World War Z by Max Brooks

Forgive me, this review will be quite short. I’ve fallen behind on writing and need to catch up a bit. My ninth book was World War Z by Max Brooks. While I do like good science fiction, I haven’t yet been ensnared by the now prolific zombie apocolypse genre. This book, though not a favorite, does make me wonder what I’ve been missing.

Brooks does a brilliant job framing this book. It is not a straightforward narrative, but a collection of stories that when pieced together paint a picture of the zombie problem around the world and over the years. The overarching narrator is largely absent, though he appears to ask questions and prod along each sections narrator. SImply put, it’s a collection of interviews, but within each chapter the speaker tends to speak pretty freely and it feels more like short stories than a back and forth conversation. Continue reading

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The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

Aside from the occasional short story, I hadn’t read much Updike before this. The Rabbit novels have been on my list for some time, but you know how that goes. I’ll get to them one of these days. I snagged a paperback copy of The Witches of Eastwick cheap at the used bookstore and decided to dive in.

What I liked most about the book is its oddball, imaginative plot. In Eastwick, a sleepy, seaside Rhode Island village, three close female friends, all divorced, spend their days in mostly mundane ways: gardening, walking the dog, gently neglecting their respective children. Thursday afternoons are reserved for drinking, snacking, and gossiping. Though Updike never truly details the extent of their witchy powers, it becomes evident that these three women are not quite normal (and later, it is revealed that any divorced Eastwick woman has similar powers). They mostly use their powers for silly things: conjuring a thunderstorm to clear an obnoxiously crowded beach, turning tennis balls into toads, or casting a spell on an annoying Eastwick woman so that whatever the witches toss into a ceramic jar falls out of her mouth (feathers, hatpins, dust bunnies, etc.). Continue reading

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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

It might be obvious by now that lately I’ve been partial to young writers. Karen Russell is a favorite, and Dave Eggers is an obsession (though he’s not that young anymore). I heard about this book a year ago, and put it off for awhile. I’m now kicking myself for that. The Tiger’s Wife is one of the best, most unique, breathtaking books I’ve read in a long time. Téa Obreht brings even more prestige to this seemingly overflowing talent pool of young fiction writers.

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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I’ve read this book before. I will read this book again, probably many times. Writing an overly positive review without sounding too schmucky is hard, so I’ll keep this one pretty short. If you haven’t read Eggers before, I highly encourage you too. His style really sticks with you, be it fiction or non. His most recent book (A Hologram for the King) came out last summer and was on plenty 2012 top ten lists. This book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG), is still my favorite. And I admit, I’ve read pretty much everything he’s ever written. I’ve bought books based solely on the fact that he has written the forward. So, recognize my slight obsession, and on the one hand, take this glowing review with a grain of salt. On the other hand, READ THIS NOW.

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St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

Karen Russell likes kids. She likes them to be lost, hurried, confused, afraid. Have you read Swamplandia!? In that story, our heroine is Ava, proud member of the Bigtree clan, brave alligator wrestler and frightened little girl. Here, Russell offers ten stories that include similar themes. And like Swamplandia!, (a book I really, really loved), Russell deftly and somewhat subtly shimmies between the real world and fantasy. I think a mark of good fantasy is that when you read it, you don’t think “this some good fantasy! what a weird, wacky world we are visiting!” (or, alternately, “what the hell is going on?”). Instead, you think about the characters and the emotions that drive the story, accepting the constructed world appreciatively. Russell hits that nail on the head.

There are ten stories here, and I won’t go into all of them. The first, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” is what led to Swamplandia!, though it differs a bit. But we are again treated to a muddy world, filled with ghosts and lizards and a man wearing feathers. In the end, Ava has to wrestle a lot more than a silly alligator. The books title comes from the last story in the book. Here we find young girls, pulled away from their werewolf parents (that affliction skips a generation) and put in reform school. They must learn to be bipedal, to stop urinating everywhere, to stop chewing. Can they truly adapt? You know what they say—home is where the heart is.  The second story is my favorite. Two brothers, mourning the loss of their little sister, find a pair of swimming goggles that allow them to see all the ghosts under the sea. It’s heart-wrenching and magical, full of glorious images.

Ideas and images like this abound: singing an avalanche down from a glacier, a minotaur father pulling his family’s wagon westward, lupine girls running, howling, biting. There are monkeys on ice skates, an old woman feeding stingrays instead of ducks, and a mentally-disabled man, dancing on the beach in Christmas lights and tinfoil, pretending to be the moon. Russell paints all these images with flair, and these seemingly odd moments fit right in and carry us through stories that, at the core, are about desperation, confusion, wonder, and love.

One more thing to note is the setting. Russell connects a handful of these stories through place (and sometimes through people). The ones that share a setting take place in Florida. We see the same motel, the oddball amusement parks, mangroves, swamp, beach. The Bigtree clan. The sea feels ever-present, hauntingly so at times. The stories set elsewhere, most notably “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” feel a tad disconnected (to me at least), but Russell writes with such raw skill that it’s impossible to feel lost for much more than a sentence.

A collection of stories is a good way to mix it up after reading a lot of novels, and it’s pretty nice to read while involved in other books. I love a good short story (it’s what I struggle to write myself sometimes) and I’m really glad this is the book of them I chose. I can’t wait for her new collection (Vampires in the Lemon Grove). It comes out sometime in 2013 I believe; check it out.

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number9dream by David Mitchell

I’ll preface this by saying I read Cloud Atlas last fall, avoided the movie, and am pretty enamored with David Mitchell. I’m already fiending to read more of his work. Cloud Atlas unreels its nested narratives artfully, and Mitchell’s transitions between very diverse voices is unbelievable to witness. number9dream offers much of the same literary craftiness.

Unlike Cloud Atlas, this story has one central narrative told through the eyes of our hero, Eiji Miyake. He has come to Tokyo from his rural island home to find his father, whom he has never met. The book is divided into 9 parts, which unspool chronologically. We follow Eiji from his early days in Tokyo, broke and distracted, living above a video rental store, to his two odd jobs in a city he can’t quite understand, and onward into frightening adventures and travels back to his birthplace. Each section has a sort of sub-plot (if you can call it that) that arises from something Eiji reads or interacts with in the chapter (e.g. an author’s fantasy manuscript, his great uncle’s journal from WWII). These intertwine with the immediate events and lend a fantastic element to what could have a been a very straightforward story. The story benefits hugely from these apt side stories.

The search for his father is the central driving force of the book, but Eiji obviously has much more going on: an absent mother, grumpy bosses, a crush on a waitress, encounters with the fiercely savage Tokyo underworld, and a long-dead twin sister. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Murakami connection. Like Murakami, Mitchell weaves together a narrative from various interconnected pieces. Eiji himself admits almost finishing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (what happened to that fellow in the well?!). And nearing the end (this isn’t really a spoiler), a dreamed of John Lennon tells Eiji that #9 Dream (the song) is a descendant of Norwegian Wood (the Beatles song). It can’t be coincidence that one of Murakami’s most popular books in Japan is called Norwegian Wood and this number9dream is descendant in kind.  Not to say Mitchell is stealing from Murakami—there are innumerable similarities, but this book is all Mitchell. The writing is brilliant (not that Murakami’s isn’t…), and like Cloud Atlas, the various voices and dialogue is all crafted elegantly as can be. And the story itself is terrifyingly compelling. Ready yourself for moments as savage as those in Murakami’s WWII scenes.

I’m starting to ramble, but don’t let my nonsense influence the quality of this book. I urge you to pick it up, especially if you enjoyed Cloud Atlas (read this now if you haven’t) and are a Murakami fan. It’s another breathtaking piece of work by one of Britain’s best.

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A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Ignatius J. Reilly is a madman. His hat is green, his stomach is bulging, and his mustache is black and often crumb-filled. He makes me laugh really, really hard. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. So funny in fact, that, while I was always eager to read it, I usually had to put it down after a while because of abdominal exhaustion. Continue reading

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