a parallel reality (centered in Moscow) in which good and evil constantly struggle to maintain a fragile truce, the disruption of which would literally mean the end of the world. This parallel realm, the Twilight, is visible only to Others–vampires, witches, magicians, shape shifters, and even particularly adept computer programmers–who have all pledged their allegiance to either the Light or the Dark. Light and Darkness monitor each other’s activities by way of their espionage-style agencies or “watches” (The Night Watch monitors the Dark Ones, and vice versa). While average people go about their days, the Others in both watches have their own responsibilities, namely complex operations and missions which might incrementally shift the balance, once and for all, to one triumphant morality.

Without any preamble or exposition, Lukyanenko drops the reader into a remarkably complex world with remarkably complex rules, histories, and problems. The three interconnected novella-length stories which comprise the novel–all narrated by the disillusioned but still idealistic systems analyst and low-level magician Anton Gorodetsky–are chronological, but there are significant time lapses between each tale. Rather than disrupting the narrative, these gaps actually reinforce the reality of this world: the characters all have lives and pasts that exist outside of the bounds of the novel.

The first story, “Destiny,” is by far the best, following Anton as he faces off with rogue vampires, identifies a young Other who isn’t yet aware of his own remarkable powers, and attempts to dispel a curse which, if left unchecked, has the potential to ignite another world war. The tale’s twisty storyline and fast pace have the feel of a particularly entertaining episode of an action-drama on TV: there’s romance, there’s danger, there’s an epic roof-top battle between dark magicians and hostage-taking vampires–when suddenly everything resolves itself quickly and cleanly, if a bit ironically.

“Destiny” is followed by “Among His Own Kind,” in which Anton is wrongly accused of murdering several dark magicians and, in order to clear his name, has one night to track down a ‘Maverick’ Light One on a homicidal rampage in Moscow. Among His Own Kind picks up threads of the the previous story, while upping the ante for action and creatively employed magical sleights of hand.

Unfortunately, Lukyanenko loses steam in the last story, “All For My Own Kind,” in which Anton spends far too much time lamenting the concessions that the Light must make in order to maintain the cosmic balance (apparently Communism failed due to a “little compromise with the Darkness”), and moaning about the futility of trying to save humanity from itself. (There’s also an excess of insipid Goth song lyrics throughout this installment.)

Nevertheless, with its labyrinthine storylines and abundance of fantastical creatures, this layered morality tale certainly delivers for the Halloween season. And avid fans will be able to further immerse themselves in the Twilight if they so wish: Night Watch is the first in a tetralogy of novels which follow Anton and other characters through their continued misadventures.

Headhunters

I recently wrote about Jo Nesbø’s stand-alone thriller Headhunters, which beside being a notable publication for enthusiastic fans of the author’s previous thrillers starring Detective Harry Hole, also caught my attention because all of the proceeds from its publication, subsequent translations, and film adaptations will go to support Nesbø’s literacy charity, The Harry Hole Foundation. I was, nicely enough, able to snag a copy of the book to review on late notice. My review of the book is on Reviewing the Evidence (here) or the full text is below.

It bears noting that Nesbø is an author that I just keep coming back to, even though I only like his work about half of the time (maybe less, actually). I find this interesting. I was relatively unimpressed with The Redbreast (which was wildly popular) and honestly, Headhunters wasn’t up my alley, either. But I just loved The Devil’s Star. I keep coming back to Nesbø because I really love his detective: Harry Hole is a complicated and interesting creation–some one that you root for, even when you don’t like him (or, in my case, don’t particularly like the plot line of the book he’s in). Perhaps the fact that Headhunters is a stand-alone without Hole set me up to be a little less taken with this novel, but I think I’m just not the Ideal Reader for this type of thriller. At any rate, I look forward to my next visit with Hole–last time I left him, it looked like things were on an upswing for him.

Without further ado:

Headhunters
By Jo Nesbø, Translated by Don Bartlett

Norwegian author Jo Nesbø has made a name for himself worldwide with the success of his crime thrillers starring the down-and-out detective Harry Hole. Arguably, most of the appeal of these novels is not in the creatively gruesome crimes and criminals that Nesbø creates, but in Harry Hole, whose raging alcoholism and determined self-destruction cannot completely obstruct the fact that beneath it all, he’s really, as Nesbø himself has said, “a Decent Guy.”

Roger Brown, star of Nesbø’s standalone novel Headhunters, diverges from Hole in all essentials. An arrogant, chauvinistic, and incredibly successful corporate headhunter, Brown moonlights as an art thief in order to supplement the decadent lifestyle he and his wife maintain, often stealing valuable paintings from the corporate candidates that he interviews for prestigious directorial positions. Brown is, as he tells us frequently, “king of the heap,” the best of the best: he’s never nominated a candidate for a position who has not ultimately been hired for the job. The secret of his success? The nine-step interrogation model developed by Inbau, Reid, and Buckley for the FBI.

Brown is not a “Decent Guy.” Not even his relationship with his wife Diana, who he very nearly worships, reveals a sense of compassion or real devotion. (Women in general are given rather two-dimensional motivations and weaknesses throughout the novel—as one man gruffly remarks late in the novel: “Oestrogen makes you blind.”) There’s almost nothing likable about Brown, and in some respects, that’s okay. Meeting his match in Clas Greve, a Dutch-Norwegian CEO superstar who also happens to own a priceless painting by Peter Paul Rubens, Brown finally has to really work not only to come out on top, but to survive at all. Unable to resist such a score, Brown steals the Rubens painting, only to discover that Greve has been an actual headhunter—trained by the Dutch army to track down drug dealers relentlessly through unfamiliar jungles. Here at last, is someone who is as ruthless as Brown. The reader is left to simply sit back and watch them destroy one another.

The ensuing chase and multiple double crosses are not for the faint of stomach—Brown’s attempts to elude Greve lead to some desperate, and in many cases, disgusting measures. For some readers, these episodes will be just farcical and gross enough to be amusing, but mostly, the latter half of the novel becomes sadly tiresome. Nesbø also can’t seem to commit to writing a strictly unlikable character, and develops a flimsy backstory for Brown which is meant to provide justification for his callousness and lead him to eventually reform his ways. What transformation does occur is rather flat, though, and Brown remains a pathologically self-serving and self-justifying man.

All the same, it bears noting that Jo Nesbø himself is a Decent Guy, and with the very successful initial publication of Headhunters in Norway, he created the Harry Hole Foundation, which gives out an annual Decent Guy (or Decent Lady) prize to deserving individuals to donate to the literacy-based charities of their choice. All domestic and international proceeds from Headhunters—including those from the film version that was made in Norway— will go directly to the Harry Hole Foundation, to continue to support literacy projects in developing countries.


Spontaneous Reads: Wonderstruck

Illustration by Brian Selznick, via the website of the Queens Museum.

On the incredibly enthusiastic recommendation of my mother and ten-year-old sister (my mom actually surprised me by sending me a copy of the book–that’s how much she wanted me to read it), I picked up Wonderstruck. I was not familiar with Brian Selznick’s previous novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but I will definitely be reading it now. This book was an absolute treat, and I finished the whole (rather extensive) book in two days–less than two if you consider that I was working/sleeping for much of that time.

Wonderstruck tells the two parallel stories of Rose, a young deaf girl in 1927 who runs away from her home in Hoboken to New York City, and in 1977, of Ben, a young boy from Gunflint, Minnesota who was born deaf in one ear and then loses hearing in his other ear after being indirectly hit by lightning in a rainstorm. After his mother’s death, Ben runs away to New York to find the father he’s never known. And although the two stories are separated by 50 years, they run surprisingly parallel throughout the novel, until they eventually–and beautifully–connect.

Selznick excels on so many levels: his pencil drawings are vivid and richly detailed, and are have an incredible nuance with light that I would not have expected from pencil drawings. He also has a very cinematic way of leading you through the visual part of his stories–he uses close-ups particularly well.

His writing is also fantastic–what a great vocabulary to find in a kid’s book! Selznick’s characters are full realized, three-dimensional people and he balances tough themes (a parent’s death, an unknown parent, loneliness, isolation, an inability to communicate) with a general sense of hope and well-bring. The children in both stories have their fair share of problems and need to both grow a lot throughout the story, but Selznick is able to capture these transformations without trauma. I didn’t spend the whole book worried that something terrible was going to happen to both of these kids on their own in New York City, without money or friends, or really any way of communicating with most people. I knew that they were going to be okay–that everything was going to turn out for the best. And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need from a book. Enough reality and seriousness so that it isn’t total fluff, but balanced with a general feeling of ease and enjoyment. These kids are, after all, both on huge adventures.

Illustration by Brian Selznick, via the website of the Queens Museum.

The other great thing about Wonderstruck is all the great references and intricate details. Selznick obviously did extensive research (his acknowledgments and partial bibliography in the back are impressive) and he’s not only folded in accurate portrayals of things like the Museum of Natural History in both 1927 and 1977, but also of the blackout in 1977, and tons of factoids about Deaf culture, wonder cabinets, and more. He’s got lines from “Space Oddity” by David Bowie all over in the first part of Ben’s story (loved that) and also–apparently–makes a lot of references to E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. (I haven’t read that book, but my sister is reading it right now in her 5th grade class and it is definitely on my list now.)

Selznick also makes me want to discover and rediscover parts of New York now. I want to go back and see all the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History and I finally want to get out to Queens and see the Panorama. And there’s a high commendation: a book that makes a jaded New Yorker get excited all over again about all the wonders there are in her city.

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It bears noting that an exhibition of Brian Selznick’s drawings from the book is ongoing at the Queens Museum until January: “Wonderstruck in the Panorama: Drawings by Brian Selznick.”

Also, in October, the website for the book will feature “a collection of brilliant essays written just for you by experts, illuminating the world of Wonderstruck.” Topics will include essays on New York in 1977, Deaf history and culture, the transition from silent to sound film, the inspirational source material of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and a piece on Hoboken by none other than David Levithan. Nice to see a book website that adds to the content in such a useful, interesting way.

Spontaneous Reads: The Imperfectionists

I had little to no preconception of this book before I started reading it: it was perched on a bookshelf at home, acquired via the good luck of having a boyfriend who edits a book section and has a lot of interesting books sent to him without ever even having to ask. The cover is arresting, but interestingly enough—since after all, it was the cover that led me to pull this one off the shelf—there really isn’t much to it. In fact, while the packaging as a whole is nice to look at (scrolling, scripty font, simple image, contrasting colors), it really tells you nothing about the book. There’s a brief phrase on the back of the paperback copy about “the topsy-turvy private lives of the editors and reporters of an English language newspaper in Rome” but otherwise, the cover is just chock-full of famous authors and notable reviewers clamoring over what a “beguiling,” “spectacular,” and “magnificent” book you have in front of you.

Luckily, they aren’t over-selling. This is a truly luminous debut—the word “dazzling” actually popped into my head within the first few short chapters. I ended up having some very real reservations about the book, but even so—Rachman is a gifted author and I really look forward to reading another book of his in the future.

The Imperfectionists is centered around the lives of the reporters, editorial staff, and (in one case) readers of an English-language newspaper in Rome. The Italian backdrop comes up on occasion, but seems more of a nod to the author’s own job history more than anything else—it could have just as easily been a newspaper in Vienna or Hong Kong if a little local color was changed here and there, and two of the stories (including the very first one) take place in other cities: Paris and Cairo. It can’t really be called a novel, but it also isn’t a short story collection. Rather, its narrative is explored over the course of linked stories. Characters who narrate one story show up as minor blips in others, and while the stories are ostensibly chronological—they are all dated and the circumstances of the paper (as an entity) develop and change as time goes by—each one exists very much in the specific life, circumstances, drama, and perspective of the person who narrates.

Each character is so fully realized and so precisely idiosyncratic that at first, before you really become aware of how unique each voice is, The Imperfectionists is actually rather subtle in its brilliance. Authors spend whole novels developing and fine tuning the specificity of character and depth of back-story and circumstance that Rachman establishes for each of his 11 narrators in the space of 20 or 30 pages. You get a glimpse of a whole world in each story, and while most of them could certainly be developed into longer, more elaborate portraits, Rachman generally knows when to end a good thing. For the most part—and there are two notable exceptions, in my opinion (more anon)—he knows what moment to end a story on, and when to leave a character. And that’s a difficult thing for many authors to figure out.

Rachman also has a great gift for managing the scope of his story by knowing not only when, but how to elide moments in time and skip seamlessly from one scene to the next. I frequently quibble and moan about books in which an author drops physical placement details or has a character pull something out of a bag that you didn’t even know the person was carrying. Consider these the ‘continuity errors’ of fiction writing. (There’s a passage in one of my least favorite reads of the last some-odd years that exemplifies this perfectly: in Peter Hoeg’s The Quiet Girl, a deeply ill man in a hospital bed is talking to someone in the room when suddenly he takes off a clown wig. It’s horribly jarring for no apparent reason—the reader was never told he was wearing a clown wig in the first place.)

What’s really impressive then, is Rachman’s ability to skip from moment to moment—across locations, sometimes even across days—without the transition feeling disjointed or abrupt to the reader. Much of the time, this is because of a really skillful set-up. For instance, in “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126,” the narrator, Arthur Gopal, is told in the first pages that he is going to have to go on a trip for work. In the next scene, he’s picking up his daughter (the strange and completely charming ‘Pickle’) from school, making her a sandwich, and then having a conversation with his wife:

Pickle hands him the remote and wanders off to her room. He watches her go down the hall, then turns to Visantha. “You know what she told me today? She doesn’t remember the twentieth century. Isn’t that terrifying?”

“Not particularly. What are we doing for dinner?”

“Pickle,” he calls down the hall. “Any thoughts on dinner?”

The secretaries book Arthur to Rome from Geneva by rail, a ten-hour journey with connections in Milan and Brig. Supposedly this saves money on a short-notice flight but is a colossal nuisance for him. He boards the early train at Stazione Termini…

That sudden hop to the work trip should be jarring—there’s no page break, no real transition. It’s not even the same day. But the reader has already been well primed for the transition, so it works really elegantly.

While Rachman is a gifted writer and a great storyteller, there are moments when he falters. For instance, he doesn’t show the same depth of understanding (I don’t think—people have disagreed with me) in Ruby Zaga’s story—she’s hated by almost everyone in her office and after her story finishes, you’re not sure that they’ve actually missed something. She seems a rather flat creation compared to previous ones.

Abbey Pinnola gets similarly disregarded, although the shortcomings of her story actually touch on what is the larger problem in The Imperfectionists, a problem which doesn’t really take hold of the book until a pattern starts emerging about three quarters of the way through. And that’s that Rachman seems to have an odd predisposition for sad, ironical, and often mean-spirited punch lines.

Allow me to clarify. Although almost all of the characters in the book are fully imbued with what can only really be termed “humanity,” very few of them are sincerely likable people. Or at least people that you can like without feeling at least a bit of pity for. This is honestly fine. I do not require my characters to be good people or necessarily likable people for me to be invested in their story. The problem is that Rachman sets them up—much like bad jokes. He gives them something or someone to love, to be entirely dependent on, or he gives them a really profound weakness. Then he emphasizes that thing or person or weakness so that you know just how important it is, just how much the character would be crushed if the object of affection or obsession were removed. And then, almost without fail, he takes it away. In a rather brutal, pitiless fashion.

There’s not necessarily a good reason for this, either. In one or two cases—in one of my favorite of the stories, actually—the Profound Loss (as I’ll call it for lack of a good example that wouldn’t spoil a whole story for you) does work. But in many of the stories, it’s just strangely mean and predictable in that sort of devastating-irony-of-fate way that only happens in books or movies that are much, much worse than The Imperfectionists. Which makes it all the more perplexing.

But honestly, it’s still a book I would recommend to almost anyone. Which is quite an accomplishment.

Spontaneous Reads: Northanger Abbey

I now find myself in the unexpected position of having read half of Jane Austen’s oeuvre. Let it not be said that people’s carved-in-stone literary tastes and opinions cannot change. Having once thought Austen to be one of the most deadly boring authors to have been perpetuated upon us (up there with Dickens), I now find her novels as witty and engaging as I always found those delightful BBC mini-series adapted from them. (I still think S&S is a little contrived in places, but never mind that for now…)

Northanger Abbey is an interesting entry in Austen’s work for a variety of reasons (and I’m cribbing these details from the Foreword/Afterword in the book–due credit). Let’s list:

1. It was Austen’s first novel, written when she was 20(ish), and sold to be published in 1803. However, for reasons that apparently escaped the author at the time, the novel was not published until a year after she died, in 1818.

2. Where Austen is said to have assiduously rewritten all of her manuscripts (almost obsessively), Northanger Abbey remained in much the same form from the time of its writing to that of its publication. She even wrote a note to precede the text when it was being finally prepared for release that apologizes (in witty, ironical fashion) for the fact that it was now rather out of date with reference to fashion and styles because it had been intended for publication over ten years earlier.

3. Jane Austen, the author, is all over this book. She includes a variety of opinionated asides about novel reading, her heroine’s lack of understanding, the tricks that a young woman must employ to secure a man’s attentions, etc. They are jarring little rants, and all a little po-mo for the time, but quite delightful in that she doesn’t really seem to have any interest in restraining herself.

Those are the main differences, at least in terms of the novel’s general style and publication. But there are also a few other notable points which occurred to me as I was reading. For one, there’s the fact that while there is certainly a romance involved in the novel’s plot, it isn’t the central focus of the book. The titular abbey, home to Catherine Morland’s love interest, doesn’t even make an appearance for the first half of the book. Rather, this is a book about a young, good-hearted, but generally naive, woman growing up and if not becoming cynical, than at least becoming a little more aware of the inclination of most people to act in self-serving and not entirely upstanding ways.

Northanger Abbey feels very contemporary in some of its relationship dynamics–it feels (and the updated packaging does underscore this) very much like a Chick-Lit book. I jokingly commented while reading this that a better title would be Frenemies in Regency England, and I think that actually still rings true. Catherine meets and instantly becomes entwined forever and ever BFF-style with the desperately cynical and conniving Isabella Thorpe and her more-than-equally rakish brother James. Isabella manipulates and lies to Catherine, pretends to put her needs and feelings above all else while constantly lying to her face and attempting to overthrow any other friends that Catherine might make. It’s a vicious power dynamic–particularly to any gal who lived through grade school friendships–and one which certainly features prominently in a variety of contemporary lady books. I’m not an expert on the genre, but people who are (hey you, Georgia!) have affirmed for me that a central element of chick-lit books is the main (female) character’s process of becoming an independent, self-confident, and self-actualizing (forgive me, it seems an appropriate phrase) person–often while working through a difficult, and somewhat demeaning relationship with a close female friend. And that, is Northanger Abbey in a nutshell.

One last thing that bears mentioning is that where the other Austen novels I’ve read (P&P and S&S) are all really emphatic about the fact that the actions of one’s family (or connections, to be Austenian) have every bit of bearing on the way that that individual is treated. Your sister elopes with a soldier and lives with him out of matrimony, and you–the upstanding virtuous sisters–are toast. No one will marry you ev-er because your sister’s trampy and your mom is a money-grubber or your father died and your step-brother isn’t interested in introducing you to proper society. This always seemed to be one of the more terribly unfair aspects of matrimonial rituals in these novels. As if anyone can escape having one or two people in the family (and extended family) who they aren’t totally proud of. But in Northanger Abbey, this your-family-does-wrong-thus-you-are-besmirched thing doesn’t really hold. Henry and Eleanor Tilney acknowledge (tacitly, I’ll grant) that their father is an overbearing, rather hateful fellow, but they specifically distance themselves from his behavior as having nothing to do with them, and other people (including Catherine’s family) accept that. Same goes for their brother, the “rattle” Captain Tilney. He acts dishonorably, and they accept that, but don’t see it as being material to their standing as people. It’s obviously men in question in these examples, so maybe that’s the difference, but given that Eleanor Tilney fairs pretty well, it still seems a pointed variation to other Austen novels.

And with that, I’ll just close with a quote that tickled me early on in the book, although it’s not really a key moment–just touching in a bittersweet sort of way:

“Her love of dirt gave way to an inclination for finery, and she grew clean as she grew smart; she had now the pleasure of sometimes hearing her father and mother remark on her personal improvement. ‘Catherine grows quite a good-looking girl–she is almost pretty today,’ were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.”

Spontaneous Reads: The Adults

I recently picked up The Adults, the debut novel by (my Fort Greene neighbor) Alison Espach. I won’t bother with the preamble, because my review ran rather long. For variant perspectives on the book, check out the two book reviews that were published in The New York Times and New York Times Book Review just last week:

Coming of Age with a Quick Wit and a Sharp Eye” by Janet Maslin.

and

Growing Up Fast” by Alex Kuczynski

My own (informal) review is below.

***

I heard about Allison Espach’s debut novel, The Adults because, as a resident of Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Brooklyn herself, she was going to be reading at my local bookstore. Her novel–and its heroine, the disenchanted fourteen-year-old Emily Vidal–seem to promise a fresh take on that oh-so-recurrent plotline: Rich Girl from Connecticut Isn’t Buying It and Rebels. So I went down to the bookstore and grabbed a copy off the shelf, just to give the first page a test-read, of sorts. And within several paragraphs, I was sold:

“They arrived in bulk, in Black Tie Preferred, in one large clump behind our wooden fence, peering over each other’s shoulders and into our backyard like people at the zoo who wanted a better view of the animals.

My father’s fiftieth birthday party had begun.

It’s true that I was expecting something. I was just fourteen, my hair still sticky with lemon from the beach, my lips maroon and pulpy and full like a woman’s, red and smothered like “a giant wound,” my mother said earlier that day. She disapproved of my getup…but I didn’t care; I disapproved of this party, this whole at-home affair that would mark the last of its kind.

The women walked through the gate in black and blue and gray and brown pumps, the party already proving unsuccessful at the grass level. The men wore sharp dark ties like swords and said predictable things like, ‘Hello.’

‘Welcome to our lawn,’ I said back, with a goofy grin, and none of them looked me in the eye because it was rude or something.”

It’s a good start, right? To me, the kind of start that promises crisp prose and creative dialog, and a young character who, in typical bildungsroman fashion, is going to learn that society–and the adults who live in it–haven’t figured everything out, and are (as she already thinks) frauds and just muddling around themselves, but she can still find an acceptable place for herself–either in or out of this world, as she chooses.

For awhile the book holds to this preliminary promise: Emily is told right before the party that her parents are getting divorced and her father is moving to Prague for his job. This is delivered, again, with great aplomb: “‘Your father and I are getting a divorce,’ my mother had shouted at my back that morning as I went upstairs to bathe for the party. My mother believed that…bad news felt better when it came at you fast, from behind, like a bullet.”

But if that piece of news doesn’t upset Emily’s world enough, her father is discovered to have been sleeping with the next door neighbor. And then the next door neighbor’s ailing husband kills himself–while Emily watches, from afar–and then the next door neighbor ends up being pregnant, with Emily’s half-sister.

This all happens within the 75 or so pages, and is, I think, an extreme overloading of Dramatic Plot Elements. One–maybe two–of these elements can start a book, can be the genesis of a character’s growth and development. More, and it sort of becomes like watching a soap opera, and the elemental punch of all of these emotional events diminishes until the author really starts losing credibility.

But Espach doesn’t stop here, she keeps piling things on. She creates a few semi-horrific scenes exemplifying the cruelty of high school students (as if we forgot), such as an attempted nose job in an unattended science class on a universally mocked and hated teen girl. And then, Emily–at 15 now–begins a sexual affair with her 26-year-old English teacher. This affair will be recreated throughout the novel, at four year increments, as Emily gets older. And while she seems to recognize that their ‘relationship’ constitutes statutory rape, she romanticizes this man throughout it all and continues to be manipulated by him well into her late 20s in a rather disturbing fashion. And we’re not dealing with a psychological masterpiece on par with Lolita here, so really–it’s just kind of ridiculous. She introduces the teacher to her father in her mid-twenties as her boyfriend, and when the father recognizes him as a teacher from her high school, the whole thing merits some tears, but really gets shrugged off rather quickly.

All of this is unfortunate, because one can easily see that Espach has talent. She has a great way of compressing and mixing chronology–allowing Emily to drift into memories of the past while going through something in the present, or pausing in the middle of a present event to fast forward into a character’s future. And she has a real sense for teenage characters–their speaking patterns, their simultaneous fascination and horror with sex, their vulnerability and the ease with which they are frequently written off or ignored by adults. As a great example of both, look at the Halloween-in-Spring dance scene: Emily dresses like a “super-hot kitten” and another girl as a “slutty banana.” One of their friends is taken to the hospital for drinking too much vermouth before the dance, but Espach assures us mid-scene that her life will go on and still be rich despite this troubling episode:

“An ambulance was sent for Martha, who would eventually be fine, who would never drink that much vermouth again. She would become the president of the Spanish Club and get into the University of Rochester, where she would lose her virginity to a thirty-year-old from Cork, Ireland.”

In the end, however, everything comes full circle, and this is the most irritating thing of all. The book begins at a party, and ends at a party (of sorts) in the same house in Greenwich. Nothing much seems to have changed. Which just makes the whole reading experience that much more exhausting.

Spontaneous Reads: Fables (Deluxe Edition)

There have been a number of spontaneous reads on my book list thus far in 2011. I generally like starting fresh in a new year, before my ‘obligatory’ (which does not mean not enjoyable) book list starts filling up. One of the surprise reads of 2011 is a graphic novel series called Fables, which I had the good luck of having suggested to me (thanks, Chelsea!) after the long-running series had started being collected in lovely ‘Deluxe’ editions. The series started in 2002 and is suffused with the creator Bill Willingham’s enthusiastic love of storytelling and yarn-spinning. I’ve quite enjoyed it, and while graphic and visual-based storytelling is not generally my bag, I think I’ll be making an exception for this series. Here’s a short ‘review’ of the first Fables Deluxe edition, including the “Legends in Exile” and “Animal Farm” plot arcs:

A friend of mine who is very immersed the graphic/comic world suggested that I would really enjoy this series, and brought me the Deluxe edition to get me started. I finished the first book in two nights, which is somewhat unusual for me, since even though reading a graphic novel may not actually take as much time as reading a text-based story, I generally go slower with visual storytelling. The first two arcs in the series are fantastic, though, and the artwork is not only beautiful and dynamic (including the fantastic cover art), it really leads you through the panels and the story in a natural, snappy fashion.

The general premise is this: some centuries before, a powerful force only known as “The Adversary” systematically went about invading and eradicating the mystical worlds inhabited by fable characters. First, the Emerald City was attacked, then Narnia. When those domains fell, the Adversary went about rounding up and attacking the rest of the fables, forcing the survivors–including the Big Bad Wolf (now known as Bigby Wolf), Snow White and Rose Red, the Three Little Pigs, Little Boy Blue, Prince Charming, Bluebeard, Brere Bear, Shere Khan and many others–to relocate to two new dwellings in upstate New York and Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A transition government has been established in Manhattan–ostensibly run by King Cole (the ‘merry old soul’ guy), but really overseen by Snow White and her deputy lawman, Bigby Wolf. Those magical creatures that can’t pass for human, however, are relegated to The Farm upstate, which eventually creates no small amount of chaos for all the undercover fables.

The plot lines are rich while not be terribly complicated, and since their unfolding is quite a lot of fun, I won’t spoil it for anyone. Suffice to say that in the first two arcs, there is a murder investigation, an assassination attempt, a planned fable coup, kidnapping, romances gone awry, and much other adventurous drama. I’ll definitely be continuing with this series.