The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of the most strikingly original and entertaining reads out there.

Set in mid-war 1940’s New York and spanning several decades, generations, and lives, Chabon cleverly recreates the 1950’s comic book industry boom through the rise of the “Escapist” and his harrowing adventures amidst the turmoil of a city reeling from the effects of global warfare.

Part war-story adventure, part romance, part thriller, Chabon deftly interweaves the intricacies and lives of two of the most original protagonists (Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay) in contemporary literature.

Don’t miss this brilliant pulitzer prize winner–it’s one of a kind.

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

The Bushwhacked Piano

Thomas McGuane’s second novel, originally published in 1971 to critical reviews, is a hysterical commentary on the state of the American psyche seen through the eyes and lived through the misadventures of wayward entrepreneur Nicholas Payne.

Follow Payne as he pursues the hand of a doughty millionairess and joins sides with a double amputee con-man (the bionic man!) as they attempt to sell glow-in-the-dark bats that will rid entire towns of mosquitos overnight (or so they say).

One of the most uniquely funny and linguistically savvy voices in American Letters, The Bushwhacked Piano is the perfect balance of literary panache and buoyantly side-splitting hilarity.

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.

Kafka on the Shore

As a long time Murakami fan, I can’t recommend this one enough.

It’s the story of adolescence and self-realization told by one of our generation’s greatest story-tellers. In this 2005 release Murakami deftly interweaves the tale of 15 year old Kafka who runs away from home only to find himself caught up in a warped sort of Oedipal journey toward self-discovery. The other side deals with lost-cat-finder Nakata who has the uncanny ability to speak to cats.

The two navigate the streets of contemporary Japanese society amongst the likes of talking cats, irate social spirits and peculiar pop-culture icons.

At the heart of this book is Murakami’s characteristic sense of isolation and alienation from a society that surreal in its familiarity.

If you haven’t read Murakami yet, now is the time to start. Kafka on the Shore has it all.

Blue: A Graphic Novella

Pat Grant’s first graphic novel Blue is an homage to place. More of a graphic novella than anything else, Blue is the story of three relative outcasts in Australia ditching school for some surf and a walk down some train tracks for a glimpse at a dead body.

If you’re reminded of King’s The Body” you’re not far off as Grant himself acknowledges the tip of the cap to King’s story within his own in a beautiful essay/afterword about the origin of stories and how his graphic interpretation of such is very much meant to recount the other.

Overall, It’s a story of localism and territory. One of friendship amidst the stumblings and follies of youth. It’s a “day in the life” escapade and and caricature of as simplistic as it is original. Grant beautifully captures the transience of landscape through images that harken back to Seuss, twisty, turny, elongated structures that are otherworldly and fantastic, all of which bring to mind the fact that place is not stationary. Home changes quickly enough to render the present as past, and the past as history.

What I love so much about this particular novella is how Grant captures comics as icon before transforming it into something alien, something grotesque, yet strangely familiar.

With nods to Seussical whimsy, the brazen caricature of the underground masters like R. Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, and the marginalia of Chris Ware–Grant demonstrates his skill and sophistication in a book that is both powerful and original.

For the newcomer and mainstays of the genre, I couldn’t recommend Blue more. I look forward to reading more from Grant in the future.

Stars = 4/5

Stephen King’s IT

First and foremost, Stephen King’s It is a book that commands respect. Its girth alone merits a level of deference and admiration that other books do not. Weighing in at just under 1100 pages, It is an opus of genre horror and a masterpiece of storytelling.

Before I continue, I’ll dispel some preconceptions about this wonderful book. It is not just about a killer clown. Although that is a recurring character (because of how awesome Pennywise is in the first place) it’s not the entirety of the story. There’s more.

It‘s the tale of seven friends, a timeless malevolent entity, a backwoods northeastern town, love, lust, murder, marriage, really (and this is a total cop-out, but bear with me) everything. Stephen King’s It is a tome that covers the hostilities of what it’s like to grow up in a place where the bullies are iniquitous and criminal, and what lurks beneath the pavement is even worse. Keep close to your friends and allies because there’s danger out there.

From giant spiders, killer clowns, werewolves, evil birds, even terrifying elderly neighbors, King perceptively and deliberately plays off any and every childhood phobia making this novel not just a sensational narrative, but a play on the alarms and consternations of a people entranced by the barbarity and savagery of the human race.

Really, I can’t suggest this book enough. Don’t be a baby, and read It.

One More Thing: A Warlord Walks Into a Bar–No, Seriously…

The former Office temp and lead writer debuts on the literary scene with some of the most entertaining “stories” I’ve had the pleasure of reading–ever.

Over the course of 64 pieces (some no longer than a paragraph) Novak demonstrates his literary chops with delightfully original subjects ranging from the introduction of the first amorous robot, the invention of the calendar, Wikipedia Brown offering up faulty detective info, and the love life of a nondescript warlord.

His subjects are beyond clever. To the Office fanatic (I’m one myself), the voice that lines the pages is both familiar in its plainness and intelligibility, and sophisticatedly refined in a way that seems both natural and calculated.

But what surprises me most about Novak’s One More Thing is the fact that they run the gamut of formats and forms. It’s clear he’s is no newbie to the literary world, and offers up nods to everything from the science fiction-esque Vonnegut, to post-modern DFW, which he then translates into Brief Thoughts a la Jack Handy style flash fiction.

The fact that I was able to witness a warlord discuss his inability to understand flourless chocolate cake is something that will forever make me smile.

I began this book with a tinge of trepidation. I love Novak, his work on the Office and his kid’s book have been fantastic, and yet, still, I was curious how his conception of the short story would play–and this book, if anything, solidifies his reputation as nothing short of remarkable.

Beneath the cracks and knee-slappers is an underlying truth. Novak lobs up social circumstance and cultural norms like a major-leager breaking balls down to their core. He digs into the ticks and tells of a society not just interested, but enraptured on what makes us run–what makes us us. His cultural awareness and social savvy is the most amazing thing about the book. The fact that one can be so perceptive in a world overwrought with ego is wonderfully refreshing.

For the literary, the casual, the ones in need of a minor lift from the denseness of life, please, I implore you, pick up B.J. Novak’s One More Thing. You’ll laugh until it hurts.

Stars = 5/5

Lost in Shangri-La: Come Meet the Natives

Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2011 Lost in Shangri-La is as fascinating a story about WWII as you’ll find. Set in Dutch New Guinea in 1945, the story is about the crash of the C-47 Gremlin Special and the harrowing survival of its crew.

Joyriding through the remotest of the remote parts of New Guinea, a crew of military personnel including several WAC’s (Women’s Army Corps) in attempt to catch a glimpse of the fabled “Shangri-La”–a valley-civilization newly discovered (aptly named after James Hinton’s 1933 classic Lost Horizon) crashes in one of the densest jungles in the world.  

Of the crew, three survive only to learn that they are far from alone–they just crash-landed into one of the remotest tribal regions in the world and not just that, the people believe them to be Gods.

One part adventure story, one part anthropological insight, Zuckoff’s tale of heroism beautifully details one of the most overlooked and forgotten arenas of war during WWII.

It is the quintessential “East Meets West” story of cultural blending, only this time, the cultures are as socially different as they are chronologically. The tribesman that inhabit the valley have been living in the same conditions for centuries with no exposure to the modern world, and to experience the ways and conditions of contemporary westerners proves as unbelievable a story, as it is riveting.

The writing itself is as captivating as its story. Zuckoff wields an adept hand and relates a story with concision and poignancy. His research is thorough (not to the point of distraction) resulting in an irresistible mixture of historic validity, and heroic vivacity. He takes a beautiful story of heroism and adventure and elevates it to near mythic proportion.

Personally, I’m a sucker for a good adventure tale, and this absolutely hit the mark. Interested in learning about ancient cultures, WWII, or expanding your knowledge base in general? Than this is definitely the book for you.

Escape to the jungles of New Guinea with this wonderful tale of survival and heroism.