Middlesex: A Review

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
544 pgs, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 2002

Whereas I, even now, persist in believing that these black marks on white paper bear the greatest significance, that if I keep writing I might be able to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar.

Oh family sagas, you are my cup of tea. On the occasion you utilize a postmodern voice that tends toward the embattled label of hysterical realism you become my crack. So effective is your snare that as the cover of Middlesex closed for the final time a now familiar sentence slipped from my mouth “that was the best book I’ve read in a long time.” Just how high in Trevor’s Pantheon of Greats—on your left ladies and gentleman you’ll see our Authors gallery if you look carefully you can just make out Novels to the right—remains to be seen.

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license…records my first name simply as Cal.

Fascinating as that opening is Cal’s story is but a portion of this bildungsroman/epic. Over five hundred and some odd pages Cal traces his family’s adventures over continents and three generations. What family secrets and courtings could have led to the peculiar genetic hand he’s been dealt?

I have a feeling another author tasked with this story of secret hermaphroditism and incest would have crafted a character study and made the external mundane—by repressing the individuality and inner turmoil of others and more than likely muting nature— to emphasize the protagonist’s upheaval of the self. Instead, Eugenides somehow possesses enough authorial magic to both give just service to Cal as well as guide all of the Stephanides through a mesmerizing plot. It’s a treat to watch how the family handles every sort of environment, from villages in the shadow of Mount Olympus or riot-ridden Detroit, to Californian brothel or Detroit mosques, or finally to Calliope’s last summer as a girl and Cal’s romantic woes in Berlin.

Now, glowing praise aside, I must point out Eugenides’ one flaw: he has only published three novels. Lucky for me, a latecomer, his first story collection Fresh Complaints, is set to be released later this year. You can bet I’ve already pre-ordered it and impatiently await its arrival. In the mean time I’ll try not to use it as my latest yard-stick for determining future ratings.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Obscure Objects
Up next: The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

Ilium: A Review

Ilium by Dan Simmons
725 pgs, HarperCollins 2003

Ilium is a work of vivid imagination. In its interplanetary scope and off-the-wall plot is what all speculative and fantastical fiction should strive for.  Even with the Iliad as the jumping off point and the Tempest to guide plot elements Simmons managed to create the unexpected in every chapter. I do not exaggerate when I say this is the strangest novel I have ever read.

In the first 150 pages:

-An old-style human is eaten by an Allosaurus in what once was Ohio.

-Zeus rides from Mars, yes Mars, on a quantum-powered chariot and lances a spaceship—carrying four robots from the moons of Jupiter—to smithereens with a lightning bolt.

-A 21st century Homeric scholar, tasked with observing the Trojan War and noting discrepancies between reality and what the poet recorded, has decided to make war on, and destroy, and the gods.

And that’s just the beginning. Ilium also has Moravecs (robots) obsessed with Shakespeare and Proust, Greek gods that use quantum technology to teleport and terraform Mars, and Little Green Men that erect statues of Prospero along the Martian sea.

There are two ways to take the above. Does it sound ridiculous? Then congratulations, you and my friends now share the same opinion. Very quickly a routine developed between my girlfriend and I over the two weeks I read Ilium. I’d laugh or gasp at the insanity, relate the unrelatable, and then watch as she walked from the room.

Does it sound strange but awesome? Then you’re like me! (I’m so sorry.) I advise you to read the seven-hundred pages and relish in its oddities. Only then can you spend weeks wondering if it was actually well-written and thus worth it to read Olympos, the conclusion of the duology, or if its novelty was its main attraction.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Allosaurses

Up next: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Nutshell: A Review

Nutshell by Ian McEwan
197 pgs, Nan A. Talese 2016

I’ve taken a break from the fantastic, the unbelievable; no magic here. No wizards or swords, scullions or prophecies. Nutshell‘s narrator: a sentient fetus enlightened by his mothers voracious consumption of podcasts and his poet father’s tendency to erupt in spontaneous readings.

“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

With such parents life might be easy but of course without conflict this book would not exist.

“It’s in me alone that my parents forever mingle, sweetly, sourly, along separate sugar-phosphate backbones, the recipe for my essential self. I also blend John and Trudy in my daydreams—like every child of estranged parents, I long to remarry them, this base pair, and so unite my circumstances to my genome.”

The ancestral home is in disarray. For reasons unaware to our narrator Trudy has cast John from his London manor. Trudy further strains her bond with her unborn son by soiling his beloved father’s memory by replacing him with a banal, cliche-ridden lover: Claude, none other than John’s brother. Together the pair plots to murder John, sell the London manor, and live off the millions.

“Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.”

The murder of a family member; tragedy in most scenarios. Imagine the sorrow here. Not yet a part of the world but already exposed to its evil. (Write this book one hundred years earlier and its major theme would be: has evil been imprinted on the innocent? Is he destined to be monster?) Compound that exposure with the inability to act and you’ve got among other things, a page-turner.

Nutshell’s concept, its gimmick, sounds ridiculous. It certainly is; I admit, that’s why I picked it up. Don’t let that dissuade you reader of realistic fiction. It would’ve been easy for Nutshell to come across as contrived. A worse, pulp-fiction author may have given our narrator undue agency, the ability to influence on the world. Rest assured McEwan treats us with more respect than that and delivers a novel well worth reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5 spiked smoothies

Up next: Ilium by Dan Simmons

The Dragonbone Chair: A Review

Cover art by Michael Whelan

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
672 pages, DAW 1988

The Dragonbone Chair is pure and simple: perfect fantasy.

One book into the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy I’m a fanboy. Williams hooked me with his prose—something that doesn’t happen as often in fantasy as I’d like. Its not lyrical like Patrick Rothfuss, isn’t a pastiche like Susanna Clarke, and isn’t whimsical like Bradbury. Instead its… for the lack of a better term: immersive. My friend deemed it slow, but what he took as drudgery I saw as deliberate pacing and a superb construction and explosion of tension.

The world of our hero Simon, more than Roshar, Westeros, or Annares, fills my head and tickles my imagination. Williams is meticulous in his rendering of Osten Ard. (Notice, the blatant absence of the term ‘worldbuilding’. Recent pieces like Electric Literature’s Against Worldbuilding and responses such as Emily Temple’s on Lithub In Defense of Worldbuilding have cast doubt on my usage. I’ve found points of merit in both but am still working out a cogent reconciliation.)

I’m not alone in proclaiming The Dragonbone Chair‘s mastery. The cover of my edition is emblazoned with blurbs from three of my favorite fantasy authors. George R. R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Christopher Paolini all sing its praises. I know, I know, I can see it now. “Paolini?” you say. “The Eragon author? A favorite?” Yes. Him. The sword Brisingr and dragon Saphira provided some of my happiest reading.

Okay, back on track. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn had a clear influence on all three author’s famous series. Don’t believe me? Here’s a few off the top of my head…

-The dragon slain (Well, supposedly. Let’s see what Morgenes’ history reveals about the fight.) by a young Prester John in The Dragonbone Chair is named Shurakai. In Eragon the evil Galbatorix’s twisted dragon is Shruikan.

-As in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire the true threat to the realm of Osten Ard comes from an immortal, long-forgotten foe from the wintry north.

-Thorn (Memory, Sorrow, Thorn), Dawn (ASOIAF), and Brisingr (Inheritance Cycle) are all forged from fallen stars.

Maybe I’ll make a list of parallels when I get to the next doorstopper in the series. That’ll be a bit yet. I’m forcing myself to take a break before jumping into the sequel Stone of Farewell. Not to expand my horizons or try something new; no, nothing so stimulating. This imposed hiatus serves only to reset my brain and pull it out of Osten Ard, to make sure I bathe, eat, and drag myself into work instead of devouring the entirety of the series in one go. When I’m not daily pondering whether the Ice Worm survived or imagining Morgenes life before the Hayholt I’ll know its time to return to the magic of Osten Ard.

Rating: 5 out of 5 White Arrows

Up next: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

The Builders: A Review

The Builders by Daniel Polansky
219 pages, Tor 2016

When my roommate comes to me with a book recommendation I move it to the front of the list. “The Builders,” he said, “is like adult Redwall. Its got amazing cover art and ends with a great joke.” Alright, I’m sold.

Carnage abounds in this tale. The Captain, a small field mouse, gathers his former team, now outlaws scattered over the country, for one last mission—one of revenge. Each war-hardened member has its merits but I fancied two in particular: Bonsoir, a French stoat who’s a heartless killer that, of course, wears a beret and Cinnabar, a salamander that draws his six shooter fast enough to make Billy the Kid look like an infant fumbling with a plastic gun. If those short descriptions aren’t enough to make you want to read this I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

Do yourself a favor on an afternoon when boredom closes in around you and you need a pick-me-up. Embrace the badassery of Barley the Badger, the eeriness of Elf the Owl, and the terror of Boudica, the sniper opossum.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5 BONSOIR!(s)

Up Next: The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

I’m Thinking of Ending Things: A Review

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
210 pages, Simon & Schuster 2016

This book is all sorts of messed up.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things was quite the change of pace. My friend Erin, who gifted me this book for Christmas, loves all things mystery, murdery, and twisted. I, on the other hand, am not typically a reader of thriller/suspense books unless it involves good ol’ James Bond but I’m willing to give any book a shot.

The structure of thrillers always throws me off kilter. I find it difficult to get into their rhythm. The short sentences.

The small chapters.

Large margins and font so you turn the pages more frequently.

Everything is life

or death.

This time around I successfully tuned myself in to the right station after about twenty pages. It was well-written and the story was intriguing but the execution fell short in the end. The final ten pages were a flurry of emotions. I was simultaneously exhilarated and confused—too confused, even considering how much the premise lends itself to confusion (curse the generalities forced by avoiding spoilers). After finishing, I went back and reread the last ten pages twice and it was still just as convoluted as the first time.

Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you like staring at the wall in confusion after finishing books. If so, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is for you. If you want a short, fast read that will make you say what the fuck? you’re in luck.

Rating: 3 out of 5 creepy paintings

On deck: Builders by Daniel Polansky

Currently reading: The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

American Gods

Everyone who knows me knows I love reading. That makes gift giving occasions simple. This Christmas, as always, friends and family unloaded their favorite recent reads. Now, almost two months into the year I’ve decided it’s time to put a dent in it. The next three weeks post’s will feature these books.


I had high hopes for Neil Gaiman. Several people very dear to me adore his work.

It is unfortunate then that I wasn’t a huge fan of American Gods. The best, albeit inarticulate, reason I have for this is that it didn’t ‘click’ for me. Throughout the novel I encountered small—at times insubstantial—issues that prevented the usual full immersion I enjoy while reading.

My number one issue: lack of deep mythological knowledge (let it be said however, that I found it blatantly obvious Shadow was Odin’s, a.k.a. Wednesday’s, son Baldr). I was never an ardent student but so many phrases or names invoked the tip-of-my-tongue response. Wherein, I felt like I should know more about whatever it was I had stumbled across. Time and again I couldn’t help but belittle myself for not knowing certain characters. “Wait. Who’s Bast again?” or “Oh Odin… I know about you. Wait… I guess all I really associate you with is Anchorman.

That lack of knowledge, given time, was easy enough to push past. What I could not get over was the writing. Too often I found Gaiman’s prose stifling and overly direct, a touch too on-the-nose for my taste. In response I told myself that what Gaiman seems to excel at is story, not writing. For, despite the occasional writing idiosyncrasies I continued to turn the page (and not solely because it was a gift or out of habit).

Yet even as I told myself this I knew I didn’t believe it. The story just wasn’t memorable. It has now been only two weeks since I turned the last page and I can’t even remember the climax. (There was a battle and… it ended, somehow). As a whole the novel felt stilted. It felt like a bunch of interesting set-pieces that were poorly woven into a story. Sure, I remember Johnny Appleseed and the taxi driving ifrit but I’ll be damned if I can remember how they relate to Shadow and the main through-story of the novel.

In short, I didn’t know what to make of this American Gods. Don’t take the above for a harsh reprisal of the novel. That I didn’t ‘get it’ doesn’t mean it was by any means a bad book. Moreover, Gaiman won’t be a one-and-done author—otherwise my girlfriend might kill me. Good Omens sits on my bookshelf and I expect I’ll pick it up late this year.

Rating: 3 out of 5 old gods

On deck: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

Currently reading: The Builders by Daniel Polansky