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).
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.
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.
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.