Sunday, December 4, 2011

November Round Up


It's been a while since I've actually read enough in a month to write one of these round up reviews. I also suspect that a few of these books will end up in the Tournament, and writing about them now will help me remember them in March. Of course, we've already discussed The Marriage Plot, Traffic, and the last Succubus book (I think I put that in a comment? or an email? I can't remember).

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This short novel--novella?--won this year's Booker Prize. I don't know if you remember this, but one of the ways I started reading "serious" fiction again was maybe 2 years ago when I made a New Year's Resolution to read the major award winners every year. For my purposes, that's the Booker, Pulitzer, National Book, and National Book Critic's Circle awards along with the winner of The Tournament of Books. Last year was a weird one: A Visit From the Goon Squad won 3 of those, and I hated the other 2 winners. The Booker winner was The Finkler Question. I actually couldn't finish the National Book Award winner, Lord of Misrule. I'll finish anything, so this is saying a lot!

The point, I guess, is that I picked this up because it was a winner. It's a good premise: a man relates some key moments with his teenaged friends. Then, 40 years later, that past comes back to haunt him when he receives a strange bequest from the estate of a woman he barely knew. Thematically, it has a lot in common with A Visit From the Goon Squad: what is the impact time has on our lives and on our memories? What is it like to go back and see yourself differently and to be faced with proof that your version of events might not be the truth?

The book  is sparse---only 170 or so pages. But the sentences are quiet and I found myself reading carefully. Tony, the narrator, is a lonely character. He's in his 60s now and he looks back on his life and wonders if he's been playing it safe. The author does a great job with old Tony looking back to young Tony and realizing that he's not the person he thought he was. Tony discovers he didn't fully understand everything that happened to one friend, and he works on uncovering the mystery. But it ends up being more of a trick ending that feels forced rather than a natural extension of the plot or this inner conflict Tony faces. It's not a bad book, it's just got a weird ending for what it is.

Personally, these books with the "time and memory" theme are a bit difficult. As we have previously discussed, my memory stinks. And, I just don't feel quite old enough to be *that* nostalgic about my youth. Don't get me wrong, I have moments of looking back and feelings of regret, but it's just not something that speaks that strongly to me at this stage in my life.

The Leftovers by Tom Perotta
Darrell and I were driving along one day when Tom Perotta appeared on some NPR show to talk about his latest book. It basically has the best premise ever for a novel: it's after the Rapture. One day, millions of people just disappeared all at once from the Earth without a trace. This is the book about the people that are still here...the people that are the leftovers. The cover's great---the whiff of smoke coming out of the shoes is brilliant.

I liked this book. It centers on a few families in one small town: there's one woman who lost everyone in her immediate family and she's the only one left. Another family is completely intact. Either way, these are individuals who are left to search for meaning in the world when it's been made clear to them that they haven't made the cut. Some resort to new and strange cults while others try to soldier on as normally as possible.

I don't know if I think the author successfully carried off the ending. The situations of the characters are sticking with me, but for the life of me, I can't remember a single character's name. But I think *the idea* of the book was quite powerful: no one can know the mind of God, no matter what your faith or affiliation. We're all just guessing and trying to make a good life of what remains. 

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo
One of the reasons I picked up this book is because right now my students are reading a novel called House of the Scorpion. In this sci-fi novel set in a not so distant future, the entire country of Mexico is gone as a result of a series of drug wars. Even the US has not escaped unscathed as it has given up land along its Southern border for the creation of a new country called Opium, where drugs can be legally grown. This all sounds completely far-fetched right? Well, El Narco presents the terrifying reality of life in northern Mexico today---a place where 40,000 people have died since 2005 as a result of the drug trade. I've been pretty interested in knowing why that's going on, and this book addresses the whole issue. It was fascinating, despressing, and more than a little scary.

The author is a reporter originally from the UK who now lives in Mexico City and reports on drug trafficking. He's a pretty good writer and he seems to know his stuff. Occasionally, I though he could use a good editor. The first time he compared a car destroyed by machine gun bullets as looking like a cheese grater, I though it was brilliant. When it happened again 20 pages later, I was surprised nobody caught it. There's a lot of cliches and hyperbolic descriptions, but ultimately, that didn't matter to me too much. It was interesting enough that I was able to get past my annoyance with the overblown writing style. It's hard to blame the guy for writing passionately---this is a book about  gangs of drug lords who are brutally sadistic. These are folks who once human heads across the floor of a disco to make point to a rival gang.

And on that gruesome note, it's off to December!

PS. I got my $100 gift certificate from my win in the mail yesterday. I'm going to try and resist spending it right away. I have LOTS of TBR books. It's a little distressing. Might be time to start working on next year's list of 14. That might make me feel better.


  1. Hi Jenny,
    For the record if I were picking the Tournament winner last year, I would have given the prize either to 'Room' or 'Swamplandia'. I thought 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' was good but not as good as the above two. Actually the book that I thought was the real winner last year wasn't even in the Tournament. You will find out which one that is, if you read by 'Best of Year' list which I will publish next Sunday.

  2. Tony,

    I think Swamplandia! is a contender for *this* year's tournament! It came out earlier this year. I haven't read it yet, but it's on the docket for my upcoming winter break.

    I will definitely look for your list. I love lists! Thanks for the heads up.


  3. I'm intrigued by The Sense of an Ending and also love the cover of The Leftovers (kind of a hilarious name, too.)

    I just finished listening to 11/22/63 and I absolutely loved it. My favorite Stephen King is when he writes non-horror (or mostly non-horror -- It was technically a horror novel, but what made it great was the characters and their relationships) and this one was fantastic. I know very little about the Kennedy assassination, so I hope that King reported faithfully because, well, all I know about it, I learned from this book. Beyond that, the story and characters were great. Loved it.

    Meanwhile, I am waaay behind now on the TBR front. Gotta catch up!

  4. Wow, I've been really interested in 11/22/63 but the sheer size of it seems so daunting. That book was made for Kindle, that's for sure! I saw a copy of it in hardback in my school library and it's huge! Or did you listen to it? The audiobook must be soooo long! I am very curious to hear about which way you went with that.

    Meanwhile---only 8 more days until I see you! Whee!

  5. Audiobook, baby. It was 30+ hours and the narrator was great. Also, the whole thing finished with music, which [without giving anything away] was absolutely *perfect* and I'm so glad I listened to it (vs. reading) if only for that. (Side note: sometimes books begin or end with music that seems unrelated and it kind of bugs me...)

    I was immersed in that book over Thanksgiving weekend, while we cleaned out the basement for 4 days (still not finished -- we're disgusting). I finished last week and haven't even started a new book, because it's still lingering in my mind and I don't want it to end.

    It was a slow start, but once it got going... oh, yeah! I *loved* the characters and the relationships. The main guy was great and the narrator totally nailed his voice, as well as the voices of all of the characters in the novel. Including, and especially, the women characters, which sometimes doesn't work so well for a male narrator.

    Even though I think the narrator really added something to this book, I'm sure it would also be a good read -- it reminded me of It and I loved that book so much (there is even a cameo of the town where It was set, as well as a couple of the characters, which made me happy). In fact, after listening to this one, I thought, "I should read It again... or maybe even listen to it!" I'd have to check out the narrator first, though.

    My other favorite King book was co-written by Peter Straub -- The Talisman (referred to earlier on this blog, I now recall -- I recovered it from a kid named Gabe our freshman year on locker cleanout day!) I just looked at audible and that is actually narrated by Frank Muller, who narrated The Sea-Wolf, which I loved. Hrm... might have to give that a listen. Oh! (poking around on Audible here...) Perhaps I finally need to check out The Dark Tower series -- I've never read it, but everyone raves about it and, after Book 1, Frank Muller is also the narrator there. Hrm.

    Sorry... went down a shopping-for-my-next-audibook rabbit hole there. Bottom line: 11/22/63 is great. As a bonus, you get a little history lesson, because Stephen King did a ton of research.

    I will see you 1 week from tomorrow!! YAY!

  6. The Sense of an Ending and The Leftovers both sound really interesting to me - I've had them both on my wish list since pre-release. I'm glad to read these good comments about the new King book, too, as I've just posted that as one of my "Ten Books to Gift" this year... haven't read it yet, but hoping I can gift it to someone who'll read it and then let me have it! Lol

  7. Jen - I couldn't agree more about *The Sense of an Ending*...the ending seemed a bit forced and surprising (not in a good way) for my taste. I thought it was beautifully written, but I was craving a bit more plot...and fewer "musings" from Tony, who I didn't actually care for as a narrator. I also didn't care for the way Veronica treated the whole will situation - how nasty she was, sending the page in the diary, odd lunch date, etc - she was playing too many games...unappealing even for the terrible situation she was in. Anyway - no regrets...a short, solid read!