Book Club Book Reviews

At the end of September 2012, my husband and a few of our friends started a small book club. Like most plans conceived while drinking spiked punch around a bonfire, our dream of a unified go at mild intellectual betterment no longer seemed as glowing to all parties come sobriety, and our ranks dropped to three: me, my husband Ben and our pal Jeff. It’s been a lot of fun, talking about books and genres and arguing heatedly about Stephen King and eating homemade pizzas. And since I’m always meaning to be better about blogging and book reviewing, I thought I’d give a rundown of the titles we’ve convened over so far. Links to my (often lengthier) full reviews are available by clicking on the title of each book.


★★★ Book One: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn : I’d be a bit embarrassed to admit that this was my pick, but group voting was involved, so we’re all culpable even if I did bring it to the table. Snobbery aside, it’s a perfectly entertaining crime drama (says the girl with the distaste for crime drama) with far more discussion points than the average episode of CSI. Told from the alternating perspectives of a husband and wife at odds, Gone Girl releases key information in the disappearance of Amy Dunne and the couple’s turbulent marriage in doses small and well-timed enough to keep you wondering, if not who dunnit? than certainly what next? and how much deeper can Nick Dunne dig his own grave?. Its most obvious and focused theme is marriage, and the question of how well you can ever really known someone, but Flynn rounds the whole thing out with commentary on the state of publishing (both Amy and Nick are out-of-work writers) and loose ties to Tom Sawyer to make it standout from more generic genre fare. Gone Girl takes a strange (and for me, unsatisfying) turn at the end, making it feel more like an open-ended horror story than a closed-cased mystery as the door to their Hannibal, MO home slows closes on a couple that, in the end, really deserves each other. 3 stars from me, though bigger crime/mystery fans will love it, as it’s unending stay on the best seller’s list proves. This might sound like a jab, but I recommend it for in-flight reading. Page-turners are great for bored brains. Not the best fodder for book club discussion, though we managed.

★★ Book Two: Daniel Fights a Hurricane by Shane Jones : Now here’s a discussion book! Sure, I hated this book. I just wanted to throw it across the room. But passions, one way or the other, make for lively discussion, and so Daniel Fights a Hurricane proved an enjoyable discussion piece if not a pleasant reading experience. Of course, I don’t think Jones aims to write a pleasurable story here. He doesn’t write a story at all. Daniel is an experience, not a narrative. To read it is to take on the role of a mentally ill, hallucinatory man with a fear of hurricanes, a pipe-building obsession, and a longing for his ex-wife. The experience of madness I can appreciate –– the power of words to transform and transport and all that –– but what I can’t abide is the haphazard execution I’ve oft seen mistaken for poetic language. I was left to wonder if the author’s only objective was to confuse. There are nuggets here though. I have no trouble believing that Jones is an ideaS man, if nothing else. There are delightful elements littered throughout that I can see Jones jotting down excitedly in a notebook. Iamso, the traveling poet cum fortune teller who has the ability to tell you how you feel, is an endearing character and a really comical companion to join you on a quest. I like him very much. But the thing is, Daniel reads like someone at Penguin got hold of that great “IDEAS” notebook and accidentally published it before Jones ever got the chance to write a story. In one word: tedious.

★★★★★ Book Three: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole : So funny I didn’t even laugh. I was dumbstruck the whole time, and thought about underlining every other sentence. The blurbs on the back of the book, for once, are not hyperbolic endorsements, but truths. The Washington Post calls it “epic comedy”; Newsweek, “astonishingly good, artful high comedy”; The New Republic, “one of the funniest books ever written.” All true. To review is almost futile.

From page one: “Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.”

You know exactly who Ignatius J. Riley is from paragraph one. You recognize this guy. He’s the nerd with no social graces. The genius with no ambition. The pampered slob, hypocritical elitist, self-involved jerk, blind to his own path of destruction. You love and hate him in equal measure. You can’t help but admire him a bit, for being so unfazed and unapologetic in his quest to serve himself (or just his own appetite), yet he is also the eye of a tornado, carelessly destroying the livelihood and sanity of everyone around him, from his own mother, to his bosses, to casual acquaintances. Even a professor from year’s prior still suffers from his relationship with Ignatius. You’re equally glad this book exists and that you will never actually have to meet this man. The comedy is so artful, the characters and plot so satisfyingly cyclical and connected. It’s a literary Arrested Development, in many ways.

★★★★★ Book Four: Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories by Karen Russell : To bother stating, at this point in her career, that Karen Russell writes beautiful, wildly creative, impossibly smart sentences is just redundant. It should be widely accepted fact. I read another review that stated she must arrange her sentences with tweezers, and I loved that visual. I imagine it can’t be too far off from what her actual writing process look like. Not that she makes it seem like work but, rather, that her stories are so expertly crafted and convincingly placed, that you can’t help but acknowledge how researched they are. In Vampires in the Lemon Grove I think she (and surely this is a credit to her editor as well) has not only grown in her story telling, but vastly in her restraint. My only complaint with her excellent novel Swamplandia! was that it was so thick with artful sentences that it felt uncomfortably dense at times. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is equal in its art, and so much more confident in its easiness.

There is an eeriness and poignancy to much of this new collection that lies in wondering how much of each tale is real, imagined, or metaphor. Fear, of vampires, of monstrous women, of the walking dead, or omen birds, or war or missing boys works purely for entertainment, of course, but those fears also speak to feelings of wanting and regret. It is a quietly creepy collection, but a thoughtful one. And there is humor, for sure, and not just in the story about presidents trapped inside the minds of horses (and yes that is the basis for a story.)

Even when I didn’t love a story –– when I thought a setting wasn’t “my thing” –– I was impressed by it. Take the final story, The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis for example: I didn’t quite get why these kids kept returning to the scarecrow, why Larry was so obsessed with it. Like Larry’s pals, I got tired of checking in on the damn thing after so many visits. But by the end? I’m haunted by its symbolism. My least favorite story taught me that unkindness is its own curse, that we can never undo the bad things we do to each other. Even if our victim moves on, we carry the scars of our own cruelty. My least favorite story was that successful. And my favorites? They made me question eternal love, feel the pain and confusion of losing oneself by imaging myself a monster, a slave, a horse, and scared the begeezus out of me so badly I had to pull back the shower curtain to make sure nothing was going to jump out at me in the middle of the night after reading Proving Up (a story so good even my very discerning husband deemed it “the best American horror story since Sleepy Hollow”). In short: an impressive collection of strange and spooky stories that will convincingly place you in new cities, time periods, even species and you will believe it all because Karen Russell does her homework.

Joy Williams wrote a pretty excellent review for the New York Times Sunday Book review that I recommend. In it, she says “Fiction is by definition unreal, and Russell takes this coldly awesome truth and enjoys fully the rebel freedom it confers.”

And that brings us up to date! Next on the agenda: William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!.


Land of Legends

Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my all-time favorite stories. On some basic level, it’s one most American’s know; it’s the story of a headless horseman who chases some doofus-looking guy named Ichabod through the woods. It’s legend has become our own and it’s a staple of the fall nostalgia routine and any decent Halloween movie marathon.

Most of us are probably familiar with the various film adaptations — most notably Disney’s Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad, a 1949 animated musical narrated and sung by Bing Crosby, and the 1999 Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie — and personally, I enjoy each of them. I love how Disney nails Ichabod’s strange proportions and beak-like nose, and I welcome Burton’s gore, witches, and dreamy, withered sets. Still, the story itself is what I love best, though it’s much quieter and much less about heaving jack-o-lanterns than the films would have you think, as I discovered reading it for myself the first time, standing behind the counter at Books of Wonder on a particularly slow fall afternoon. The text is full of descriptions of people and New England, of Ichabod’s strange visage and massive appetite (“He was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda”; one of my favorite lines), and the quiet, “drowsy, dreamy” Dutch community with it’s atmosphere of whispered rumors. It’s just a little bit about a crazy Hessian riding around with his own decapitated head on the pommel of his saddle, and even less about tossing said head like a mother elfin’ shot-put. The edge-of-your seat rustle of excitement as Ichabod and his scrawny horse Gunpowder navigate the woods at night, startled into the worst kinds of thoughts by the snapping of branches and screech of an owl, is short and comes at the very end. But you need that calm before the storm to really enjoy the chase when it happens, I think. Besides, Irving’s language and observations are so enjoyable; so funny and perfect in their concise understanding of fear and love and idleness, I hardly care what happens at all, really. And so I pick it up at least once a year, every year, around Halloween-time and love it all over again.

A beautiful edition of the book is a must. I’m a big fan of my Arthur Rackham illustrated hardcover Books of Wonder edition with glossy full color plates and tons of black and white drawings throughout. The Rackham illustrations are beautiful in an spooky fairytale way, though not a literal depiction of events for the most part. Instead the art matches the story’s mood, with witches and devilish imps are sketched into the landscape and trees that come alive in monstrous, contorted ways and seem to follow beak-nosed Ichabod about town. They give a definite sense of foreboding… …but why am I talking about Arthur Rackham before sharing my own illustration? That’s not an act I wanna try and follow, and my own interpretation was, in fact, quite literal.

All of this is to say that I love fall, and I love New York and the Hudson River Valley, and Washington Irving, and pumpkins and Halloween, and book covers, and especially this story, so, so much. So I thought I’d have my go at illustrating a poster or hypothetical cover. I sketched and made notes while reading to try to clear my mind of movie images and focus strictly on Irving’s own descriptions, and I based my bridge on this photo of the purported one from the story. And… well, here it is…

Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in this stirrups and in the very act of hurling his head at him.

So what am I doing with this bad boy? Well I’m trying to get it on a Threadless t-shirt and I’ll need your help. I’ll post a head’s up when the shirt is open for voting, but in the meantime I welcome you to view my design on the Threadless website, and “like” the beegeezus out of it! The background is slightly altered so to stays within the color budget for printing. You can check it out here.