Saturday, February 01, 2014

BooksFirst - January 2014 - NaJuReMoNoMo

Books Bought
The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh

Books Read
Daemon by Daniel Suarez
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
The Rules of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis

Books Heard
Loser by Jerry Spinelli
The High Place by James Branch Cabell
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

National Just Read More Novels Month which I run every January encourages people to read as many novels as they can in the 31 days of January. This year I managed to only read two, but I did listen to three, which I also count. This edition of Books First also covers two books I read in 2013 which I forgot to catalog on my year end round up.

The first of these is a cybertechnothriller set in the near future. Daemon unfolds when a brilliant but mad computer game programmer dies under mysterious circumstances. However, strange things continue to happen seemingly guided by his hand beyond the grave. Daniel Suarez's novel is told through the viewpoint of a couple of characters entrapped by his cyberweb. One, a cop is framed for other nefarious reasons. The other is superhacker who gets lured into an organization with sinister goals.

The story is very fast paced even as it stretches credulity at every turn. Science fiction relies a lot on hypercompetent people, but the ones in Daemon would make Heinlein wince. Underlying it is a lot of crypto-libertarian philosophy about government and freedom and choice. It's really unclear which side of some of the rants the author is coming down on but they make for intriguing discussion.

The second leftover from 2013 is A Long Way Down which got inexplicably overlooked since I am such a huge Nick Hornby fan. In this one, the narrative gimmick that Hornby uses is four interweaving first person narratives of a group of people that all independently wanted to commit suicide. They are in turn a disgraced TV show host, a spoiled rich girl, a failed American musician, and the mother of a special needs teenager.

Each of the four people has secrets and baggage which get unpeeled slowly over the course of the book. However, not all four are equally intriguing. This makes the book uneven overall and drags some sections down. Part of the narrative force is watching them open up to each other Breakfast Club style while seeing them get on with their lives.

Hornby is always intriguing to read but here he is stretching muscles and showing off just a bit. But still a good fast paced thought provoking read.

My first novel of 2014 was Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen. Hiaasen has toned down some of his excesses to good effect. The story opens very similarly to his first novel Tourist Season with the shark gnawed arm of tourist floating up. But there has to be more to the story if this is to be a Hiassen Florida Gothic novel, which it is.

The hero is former Miami cop on a downward spiral in a petty feud with his Florida Keys neighbor. He is the only one willing to track down the arm which is hard to do as a restaurant inspector. He is joined by a slightly kinky medical examiner and the usual cast of Florida oddballs.

The story is uproariously funny whether you are familiar with the Keys or not. The book does aim for a sensibility that is more 'realistic' than many recent Hiaasen novels were he seemed determined to top himself again and again for outrageousness and the book is better for it.

In the 80s I read all the hip enfant terrible writers of which Jay McInerney was the spiritual ringleader. I read Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis but never delved deeper into his oeuvre.  I finally got around to The Rules of Attraction which is now a period piece rather than cutting edge expose.

Told in overlapping first person narratives, the story covers several months in the lives of oversexed and overmedicated college students at an expensive rural liberal arts college not unlike Bennington where Ellis went. The main story revolves around a romantic triangle between two guys and a girl which is different in that none of the three realize they are in a triangle. There is a lot of drama involving overdoses and bad sex and parents who just don't understand.

Even with the passage of time, it's tough to reconcile the sheer debauchery depicted with any realistic trajectory of the 1980s as wild as they were. The list of drugs these students take is literally encyclopedic. And there needs to a level of randomness below casual to describe all the hook-ups. IIRC, Spy Magazine was published the definitive chart of who had slept with whom and it just looked like someone scribbled all over the page.

However, it is compelling storytelling with biting prose. It's just not that interesting a story.

A staple of elementary school literature is Loser by Jerry Spinelli about the travails of a kid who just doesn't fit in. The audiobook is narrated by Steve Buscemi who seems particularly suited for this story. The loser hero is Donald Zinkoff, a kid who marches to a drummer so different he might as well be in a band on another planet.

The story is sweet without being cloying as it details his troubles fitting in. He likes school perhaps a bit too much. He is painfully nonathletic and cluelessly oblivious to the taunts of his classmates. However, the book avoids taking the easy way out at a number of turns.

I can see why this book is so popular in schools. It is easily understandable without being preachy. Zinkoff is a character kids far less dorky than him can relate to. One can have worse role models.

I had never heard of James Branch Cabell but the audio version of The High Place carries the endorsement of and forward by Neil Gaiman. And the book does have a certain Gaimanesque sensibility. In a magical 18th century France, the son of nobleman enters into a pact with the devil to win the heart of a sleeping beauty he saw briefly as a child.

But nothing quite turns out as it seems and supernatural contracts always have catches. What makes this novel interesting is how wryly cynical it is. The hero is a self-deluded philanderer whose wives tend to die under mysterious circumstances. For a novel written in the early 20th century, it is slyly bawdy and deeply sacrilegious.

There is also a certain self-knowing sense that is slightly reminiscent of The Princess Bride, although much darker. It makes for a very interesting story in context by a writer who seems to have been forgotten.

Jonathan Safran Foer is a very ambitious writer and in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close he tackles the World Trade Center attacks and its aftermath on the child of one of its victims. Told in three intertwining first-person narratives between Oskar Schell and his grandparents. Oskar's narrative which is much of the book is both highly sophisticated and full of childish stylistic flourishes, not the least of which is the repetition of 'incredibly' and 'extremely'.

Oskar finds a hidden key and decides to find what it opens in hope that it reveals something about his lost father. There are a lot of odd plot holes that all seem to get eventually resolved but there is a certain tidiness to everything which is just too perfect.

The grandparents come from Dresden which is of course the setting of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. The book borrows or steals a major conceit of that book which is either a touching homage or outright theft depending on how charitable you want to be towards Foer. I'm not certain I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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