Friday, July 30, 2010

How You Tell It (New Slang)

The Thieves of Manhattan: A Novel

If by chance you are an aspiring writer this book's view of the publishing world might really bum you out. When a book is labeled as 'literary' it seems a somewhat natural response to brace for possible pretentiousness. Books about books can indeed be redundant and often miss the mark ; writer protagonists face a daunting task, because referencing other works may only remind readers of those works, thereby drawing attention to an authors inferiority. This is not the case with The Thieves of Manhattan. Adam Langer's approach shows his literary chops in a playful way that grows more endearing as the novel progresses. He does this by referencing books through descriptive slang - rather than in some long dramatic monologue by an annoyingly well-read character. For example ; A well groomed mustache is a Steinbeck. A pervert is a Humbert. A mischievous grin, a Cheshire. To puke, is to Palahniuk. All of these references may seem like s lot to remember.( there is a glossary in the back for those you might miss) However, much like the use of Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange Langer's slang is something I picked up quickly and really grew to appreciate.

As mentioned above Langer's protagonist, Ian Minot, is a writer. Ian is struggling to sell his short stories. Rejection letters note that his characters are small and quiet people who don't do enough, nothing is a stake for them. The success of both Blade Markham - a supposed former gang member and drug addict, and Ian's Romanian girlfriend Anya, only makes things worse. Blade's memoir is a mega-hit and Ian can't seem to escape his gangsta grill on billboards and TV. Anya is a short story writer like Ian, yet her past in Bucharest is both beautiful and heart-breaking. Her stories and her looks have made her a darling in the eyes of potential agents and publishers. This is where " The Confident Man " enters the story. The man is a regular at the coffee shop where Ian works. He comes in every day and sits down to read his copy of Blade By Blade. This naturally frustrates a resentful Ian. Shortly after being dumped by Anya, and verbally threatened by Blade, Ian blows up. When the confident man walks in Ian snatches the book away and hurls it out the door. Ian is fired on the spot and leaves fuming. The confident man is waiting down the street. It turns out that he was testing Ian. The man whose name is actually Jed Roth has a plan, but he needs Ian in order to make it work. Roth explains that he too detests Blade Markham's book, and even left his job as an editor over it's publication.

Roth's scheme for revenge is simple. Write a fake memoir ala James Frey, sell it to publishers as fact. Then when the time is right ( after they've cashed the checks ) reveal to the public that the book is all lies. This will crush the publishers reputation, but still leave Ian as a known entity. Having read Ian's stories before as unpublished submissions, Roth knows they won't sell. Unless of course people know his name. The Thieves of Manhattan is the book the two create together. The plot involves an authentic first edition of The Tale of Genji, a library fire, a beautiful stranger, a thieving librarian, a crooked antiques dealer, and of course the hero, Ian who supposedly lived it all. Like any good adventure novel it also includes chases, gunfights, and true love.

This is all setup for a face-paced story that shares some qualities with the pulpy works Ian's 'memoir' evokes. The chapters are short and often end on cliffhangers or Scheherazades, as Langer calls them. It will keep you reading as fast as any good thriller can. ( I finished it in less than 24 hours ) The humor is solid as well. There are very few books that have consistently made me laugh. Humor is a hard thing to nail in writing, at most funny fiction gets a few smirks and chuckles from me. While I wasn't physically laughing at Thieves I found myself smiling frequently which is probably the best a reader has the right to hope for.

I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone and everyone who enjoys reading. 259 pages isn't asking much from the reader. Without question The Thieves of Manhattan is worth the day or two it takes to finish. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give a book which has been dubbed 'literary' is that it made me want to read the books it referenced. Most notable of those which I haven't yet read but now want to is Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep which is alluded to in Langer's term for gun, Canino. Initially I tried winning this book through goodreads. I didn't win but was still siked when I saw it at the library the next day. It's the most entertaining novel I've read in a while, and the best of the summer so far.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Read (Miserable Lie)

The Kindly Ones is one of the most disgusting books I've ever read. Other contenders for that honor happen to rank among my personal favorites. You may ask, what made this brand of awful so, well, awful? Perhaps it was the length - after all this book totals damn near 1,000 pages. Could it be that depravity is not suited for such scope? The first of those previously mentioned novels, which I loved so much, was Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange which even in it's expanded form - comes in at less than 200 pages. Is bloody murder simply better when bite-size? The answer is no. Although the pacing in 'orange' is very well done. Still, I say no while thinking of another favorite; Bret Easton Ellis' infamous American Psycho - while considerably shorter than Littell's book, its 400 plus pages include long passages about things like men's hair care products. How does Ellis manage to keep my interest? By making Patrick Bateman's psychotic outbursts chaotic, yet still believable. Thus the main character is more compelling - and dare I say it, more likable. On some level being appalled by Littell's protagonist Max Aue is the only viable response. Sure, that's understandable when you are talking about a Nazi SS officer. Yet there are instances where depth of character and motivation necessary to keep things interesting. For the most part this depth is absent. We as readers see Max's rise through the ranks, committing or witnessing atrocities at many WW2 hotspots - from Ukraine and the Caucasus, to Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and even the Battle of Berlin. However powerful these events and the images the conjure can be, the narrative is largely dragged down by bureaucratic blah blah and pure filth. I honestly don't know if I've read more passages about poop and it's excretion in my entire life, let alone all in the same novel.

As historical narratives go, The Kindly Ones is not entirely inaccurate. At least not in a grand and offensive fashion. There are a fair amount of embellishments to be sure - brief appearances by well known Nazi figures (Himmler, Speer, Eichmann, and yes, Hitler) which add some intrigue for a moment, until you realize that they seldom contribute to the plot in anything but a vague and in-direct manner. In Hitler's case his most memorable part in the book comes as comic relief when he is bitten on the nose. With these characters, and innumerable others, who are made up, but ultimately no less inconsequential - Max talks. Sometimes at great length about the war, it's impact, meaning, direction, implementation and everything else. Despite these conversations and tireless referencing the payoff in most cases seems rather shallow. Of course the translation doesn't do us any favors either. This book was originally translated from French, and not very well I might add. Thankfully grammar isn't the culprit here - if it were this book would be nearly un-readable. Instead form, and formatting is to blame. Paragraphs frequently run-on for pages. Add to that the fact that there are no indentations with a change in speaker, and you get a reading experience that really drags and sometimes confuses.

Finally to address the plot - and the aforementioned disgust. The book is set up as Max's fictional autobiography. As such his actions as an SS officer are expected to be gruesome, and they are. However as a student of history, this was nothing new to me, nor was it what truly repulsed me. Being a straight man, I was not entirely ready for the amount of homosexuality in this book. As someone who has newly resolved to be a somewhat serious critic of literature I could not let this deter me. I said to myself, hey Aaron, Elton John is a legend, and Morrissey is awesome - Don't give up this may turn out to be a good story. Well, I didn't give up, and soon I found yet another sexually deviant secret of Max's. That secret was offered as his explanation for his choice in sexual partners. See in truth Max is incestuously obsessed with his twin sister Una. Having been discovered by their mother the siblings are parted. Deciding that since he can no longer be with his sister - being her, in a sense, is the next best thing. While engaging in forbidden acts which could get him killed while in the SS, Max remains in a hollow existence. He continues to hold out hope that he'll be reunited with Una even after her marriage - and hates his mother eternally for her actions. This dynamic is where the novel gets its name. The Kindly Ones, refers to a Greek tragedy involving The Furies who torment those who commit patricide, or matricide. This is a reminder of how common a theme incest is within literature, as such it does not cease to be gross - But it does cease to have such dramatic impact. What actually does shock the reader comes much later on in the novel, well past page 800. Without going into too much sordid detail, I will say it includes auto-erotic asphyxiation, more sodomy, and more poop. This truly is a scene from the nightmares of Ugandan evangelicals - they really do "eat da poo poo". In a work touted as groundbreaking and controversial, the evils of Nazism become banal and boring.

Thematically speaking this actually turned out to be cliche, despite acclaim which praises Littell for originality. A rather huge disappointment all told. I checked this book out because it was on the 1001 books you must read before you die list. It may be my own fault, considering I like the idea of not knowing what I'll find - selecting books from the list at random, and not reading the introductory flap before diving in ; although the flap, when I read it after finishing the book - proved to be useless as far as preparing the reader for what is in store should they attempt to read The Kindly Ones. This novel won the Prix Goncourt in 2006. (a French Prize) which says it's for the best most imaginative prose work of the year. Now I'm sure that it reads better in it's original French translation - but I am equally sure that there must have been something more worthy of a prestigious national award.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Is It Kosher, I Wonder? ( Melt Show)

The Karp family are hiding something in their freezer, and it isn't large thick slabs of glorious bacon ; although if certain accounts are to be believed it may taste something like pork. Fifteen year old couch potato Bernie Karp ( the novel's primary protagonist) happens upon his family's heirloom whilst searching for an attractive piece of meat which he intends to put to use in a rather inappropriate manner. Hunger pangs emanating just south of his stomach Bernie comes face to face with a fully grown man frozen in a block of solid ice.

The next night at the dinner table Bernie mumbles about the 'old man in the meat freezer'. Bernie's father explains "Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It's family tradition." The way in which this scene plays out serves as a good example of the kind of comedy Steve Stern is capable of delivering, which he does with some frequency. It's situational and at times ironic . Chapters then alternate between Bernie's story and several of his ancestors whose adventures document the travels of the Rabbi who remains burdensome, yet sacred cargo for five generations. These interludes are quick glimpses at the changing times and the immigrant experience in general, and sometimes more specifically the Jewish experience.

Perplexed Bernie wants to know more about the Rabbi who is supposed to bring good luck - yet the journal of his grandfather, which explains the rabbi's past, is written in Yiddish. Bernie can't make heads or tails of it, until lighting strikes, quite literally. Once again when Bernie is left at home to his own devices fate intervenes. A flash flood hits and the power goes out. When the storm subsides Bernie is startled by a noise from the basement. He goes to investigate and finds the Rabbi , fully-thawed, half-naked, and inexplicably alive.

Initially worried about his parents' reaction Bernie hides the Rabbi in the family rec room. A place his parents never bother to venture. The two begin to tutor each other in their respective languages. With little else to do the Rabbi also gets a crash course in modern times and American society by watching television. An education which proves to have profound effect on the holy man's faith and philosophy. Bernie too undergoes a significant transformation. He begins having out-of-body experiences which are at first alarming but ultimately euphoric for the young boy. The new studious nature with which Bernie adopts in imitation of his mentor has drastic physical consequence as well. The formerly chubby cheeked layabout begins to lose weight and pimples. This garners suspicion from his parents, but also attracts the attention of a girl – Lou Ella, who is intrigued by his spiritual episodes and believes she can help trigger them. This story of young love is paralleled again and again within the history of the Karp family. The previously mentioned chapters show a cycle of ascendancy, fall, and redemption. These chapters are engaging if brief. Still Bernie and the thawed Rabbi's story remains the central plot.

Parts of this book feel like a classic coming of age novel, and in some ways it may be – only on a larger more expansive scale than the one most first consider. Stern's breadth of imagination is impressive throughout. It's a whimsical take on Yiddish folklore which rightly draws comparison to Micheal Chabon. Stern's 2005 effort The Angel of Forgetfulness won the National Jewish Book Award which is now on my to-read list. This story poses questions of fate, faith, discovery, and heritage. The Frozen Rabbi is easily one of the most surprising books I've read this year.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Blog Is Born (Oh My Pregnant Head)

Twenty-Three years ago today there was a disturbance in the universe. A poor man and a poor woman welcomed a strange boy into the world. The boy was early according to doctor's standards - The boy, for his own part, cared nothing for time tables and expectations. That's not to say he doesn't appreciate proper timing, where some things are concerned. And so today he has set out to once again defy logic and maybe, just maybe, scare his poor parents. (probably not for the last time either) You see despite his gender the boy was determined to have a baby of his own, by unconventional means. A normal (human) baby was not an option, nor the objective. A figurative baby would do just fine. Thus he, or I, give to you.... Subliminal Maybe.