Book Reviews #39, #40, #41, #42, #43

I've finished two more books since I announced my recent reads, so I'll try to keep these reviews short, though I'm not always good at that. Here goes:

Review #39
by Nicola Monaghan
(Scribner, April 2007)

I have to admit this is one of those books that induced a groan when I got it in that Jiffy Pak mailer. Maybe it was the candy pills on the front cover, or the back cover copy comparing it to Irvine Welsh's TRAINSPOTTING. THE KILLING JAR looked like a sneering, adolescent, gratuitous drug trip of a book; not my favorite genre, as it tends to combine the self-dramatizing, overwritten prose I first encountered in my high school literary magazine with the self-righteous, damn-the-man self-destructiveness of drug culture. 'Scuse my snarkiness – I'm just not the Trainspotting audience, I guess.

But Nicola Monaghan's story of growing up screwed up on one of Britain's "council estates" (suburban low-income housing projects) surprised me. Maybe it was the Nottingham dialect that pulled me in (sample sentence: "It must of been summat what you did") – it's hard to write dialect that's both readable and feels authentic, and Monaghan never crosses the line into impenetrable caricature of lower class British speech. This is probably because she grew up on the council estates, a fact which I imagine will be used a great deal in marketing the book.

But the biggest draw of the book was the narrator, Kerrie-Ann, known as Kez (in that weird and charming British nicknaming tradition that makes Madonna into Madge). She's a tough, smart kid, into science, especially butterflies, who because she's born to a heroin addict turns her brains to the only business she knows: dealing drugs. After an extremely brief childhood, Kez rides the wave of the rise of Ecstasy and raves to a cosy little business with her childhood friend and lover Mark, taking care of her little brother John. Her mother's boyfriends treat her badly; her mom disappears; she's seduced and dumped and has an abortion at 14. But she gives as good as she gets, and does some pretty horrible things herself. She's believable and self-aware, not always sympathetic, but always readable, and a far cry from the self-justifying, overdramatizing teen I was expecting. She knows her life is crappy, even when she's having fun, and struggles with competing desires to get ahead and to get out. This is a literary novel about the equivalent of the ghetto, and it's infuriating and heartbreaking as real poverty and addiction and unnecessary violence can be. It won't be out until spring, but if it sounds like your thing, bug Scribner for a galley – Monaghan is the real thing.

Review #40
by Joann Sfar
(First Second Books, September 2006)

I'd been meaning to read this since the supernice folks at First Second Books agreed to have Joann Sfar come to our store for an event – everyone seems to agree he's the best thing in French cartooning right now (and it's quite a scene, has been for longer than comics have had cred in the U.S.) I read it in an evening and it's SO good. This is Part 1 of a saga set in Eastern Europe and Russia between the World Wars, and begins the story of a group of misfit klezmer musicians playing in the Jewish towns and cities of the continent. Sfar's drawings seem looser than the ones in THE RABBI'S CAT and VAMPIRE LOVES (both of which I've glanced through with pleasure), which adds to the sort of dreamy folktale feel of the story, where characters' appearance and surroundings can shift subtly from panel to panel.

It's an energetic, often funny story, but it begins with a massacre: bandleader Noah Davidovitch is the only survivor (a Biblical trope?) when a rival klezmer orchestra kills all of his bandmates. He gets his revenge in a very Jewish folktale way, and as he leaves town is joined by a pretty, forceful girl who prefers the romantic itinerant singer's life to her boring hamlet. Then the action skips to a promising, but disgraced (and very cute) yeshiva student, who wanders into the world having given up on God. He meets a much more neurotically dedicated student who has also been expelled, and the two of them accidentally rescue a persecuted Gypsy. Turns out the Gypsy is a guitarist, the neurotic a virtuoso violinist, and Cute Yeshiva Kid knows some good Jewish songs. They make their way to Odessa, which in this book has a very Casablanca air of romance, and of course are bound to run into Noah and the singer.

Sfar somehow gets the music of the klezmer bands into the book, filling whole page spreads with no dialogue except the onomotopaiec (ha! spelling) sounds of the instruments and swirling, dancing revelers. There's so much life and energy in these pages, and also the deep melancholy of anti-Semitic persecution and a feeling of abandonment by God. Sfar's mother was an Eastern European Jew, and he's clearly deeply invested in this culture; at the end of the book is an impassioned essay on safety, terror, and the contemporary world. I can't wait to meet the author of this rich text; it's highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the medium, the time period, the music, or the culture – or anyone who loves a swinging good read.

Review #41
by Nell Freudenberger
(Ecco, September 2006)

Let me admit that I was a little lukewarm about Nell Freudenberger's short story collection LUCKY GIRLS when it came out in 2003. I read the whole thing, and met the author at a reading (who was rather shy but super nice and professional), but I thought it was fine rather than great, and joined the throng of skeptics who wondered if she got famous just because she was young, cute, and worked at the New Yorker. (But I felt the same so-so way about the much-touted INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri – maybe I've got some weird prejudice against multicultural short stories by women.)

But a recommendation from a fellow bookseller (thanks, Amanda!) made me pick up Freudenberger's novel THE DISSIDENT anyway, and it's freakin' great. If you haven't heard all about it, it's the story of a Chinese artist, famously jailed in his own country as a political dissident, who comes to the U.S. and stays with a well-off (but seriously messed up, of course) Los Angeles family while teaching art at a girl's school and preparing for the first U.S. showing of his work. Ironically, I think a lot of its strength comes from the sense of an artist meditating on the arbitrariness of artistic fame, and the half-truths, plagiarisms, self-betrayals, and poses that can be part of the process for even the most talented and sincere artists and works.

The sometime narrator and eponymous dissident "Yuan Zhao" is a retiring sort who feels something like guilt for the acclaim he's getting in the U.S. (and the reasons for that become more and more clear to reader and characters as the book progresses). His story is his own, and the suggestion of the clash of Chinese and Los Angeles cultures is well done but never over done (a strength of Freudenberger's which I'm always impressed by). But I couldn't help thinking of him as in some ways a stand-in for Nell herself, rather baffled by the acclaim she's received and wondering how on earth she can live up to and follow up on her early success. All I can say is, she's done herself one better – if the first book's success was partially a fluke, this one is entirely deserving of praise. (Ironically again, the reviews haven't been entirely favorable.)

There are some loose ends that I wanted tied up – the Los Angeles mother's abortive affair with her brother-in-law, the son's offstage violent episode and new Hispanic girlfriend, and some other stories that seemed begun but abandoned when the dissident's own story became too interesting to leave. But I finished the book with a great sense of satisfaction, the kind that comes when a story has left your heart aching at its sadness and confusion and injustice but with a saving remnant of hope, and a new understanding of an idea or two. Is copying a master a talent equivalent to creating something original? Is it art because the artist says so, or because someone is paying attention? What good are good intentions, and what obligation do we have to those who don't appreciate our efforts? Are there other satisfying roles besides that of the artist?

Me, I think so. The gallery owner, the teacher, the Mrs. Dalloway-esque housewife – those are the artists that appeal to me, making a space for original work to grow and be noticed. Maybe that's one of the reason's I'm such a fan of this book. Nell Freudenberger, unlike her characters, doesn't need to act like an artist or live an "artist's life". She is a serious artist, and potentially, a great one.

Review #42
Edited by Jacquelin Cangro
(Plume, September 2006)

I missed the website (, which is kind of an open forum for telling true tales of subway life, inspired by a conversation the editor/webmaster had with friends over a Thanksgiving dinner, everyone trying to top the other. But I love the idea and the book. Some of the pieces in here I've read before and loved – Jonathan Lethem's "Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn", Colson Whitehead's "Subway" chapter from COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK. Some are from favorite writers I hadn't heard on the subject – Vivian Gornick, Calvin Trillin, Francine Prose, Johnny Temple. But the majority are from writers I've never heard of, who as far as I know could be the guy across from me on the D train, and that's what makes them great.

Riding the subway for a New Yorker takes up a big chunk of life, and sometimes the most interesting one. Usually, it's reading time (and I read a lot of this book on the subway, which was kind of meta). It's also where you encounter your fellow citydwellers at close quarters, for better or worse, and that makes for a lot of good stories. I love April Reynolds' theory in her essay that
"every New Yorker has his or her own private stock of cocktail party-worthy subway stories that fall into three major groups: the stinky story, the Good Samaritan story, and the scary story. These are broad categories that can conflate or morph at will."

I'd add the preacher story, but the basic theory holds. This paperback original may be the perfect collection of such stories. They're like the best of Studs Terkel-style themed oral history, except written by real writers, and all immensely readable.

Riding the subway for New Yorkers is part of our identity, I think. One of the reasons I moved here (or rather, stayed here) is that I hate driving, and I've traded it for an experience that's new every day, for better or worse. I'm grateful to Cangro for making space for these stories to be told outside the cocktail party. They're great fun, and only as long as my commute. I hope there's a sequel.

Review #43
by Cornelius Medvei
(HarperCollins, April 2007)

I hate to end on a down note, but this was the only one of my recent reads I found disappointing. I'd had it mightily pitched to me, and it seems like the sort of thing I would like given my love for FIRMIN: a brief, illustrated chronicle of the city life of a persecuted talking baboon. But unlike with FIRMIN, I ended up thinking it was a mistake to publish this work as anything other than a quirky short story. The journalistic description of Mr. Thundermug's education, housing, romance, arrest, trial, and happily ever after were told with such a deadpan brevity that I didn't have time to feel anything about it. Actually, I read this in one sitting at a bar while waiting for a lunch date, and didn't even mention it to them when they arrived.

In its defense, the character of the City where Mr. Thundermug lives is more interesting than the character himself; it reminds me of the hybrid all-city of the brilliant animated movie TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, which was supposedly a composite of Paris, New York, and Montreal. This city is a more ancient English one, but seems to have elements of Indian or Southeast Asian ruins and North American technological dependence. It's a strange and fascinating place, and makes for a melancholy, whimsical little book. It wasn't exactly to my taste, but maybe it will be to yours.

Happy reading!


CRwM said…
On the current events front, First Second's American Born Chinese is the first comic up for the National Book Award. Wired magazine has already sounded off that comics don't belong in the running. Comic Book Resource has actually agreed. Where does Book Nerd stand on the issue? Are comics ready to be considered novels?
Book Nerd said…
I think in this particular case, American Born Chinese is perfectly qualified in the category in which it was nominated -- that is, Young People's Literature. It's as mature and accessible as anything else in that category. As for comics in the adult literature section, I'm not sure -- maybe it would make more sense to create a category for graphic literature instead. While I think many comics/graphic novels are indeed literature in their own right, the qualities involved are so different from straight-up prose that it's kind of like comparing apples and oranges. So, yes to comics winning NBNs, but a tentative no to having them go head to head with Richard Powers.

Anyone agree/disagree?

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