REVIEW: Of Love and Other Demons

Gabriel García Márquez. An author who has continuously entranced me with his vibrancy and ability to balance the surreal and real. An author I have committed myself to because he had me at “hello” (I reviewed him last year as well: The Story of a Ship-Wrecked Sailor). But, as with all relationships, the honeymoon phase had to end at some point and now we get down to the nitty gritty.

Don’t get me wrong, Of Love and Other Demons exhibited many of the qualities which led me to fall for Márquez: an air of mystery, passion, ­­­and fluid writing. Yet, I was not fully invested in the plot. I started Of Love and Other Demons about 3 times in an attempt to determine if my current mood was the factor deterring me from becoming engaged. However, as it transpired, the novel never grasped me.

Much like my feelings towards The Sound of Things Falling (legit spent about 10 minutes coming up with that title because it left such a little impression on me), I can’t quite put my finger on why I couldn’t connect with this novel. I find this to be frustrating. As I hope I have made obvious, I like to be able to support and express my opinions with clarity. I believe my discontent was a mixture of a few things:

  • The balance Márquez generally creates was off; typically, the fantasy Márquez adds never detracts from the ability of the reader to accept that his stories are capable of existing in reality, it merely enhances them. The fantasy Of Love and Other Demons enhanced the narrative a bit too much for my taste. 
  • I was disinterested in the characters. They are well constructed, but I was apathetic to their fates. I can’t work out why.
    • As a result I was indifferent to their relationships. And since the novel’s main focus is on the relationship between a young girl and a priest, this was an issue.
  • You know I’m seriously struggling sorting through something when I start making lists. (Holy alliteration, batman)

So for now I will go with: well written book, still a fan of the author, the general concept just wasn’t my cup of tea.

 

Rating: 3.5 Rabid Exorcisms

 

REVIEW: Invisible Monsters

Last year I did not tackle any of Chuck Palahniuk’s collection, though I did mention my constant struggle with him in my review of Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction as follows:

“I absolutely adored Fight Club, but none of his other novels has met that bar. Yet, I keep reading him. While I do enjoy most of his works, I am frequently left with a less favorable aftertaste, as they are not as well executed as Fight Club. My extreme love for Fight Club possibly warped my ability to fully enjoy the rest of Chuck’s collection.”

 Invisible Monsters is the closest I have come in my Palahniuk adventures to thoroughly applauding his genius as I did with Fight Club. Closest but still no cigar.

The heart of Invisible Monsters is a beautiful one; an exploration (albeit a twisted, graphic, and gory one) on the struggles of self-identity and body image and the difficult (Tarantinoesque) journey to becoming the person you want to be. The characters, though beyond heightened, evince kernels of universal truths. The overall plot line, engaging and quirky. But. But. But. It just gets to be too much, Chuck. Chunks of the novel involve road trip like expeditions with 3 of our main characters, and after a certain number of these excursions I was done with them. Yet, they kept trucking along. Similar in essence to the road tripping adventures of Humbert Humbert and Lolita, but instead with a newly disfigured former model going through an existential crisis, a pill-popping transgender woman who is the glue holding it all together, and a fairly unnecessary jerk of a guy. 

When the Prozac Nation tour isn’t occurring, we are jumping back and forth in a convoluted time line of our mutilated model. While this backstory ultimately ties some loose ends together, it is once again, TOO MUCH, and hindered my empathy towards our anti-heroine as opposed to enhancing it.

All of that being said, Palahniuk executed the ending of Invisible Monsters masterfully (a trait he often lacks), and, as mentioned before, the overall arch and concept is strong. 

Though this wasn’t quite kissing another Palahniuk frog, it still wasn’t the prince I’ve been hoping for.

Rating: 3.5 Brandy Alexanders

REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury is an incredibly talented writer who touches on important life and cultural themes with empathy, poise, and unique style, which was ahead of his time. Knowing these aforementioned qualities to be true, I had an inkling Fahrenheit 451, a book I missed out on during my schooling, was going to leave a deep impression on me (especially in today’s political climate.) Unfortunately, my gut was a tad off on this one.

This is not to say I renege on the praise and appreciation I have for Bradbury; or that I don’t applaud his tackling a daring subject. Fahrenheit 451 simply didn’t leave as deep a mark on me as other dystopian novels of its kind (1984, Brave New World). I considered the possibility that this was a result of the order in which I happened to read these novels; perhaps had I read Bradbury’s  451 first, it would have left a more profound imprint. However, while the reading chronology may have been a contributing factor in my attitude, I don’t think it is the main issue. It is the execution of the ending that disappointed.

Though I don’t have a general preference as to whether novels have uplifting or bleak endings, I do have strong feelings on the manner in which conflicts are resolved. Bradbury nailed it for about 2/3s of Fahrenheit 451, but the last third is a smidge too contrived compared with all that came before.

I fully comprehend why this is a frequently read and beloved novel. I appreciate the themes and take aways from the work (man’s ability to learn from his mistakes is always one that gets me). Although I think Bradbury is a national treasure, Fahrenheit 451 simply wasn’t the hit to the heart I was searching for, so my rating is on a more personal level not a technical one.

Rating: 3.5 Taboos

REVIEW: Tribe

The subject matter of Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is risky, enticing, and captivating. Junger approaches the issues returning Vets face (PTSD, assimilating back into society, etc.) from the viewpoint of “how has society failed them?” rather than “what has war done to them?”

Junger takes you on a journey through civilization starting with the American Indians up to present day; exploring the flaws in modern society as a result of the lacking sense of community in the modern western world.

Junger poses many fascinating theories, and writes with beautiful sensitivity on the topic; one he clearly feels strongly about on a personal level.

I took issue with Tribe (brace yourselves now) for the following reason: it should have been 150-200 pages longer. Yes. I just said that.

As great as it is to find a non-fiction book on a heavy subject to be a quick paced, short read, a lot of specificity is sacrificed.  The theories Junger poses and explores are presented in generalities. It is obvious he could have included more compelling evidence (which I’m sure he has, since he is clearly well-versed on the topic).

Restructuring the piece (I, of course, have thoughts on how this could be accomplished) in a way that allowed for more details would have made it meatier without losing its accessibility.

I have been struggling with how to rate Tribe; Junger is a stunning writer who definitely knows his s**t, it’s a subject matter I personally think is vastly important and Junger poses an innovative viewpoint, but the weakness in structure is a huge issue. Tribe would serve well as a jumping off point for further investigative reading.

So, please be aware that I have reserved the right to change the rating below.

 

Rating: 3.5 Heroes

REVIEW: Frankenstein

I have been looking forward to reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for quite some time. Unfortunately, I am sad to report I was a bit let down.

Although the general plot is quite beautiful, and the character of Frankenstein’s Monster entirely fascinating and unique, I was never able to get on board with Shelley’s style. Thus, I have mixed feelings regarding the novel. Additionally, I wasn’t sold on the intended take away from the novel. While the focus is on Frankenstein’s lesson learned, a stronger, and more interesting focus would be on what the reader takes away from the Monster’s experiences. Shelley also includes a lot of superfluous plot (and I don’t mean over descriptive writing, just flat out plot, so it doesn’t count as a redundant critique on my part!), taking away from the real meat of the novel.

The story is unique, but the flaws were a bit too distracting for me. It just wasn’t my cup of tea…just a half cup.

 

Rating: 3 Laboratory Mishaps

REVIEW: The Invention of Curried Sausage

Uwe Timm’s The Invention of Curried Sausage is a quirky little gem.

My biggest complaint (figured I’d get it out of the way) is with the translation. I did my research, and many of those who read it in both the German and English feel the same way. Every so often the phrasing would throw me, taking me out of what was otherwise a nostalgic ambiance.

 On to the good!

Timm weaves a captivating tale alternating between the end of WW II and the present; a story related in flashback by the book’s heroine, Lena Brucker. While the search for how curried sausage came to be created is the catalyst for Ms. Brucker to divulge her untold saga, it is not the main focus of the book.

Timm does a beautiful job of capturing the desolation, desperation, and romance of the 40’s. Although some aspects of the narrative are a tad contrived, you easily get sucked into Lena Brucker’s past (which I preferred to the present). The present day portion of the story, while not as engaging as Lena’s memoir, does provide a clever prompt. 

I enjoyed The Invention of Curried Sausage; it’s a quick and refreshing read, but it isn’t high on my list of recommendations. Something about The Invention of Curried Sausage never fully clicked with me.

 

3.5 Bowls of Mock-Crab Soup

REVIEW: Ways of Going Home

I had a conversation recently (for the life of me, I can’t remember with whom. Hoping it wasn’t myself) about a mutual love of Latin American authors and why their writing touches us so deeply. Of course, every author has their own unique style, but there does seem to be common threads in how various Latin American authors portray civilization. Perhaps the amount of political upheavals and changing ideologies, in many Latin American countries, exposes the population to different views of life and humanity, from a very young age. I believe going through times of political and/or personal struggle highlights not only the dark side of humankind, but also the light. Latin American artists seem to have a high capacity for amplifying that light, along with an appropriate level of humor.
Alejandro Zambra amplifies well in Ways of Going Home. While I took some issue with the structure of the novel, the core is  compelling. Zambra employs a touch of meta in his structuring of the novel. The sections in Ways of Going Home switch between the novel itself, and the story of the main character’s writing of his novel (a little Calvinoesque). Basically, Ways of Going Home contains a novel within a novel. Using this technique is interesting. But. I was much more invested in the main character’s novel than in the “real life” sections. Yes, the “real life” narrative enhances the reading experience to a point, but, the novel could easily have stood on its own as a novella. Still, the heart of the piece continued to beat throughout and Zambra does a wonderful job of exploring relationships.
Will this be a book which stays with me? Probably not. Would I test Zambra out again? Very open to. Would I recommend Ways of Going Home to others? Absolutely.
 
Rating: 3.5 Meta Moments