Don Quixote and the Master Protagonist

It’s the story of hidalgo Don Quixote née Alonso Quijano or Quesada or Quijada as he embarks on a life of knight-errantry–galavanting across the Spanish countryside in search of adventures with his beloved squire Sancho Panza.

That in and of itself is the story that comprises the roughly 980 page tome of a novel originally published in 1547. Though within its girthy spine is also housed tales of fellow travelers, wanderers, and nomads ranging the borders from Northern Africa, Turkey, and the surrounding African-European landscape.

In essence, this is the story of a man’s life. As Dostoevsky put it: “The last great utterance of the human mind.” It’s a metaphorical tale of the pursuit of passion and indulgence into the depths of dream and ambition. Don Quixote as a man is at once the most ambitious, the most passionate, the most zealous of spirits and throughout his journey evolves from mad knight-errant to one of the ultimate symbols for the importance of obsession, ardor, and mania.

If original fiction is archetype than Don Quixote is the master of them all. He’s the ethereal stelae guarding the grounds of eternal vigor set against the realism of Panza–his squat squire always there to bring his lofty ambition back to the Earth.

What astounds me most about the novel is its episodic structure. No chapter is longer ten pages in length. The second a story lags, Cervantes is quick with a comical interjection from either his own preludes and prologues (hysterical commentary prior to every chapter) that breaks up what could easily be one of the most monotonous reads of all time.

For something written in the 16th century, there’s an indescribable readability unlike anything else out there. It’s dense, but only for those unable to grasp the light-heartedness of the action. There’s weight to every page, and yet it reads like a thriller, always moving and progressing, and never allowing itself to lie stagnant under the burden of it’s own physical encumbrance.

Needless to say, this is that rare life-changer. A classic that we all dread out of some fear of failing to read. Needless to say, don’t leave yourself tilting at windmills and slay this beast. It will not leave you disappointed.

The Shadow of the Wind and Forgotten Books

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s 2001 caper The Shadow of the Wind is a story of forbidden love and exile stretching between the Spanish Civil War to 1960’s Barcelona. Utilizing a pastiche of styles and techniques, Zafón demonstrates an immense respect for the stately opulence of Gothic Victorianism mixed with the elaborately plotted whodunnits and mysteries of the hard-case crime files from the 1950’s.

The story is of young Daniel Sempere the son of a local bookseller who happens to come into possession of a novel by increasingly obscure Spanish author Julián Carax.

Falling in love with the book immediately, young Daniel quickly searches out more from the enigmatically absent author only to discover that his books are being systematically removed and destroyed from bookstores and libraries.

What follows is a torrent of murder, mystery, love, lust, and the excavation of a past that has struggled to be buried for decades–all of which set beneath the glow of a Barcelonian winter.

I’m in awe of Zafón’s prose. The intricacy and originality of the story is astounding, and his style is a beautiful combination of the mathematical-calculatory mystery of Borges mixed with the playful magic of García Márquez.

Linguistically speaking, Zafón is the perfect amalgam of complex prosaic Victorianism with a dash of the contemporary thriller.

The Shadow of the Wind is a masterpiece. Go out and get it now. It won’t disappoint.

Stars = 5/5

White Teeth and Contemporary Fundamentalism

In an effort to somehow equalize the glaring disparity of male/female novel reviews on The Book Guy Review, I give you Zadie Smith’s uproariously comic and true-to-life ode to cultural fundamentalism that is White Teeth.

Set between 1970-1999 London, White Teeth is a farcical meditation on the extent to which fundamentalism (in all aspects of society) extends its grip into contemporary culture. Smith wields a multitude of discourses stretching from Anglo-Pakistani enunciatory tendency to the Carribean-centric post-colonial Jamaican drawl (that’s been bastardized by modern culture into something inherently stoned) into a glorious foray into the world of the contemporarily diverse culture.

The book itself is something of a marvel. A London native herself, Smith’s voice at the same time fresh and reminiscent of the English masters (Greene, Conrad, Lawrence, et. al.). Her prose is flawless and lyrical, oftentimes poetic in a zany John-Irving-esque variety.

The best part though, is that Smith takes no cheap shots. Utilizing a wide array of characters stretching from the emotionally defunct Englishman resurrected through former Jamaican Later-Day-Saint wife to Pakistani émigré and even Raggastani gang members–Smith tells the tale of modern London and society’s reluctance to acquiesce to cultural change and evolution like you’ve never read before.

In a story that is heart-felt and honest, laughable and riotous, Smith delves into the fact that we’re a mongrel, hodge-podge species with blended blood, and try as we might, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re all in this together. And (because I have to), underlying it all is the truth that we’ve all, in our possession, a set of pearly White Teeth–poised at the ready for whatever needs be.

Her characters are notorious and morally confused in the same sense that society today is morally confused. She tells the story of fundamentalism of familial values, the (non)importance of religious devotion, one’s duty to uphold the fundamentals of what it means to be a citizen of a greater nation, and the fundamentalism behind what it means to be a citizen of Earth.

My first foray into the world of Zadie Smith was a smashing success, and I absolutely cannot wait to read more from this hopefully literary superstar.

Stars = 5/5

The First Bad Man: Idiosyncrasy Incarnate

Filmmaker, artist, and now most impressively novelist, Miranda July’s debut The First Bad Man is a stunning original with a cringe-worthy amount of idiosyncratic voice and self-delusion. In a brief 200 pages, July exemplifies what it means to be not just a woman in the 21st century, but a human being.

The book itself is about the life and times of Cheryl Glickman, a holistic seeking pseudo-naturalist (?) who works as an office manager taking notes for board meetings at Open Palm. She is the embodiment of the facade of order–everything has its place, books are meant to stand on shelves–not to be taken off of shelves. Cups and dishes are for company only–why not eat out of the pan itself? She undergoes chromotherapy (literally, color therapy) and refuses to wash her pans after cooking because it “builds flavor.”

For her, life is a staunch opposition to decrepitude and disorder. And then comes Clee. At the behest of her boss, Cheryl must open her doors and life to his daughter. Order meets chaos in the form of a young blonde bombshell whose feet stink, never seems to shower, parties, and sleeps around. Her general volatility serves as the perfect foil for Cheryl’s fetishized fantasies of personal sexual gratification–and the two unwind perfectly. They even end up raising a child and what follows is one of the most brilliantly original and truly remarkable books of the year.

The First Bad Man is hyper-modern. There’s a sheen and order to the prose that is so refreshingly grounded in both reality and fantasy.

But the beauty of the novel really comes through the dialogue. It’s hilarious. Characters converse in dead-pan interchanges no more than a few words in length like a Wes Anderson script–but the humor is more than just coarse conversation. It’s truth. The lines and fantasies are initially hysterical, but become strangely intimate as how actually real they are. Every page reflects a society in mental upheaval. We identify with idiosyncrasy and uniqueness, but hide it for fear of ridicule. Well, hide no more, Cheryl Glickman is the new poster-child for eccentric quirkiness.

Needless to say, July has crafted something here exceptional and original. This will be a cult classic–if not a true classic in it’s own right, and I can’t wait for more to come from this phenomenal debut author.

Stars = 5/5

Ten Thousand Saints and the Excavation of “Straight Edge”

As a long time punk rock fan, I was immediately intrigued by the trailer for the film version of Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, and thus, it’s only fitting that I give the novel a review before checking out the movie.

A lesson: There are three official social/musical movements that Henderson covers throughout the book. Here’s a quick little expo on each:

PunkOriginated in the late 70’s in New York and London. This is the Clash, the Ramones, Sex Pistols, variety. In essence: rock music gone angry.

Hardcore: punk music driven to the edge. The playfully deranged surf-rock-a-billy bravado of the punk aesthetic turned sour, volatile and sped up further. Tempos stretched to a blistering  200bpm prestissimo.

Straight-edge: a social movement that may or may not pertain to both genre’s above. Punk and Hardcore fans alike who stretch for a sense of inner purity. Almost buddhist, more Hare Krishna in which emptiness of the body is celebrated as holiness in its own right.

Now that that’s out of the way, on with the show. Henderson’s novel is one of those rare gems from the library. A strange find in a larger slush-pile of melodramatic fiction that reeks of nothing but amatuerish plot-lines and over-the-top characterization. For me good literature is that which screams authenticity–be it veiled through horror-science-fiction-esque trope or not–good fiction is real.

Henderson’s book, although certainly melodramatic (it has all the sex, drugs, death, and mayhem one would expect from the setting itself) is also strangely realistic. The writing is clean and effortless and the story moves with the blistering pace of the music described with such fervor.

It’s the story of Jude Keffy-Horn and his newfound life amongst the street-urchins and straight-edged rebels of the late 80’s Alphabet City NYC crowd. He ditches the earthly comforts of life in-the-blur for the more holy, more pure living sans meat, dairy, sugar, sex, drugs, and alcohol. It’s veganism taken to the limit. A saintly macrobiotic with a proclivity toward aggressive pit-fights.

Although not one of my absolute favorites, it’s certainly worth a peek. Those intrigued by the rebellious stomp and shout of the punk and the aggression of the straight-edged, or simply in need of some levity from the denser tomes out there, Ten Thousand Saints is certainly rewarding in its pace and passion. Definitely worth a read.

Stars = 4/5

NOS4A2: Christmas in July

I understand I’ve leaned more towards the horror story lately, and that to limit myself to a single genre is not only intellectually isolating, but isolating for my readers as well.

Unfortunately for those afraid of the classic horror story out there, I’m here to disappoint you yet again. Thus, I bring you Joe Hill’s NOS4A2.

A not so secret, secret: Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

Boom! And, not so surprisingly, this is a fact that Hill is relatively keen on keeping under-wraps. His book jackets and bios mention nothing of the novelistic powerhouse that is King. No bad blood there, just a man trying to make it without having to pull himself out from under the shadow of one of fiction’s greatest writers. No shame there.

What Hill has managed to turn out with NOS4A2 is nothing short of amazing. His fiction is reminiscent of King’s in its easy-going bravado. Hill writes like a pro and takes smart shots as they come to him, much like his father. And yet Hill’s work is somehow easier. There’s a lighter sense of unconcern for a tightly-wound plot (that’s not to say his plots are not tightly-wound, because believe me, they are), in lieu of a downright fun story.

NOS4A2 is the story of supernatural “inscapes,” and what amounts to personal reflections manifested physically in our world. What follows is an amazingly fast paced juggernaut of a horror story about vampiric child-killer extraordinaire Charles Manx as he meets a force that just might be too much to handle in wayward mother-figure Vic McQueen.

With expectedly depraved characters, oftentimes gratuitously violent and perverse scenes, and King-esque tongue-in-cheeky turns of phrases (“Ear today, gone tomorrow”…I’ll let you take a guess about that one) Hill takes us on a terrifying trip to Christmasland and the world of Manx.

But it’s not just a powerhouse of a plot that gets this one going. Hill appeals to the avid bibliophile with references to Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet” and “De Zoet” (Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and A Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet) and even his father’s work with the “True Knot” (Doctor Sleep) with references and Easter Eggs that are as entertaining to pick out and devour as the book’s plot.

This is candy. If you’re looking for something intellectually stimulating like Faulkner or Maupassant, you might as well toddle off, because you’ll be grossly disappointed with NOS4A2. but for those in need of a quick-paced thriller, this is for you.

Close the windows and lock the doors for this tour-de-force of scary dreams and horrific slaying in Christmasland. Or, if you’re like me, let the summer-night breeze in to freeze the blood with this frighteningly original screamer.

Stars = 4/5

Stay Away from Franzen’s “Farther Away.” A Review:

There are certainly books out there that I don’t finish. With so many available, why waste time reading those which are not up to personal standard?

Try as I might, I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it through Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but at the end of the day, I’m better off for having started them.

Regardless, when I started this blog, I kind of promised myself I wouldn’t review books I didn’t finish, but this one somehow screams indifference.

Franzen’s 2011 collection of essays Farther Away boasts of everything that Franzen is known for. He’s an intellect that is at once painfully difficult to associate with based on his own predilections toward solitude. His essays profess a sort of social-intellectual superiority that I’ve come to find semi-repulsive if not at times nauseating.

In 22 pieces ranging in subject matter from his absolutely stunning 2011 Kenyon college commencement address to book reviews of lesser known “greats”, his relationship with David Foster Wallace, and even Chinese Conservationism in the midst of economic-boom–Franzen demonstrates that he’s a mind at war with his own cultural relevance as much as he is with the diminishing global song-bird population (a subject he covers at great lengths).

Personally, I love Franzen. Twenty-Seventh City was outstanding, The Corrections was a joy, and Freedom might be the best American novel to have been written in the last decade–but this collection–how? Why?

There are pieces that recall Franzen’s brilliance and linguistic savvy, but taken together, the pieces date themselves to the point of forced obsolescence. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t understand who would want to read a forty-page essay covering the Chinese ecological downturn of the early 21st century, or a review of the archaic Swedish literature piece The Laughing Policeman.

To each his own. Obviously. Clearly, there is/was a need for these to be written when he wrote them, but at this point in time, I’m not sure about the relevance of any of it.

The best pieces (granted, I’ll chalk this one up to my love affair with DFW) cover the suicide of one of his best friends and contemporary American novelist/essayist David Foster Wallace–which he does write about with passion and zeal.

Otherwise, I recommend you stay far away from Farther Away (couldn’t help myself). It’s not for you. Really, I’m not sure who it would be for?

Leave this one at the bookstore and pick up one of his other collections instead. How to Be Alone is a beautiful compilation of personal memoir, and The Discomfort Zone deals with the heartache associated with losing a family member to Alzheimer’s.  Both are fantastic if you’re interested in his non-fiction.

Stars = 2/5

Summer of Night: A Lament

I’m a sucker for horror in the summer.

The warm nights, the soft glow of television, the popcorn grease clinging to extended fingertips as the bedroom closet door on the screen slowly reveals some horrific lurker hellbent on the demise of our protagonist.

Goodbye reality, hello terrifying escapism.

Which is why Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night is a stroke of genius for the genre.

It’s the summer of 1960 in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, and five twelve-year-old friends find themselves up against an age-old evil that’s taken up residence in their town.

The battle that ensues is a gut-wrenching struggle for life itself amidst the terror of spiritual possession, bacterial plague, and best of all–giant slugs. Because really, what could be better for a late summer night than encountering a giant slug in your reading. The answer: absolutely nothing.

Every summer I try and read something that’ll give me that shiver late at night. We all know the feeling, and some are more inclined to actually pursue it–but the spinal shiver that ensues after something truly frightening appears on the page is something else. It’s addicting in the best of ways.

Simmons though is more than just the conveyor of cheap thrills. Something I wish I could say more about the horror thriller novelist–Dan Simmons is a writer. His prose is eloquent, and the story is masterfully conveyed. More than just clean prose though, is the sweet sense of nostalgia that comes alongside every scare. The introduction itself (although, lapsing on pontification at times) is a lament for the freedom of summer. Not only is it becoming shorter, but the liberty and leeway kids were once given is falling by the wayside to a more structured, monitored way of life.

No longer are children allowed to simply “play outside.” Sadly, it’s supervised fun by mommy and daddy for life, and Simmons’ Summer of Night perfectly captures the liberation children should feel during the months of summer.

It hasn’t been since It where I’ve felt the masterful story mesh so well with the glorious nostalgia for the summers of old. Thankfully, Simmons’ Summer of Night brings us back to a time when the hum of cicadas, the coolness of a glass of iced tea, and the faint croon of the radio were all that trickled out into the summer night.

Looking for that perfect summer read? Look no further–Simmons’ Summer of Night is it.

The Stand: A Post-Apocalyptic Wonderland

The long-standing staple of science/post-apocalyptic fiction–Stephen King’s The Stand is an unrivaled masterpiece of the genre.

A super-flu hits the United States  killing off 99.4% of the world’s population. The best part: that’s only the beginning.

What follows is the classic, yet refreshingly original notion of good vs. evil. Super-flu survivors are drawn to one side or another–between Boulder and Mother Abagail and that which is inherently good, or Las Vegas and Randall Flagg and that which is evil or bad. Cliché? Absolutely. Outstanding? You betcha.  

A monolith in terms of its size, The Stand is gargantuan and massive and imposing, but therein lies its charm. The world of The Stand is addicting in a way that only King can cook up. From page 1 to 1100 (the uncut version is absolutely essential) the action never stops.

For the bibliophile with a proclivity for the longer stuff. Prepare to lose yourself in a world as profoundly original as it is terrifyingly harsh in its reality, a world only King could dream up.

Lose yourself in The Stand.

John Waters’ Role Models

In this unique, baffling, and at times very (predictably) unsettling collection of essays, the Pope of Trash and the Prince of Puke illustrates his creative muses and “Role Models.”

I’m a relative newbie to Waters’ world. My first encounter with his work was his 1990 musical Cry-Baby featuring Johnny Depp and Ricki Lake. I was probably twelve, aimlessly flipping channels (this was before the whole On-Demand Guide thing) and came across this backwards rock-a-billy dream. It’s campy, cliche, over-the-top, and wholly mesmerizing in its cheese-ball(ness). Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

I’ve secretly loved Waters’ work since. I was horrified by Pink Flamingoes and pleasantly entertained by Hair Spray, but was always curious about this culturally enigmatic malignant maestro of the absurd. And then in my literary perusing, I came across this delightful volume.

In ten relatively brief essays, Waters elaborates on his artistic inspirations, personal heroes, and intimate fascinations. Whether it’s detailing his idolatry for Johnny Mathis, lamenting Little Richard’s elderly docility, or wistfully bemusing on long-lost friends, Waters relates that ultimate fact that at the heart of his world is caricature.

Waters is brilliant and deftly relates numerous examples of how the best people in the world are those who stand with conviction to the point that they stand as almost parodies of themselves. Whether it’s the owner/operator of a bar whose only patrons are the homeless (payment in foodstamps only), or Little Richard’s pencil thin mustache (which he emulates himself), Waters assumes his own caricature perfectly (the very cover is a caricature!).

I loved this slim volume of Waters’ life. It’s not so much anecdote or memoir as elegiac for those relationships he’s either marveled at, or participated in himself.

The only place where this book fell a bit flat is astounding fixation on minuatae. There are times where Waters goes so deeply into cultural references he’d lose just about anyone–but it’s not so much a flaw as it is my own cultural ineptitude–so there’s that.

Either way, Waters’ writing is as glamorous as his mustache. His wit is evident throughout each page, and his stylistic tone and timbre is strong and effete all at the same time. There are moments where he calls out to the reader himself, imploring for this or that request. His essays are casual sachets into the back-alleys and brothels of seedy living.

As one would expect, this book is not for the feint of heart. His topics are explicit (it is Waters) and the material he covers is enough to make the most lascivious of adult film directors blush. I usher this review in with the strongest caution. Don’t read this if you don’t enjoy Waters. You simply won’t like it.

Either way, Role Models is a beautifully curious collection of essays that is as fantastically bizarre and original as its author.

Stars = 4/5