Read: “Invisible”, by Paul Auster

There are a few authors who I’ll follow just about anywhere; Paul Auster is one of them. Over the past couple years as I’ve read his catalog, I’ve enjoyed his description of even the darkest and bleakest situations. Leah described his work as “primarily meta-fiction” when she first introduced me to Auster — and he definitely excels at that — but that’s only part of the appeal. In works like `Invisible <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_(2009_novel)>`_, Auster uses creates a fictional world that he then uses to explore how we think about identity, shared experience, and stories.

[Warning, the following may contain spoilers, although I don’t think they would degrade the actual reading experience.]

Invisible begins in 1967, when the protagonist, Adam Walker, meets a visiting college professor, Born, and his girlfriend, Margot, at a party. This chance meeting gives rise to a business deal, the celebration of which is marred by a mugging that turns violent. It isn’t until the second section of the book that we realize the narrator is not Adam, but a college friend, James, now a successful author. James has received the preceding section from Adam much later in their lives, as the first part of a book Adam hopes to write. This book, like Invisible, will have four sections — spring, summer, fall, winter. The sending of pages, the recipients admiration for the original author (James believed Adam would go on to greatness), and the eventual responsibility for publication all echo the story of Fanshawe in The Locked Room, part of The New York Trilogy, one of Auster’s earlier works.

Invisible depicts a progression, both mechanically and for its characters. The characters deal with a push-pull of good (intellect) and evil. The book describes an interesting tension between sex and justice, how they interlock and how we distance ourselves from our actions seeking both. Auster uses different voices to emphasize the distance, telling each part of the story in a different voice. The first section is told in the first person, second in the second person, etc. The fourth and final section is told from the perspective of another person through a diary, with Adam, the protagonist, absent except in reference. As the story progresses, the details fall away in another reflection of this distancing.

Invisible works for me on many levels: as a story, as moralistic exposition, as a demonstration of using the mechanics of writing to further a story. Most importantly, it was enjoyable to read and drew me into a world where the line of what I know and what I think I know is never quite clear.

date:2010-03-28 20:04:26
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tags:2009, fiction, read

Read: “Spooner”, by Pete Dexter

Spooner, Pete Dexter’s latest novel, is not as consistent as The Paperboy, but that does not make it inferior. Spooner tells the story of a boy, Spooner, and his step-father, Calmer. Spooner is not smart, is not handsome, and is primarily talented at causing trouble for others. Pissing in the shoes of others, rolling cars down the hill, and throwing eggs at cars: these are the things Spooner is good at. Calmer, a former Navy man, is good at just about everything, and is particularly good at being patient and trying to rescue those in need of redemption. Like Spooner’s mother, Lily, who sees the world first as a personal affront to her.

Dexter uses language in a way that lets you feel the words in your mouth and taste the idiom and “flavor”; in his hands, the language of the South (Spooner begins in Georgia; The Paperboy in Florida) does not feel impersonated or propped up, but real and present. Spooner contains exposition that made me almost giddy with pleasure, re-reading paragraphs out loud on the bus, looking like a crazy person, I’m sure. For example,

There was in every sport Spooner ever played, on every team he ever joined, an outcast. Some kid who had been plucked from the safety of home and homeroom and tossed, often at the insistence of his own father, out into the world. Unprotected. Often this kid was the fattest, dopiest kid in school, someone who had been it every day of his life on the playgrounds, shunned or insulted one day, beaten up the next, and was now introduced to the rest of his life, which was more of the same except better organized, with the degree of abuse he suffered depending mostly on the mercies of the adults in charge.

I don’t know if I was exactly that kid on the team, but I could certainly pick him out a mile away, and knew enough to keep my distance.

Spooner is told in the third person, but Dexter manages to convey the mental confusion and uncertainty the characters express in a way that reminded me of Paul Auster. Characters try to look at themselves and figure out what really happened: Did they really see what they think they saw? Where was the moment things went wrong? Could they have found another way through that situation? That ability to convey the introspection, uncertainty, and inner monologue of a character gives the story a depth: coming to the end of a paragraph is like coming up from under water, and you’re not really sure where you’ve wound up.

Spooner is not perfect; one section, in particular, doesn’t feel like it “fits” with the rest. As a whole it’s a great story about two characters who care a great deal for each other, an original, expansive rendering of the father-son relationship.

date:2010-03-06 10:04:46
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tags:2009, fiction, reading, sfpl

Read: “The Paperboy”, by Pete Dexter

I picked up The Paperboy after reading about Pete Dexter’s most recent novel, Spooner, on NPR.org. The Paperboy tells the story of two brothers from the (apparently) fictional Moat County, Florida. About ten years apart in age, they’re also quite different people: Jack, the younger, has just been expelled from the University of Florida after being dropped from his swimming scholarship. Ward, the elder, has gone into the family business, and is a reporter with the Miami Times. As the book opens, Jack has moved home and taken a job working for his father at that Moat County paper. Ward, working in Miami, keeps to himself and is primarily concerned with getting the story “right”.

The Paperboy could be described as a newspaper procedural: on the surface it tells the story about getting a story; in this case a story exploring the trial of man convicted of murdering a local, racist sheriff, a trial which was, well, irregular. I suppose it makes sense: Dexter was a newspaper man before he was a novelist and screenwriter. But if The Paperboy were only about the news business, I doubt it would have kept my attention.

Throughout the book there are questions as theme: How well do you know the people you love? How well do you really want to? As the story progresses, Jack sees his brother working for what seems like the first time, he initially wonders what’s going on inside his head, and eventually decides that he really doesn’t need to know. That even if he did know, he probably wouldn’t understand. Ward’s approach to the story and to life stands in contrast: his need to get the story “right” goes beyond accuracy, to a compulsive desire for truth and completeness. These two characters drive the story forward in a way I found believable, engaging, and enjoyable.


Dexter [co-]wrote both Michael and Mulholland Falls; interesting combination.

date:2010-02-28 19:06:06
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tags:1995, fiction, reading, sfpl

Ugly, Pretty, Special

Another example of the power of young adult fiction.

I visited my family in Indiana over Thanksgiving. On my flight back from Chicago, I was upgraded to first class, seated next to a girl who appeared to be about twelve or thirteen, traveling as an unattended minor. As I sat down she was scribbling furiously in a notebook. She looked up and I smiled. “Hi, there.”

“What’s pithy mean?” she responded, pencil poised to record my answer. My mind went nearly blank; this was not the question I was expecting to answer in the middle of a day of traveling.

“Uh, a short, compact phrase; witty?”

I must have telegraphed more confidence in my answer than I felt: “Thanks,” she said curtly, and went back to her notebook. I pulled out the `Specials <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specials_(novel)>`_, by David Westerfeld; Dan and Monya had given my `Uglies <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uglies>`_ and `Pretties <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretties>`_ for my birthday just before I left, and after tearing through them, I’d picked up Specials for the trip back. My traveling companion looked up and saw the cover, suddenly becoming animated.

“Oh my god. You’re reading Specials. That’s so awesome.”

“Yeah, I know, it sort of is,” I replied, reverting to a tone more appropriate for gum snapping and borrowing the car than for grown men. “Yeah, like, I read Uglies, and Pretties, and now I’m on Specials; Uglies was great, and Pretties was OK — a bit of a slow down— but Specials is great so far.” Capsule review.

“Totally. I totally agree. Oh my god. So cool.” I seemed to have made a friend, making up for any issues with my vocabulary performance earlier. “Do you have any other authors you recommend?” she asked.

I suggested Octavia Butler, thinking to myself, “kid, this shit is going to blow your mind.” She dutifully wrote it down, checking the spelling as she went.

“I’m writing a story,” she offered. “Sort of science fiction; I mean, it’s set in the future. Well, time has passed from the present; I need the reader to understand that to get the plot.” I continued to nod in solemn agreement and she looked down at her notebook, fingering the pages a moment before snapping her attention back to me.

“Are you a good reader?” How does a thirty-three year old man answer such a question?

“Uh, yeah, I think I’m OK; I like to read,” I answered.

“You know how you can tell a good reader?” She didn’t wait for my reply. “They write down the recommendations from other good readers.” She proceeded to give me some recommendations, which I made sure to write down, not wanting to sully my good reader image.

I finished Specials on the flight home, and it was a fun read. But on my traveling companion’s recommendation, I’ll be checking out the final book in the series, `Extras <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extras_(novel)>`_, from the library — “it’s totally a let down.” So sayeth the good reader.

date:2010-01-26 10:04:22
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category:my life, reading
tags:fiction, reading, ya

Read: “When You Reach Me” and “First Light”, by Rebecca Stead

I just finished reading First Light, by Rebecca Stead, after reading When You Reach Me earlier this month. I liked When You Reach Me so much that I gave it to James for his birthday, knowing we share a love of science fiction, with a special fondness for young adult science fiction. James has observed that young adult fiction is a joy to read, as it is driven almost entirely by character and story — no messy philosophy or moralistic exposition to get in the way of enjoying the story[1]. When You Reach Me and First Light are both great stories, imaginative and well executed. You can read either trying to divine the “Lesson” for the reader, but that’s optional: they’re just great stories that you can get lost in and enjoy.

When You Reach Me takes place in 1970’s New York City, and tells the story of Miranda and her changing friendships at school. When her best friend, Sal, stops hanging out and she starts receiving mysterious notes, she’s left to figure out what’s going on. When You Reach Me is written with great details that really make the setting and the place real to me. The characters — especially Miranda and her mother — have wonderful dialogue that makes them seem like real, individual people. Stead weaves A Wrinkle In Time through the story, adding to the mystery (it’s clear early on that there’s some relation between the two stories) as well as giving the reader a clue that Miranda is not just any girl, she’s a girl who likes Madeline L’Engle.

When You Reach Me won the Newberry Medal this year, but I actually enjoyed Stead’s first novel, First Light, even more. First Light has one of my favorite structures: multiple, seemingly independent plot lines. You’re sure they’re related some how, and seeing how the author brings them together — as well as how seamlessly — is part of the fun. In the case of First Light, we have the story of Thea, a girl living under the ice, and Peter, a boy from New York City whose father is studying glacial movement and whose mother is prone to “headaches” which take her away from reality for hours or days on end. Just as with When You Reach Me, Stead manages to create a cast of three dimensional, compelling characters, human and canine alike.


[1]For more on the joys of “young adult” literature, see Nick Hornby’s interview in The Atlantic.
date:2010-01-24 21:31:19
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tags:fiction, reading, young adult