Friday, October 29, 2010

Genocide? What Genocide? Have some tea and cake.

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
308 pages
published by Random House

This is the latest selection for our book group at the book store where I work. I led the group this month, so obviously, I had to read the book. Well, it wasn't terrible but it was pretty bad.

This is a debut from Parkin, who grew up in South Africa and has done lots of volunteer type work, teaching, and other good stuff. But a fiction writer she is not. The story centers around Angel, the resident cake baker for this UN type compound in Kigali, Rwanda. Various characters come to her to order cakes, tell her little stories about why they want the cake and maybe give a little snippet about their horrible lives in terms of surviving genocide, AIDS, poverty, et al. You'd think this would be pretty riveting stuff but in Parkin's hands, it all falls flat. The dialogue is super stiff and polite and every statement is met with the proper response, for example, "How are you today," she asked. "I'm lovely, thank you for asking. And you?" "Eh, I've been better." "Oh, what is the matter?" and so on. That is not verbatim but it's not far off. The main narrative isn't really any better. And the plot device was repetitive (customer comes to order cake, Angel listens to their story, x12).

And since the story takes place mostly on this isolated apartment complex which has its own guard, you get the sense that this isn't exactly an accurate portrait of modern Rwanda, post genocide. It's a little too sunny and everything has a silver lining and the book even ends with a triumphant wedding. It's kinda like watching Disney's Aladdin and thinking, "So that's what the Middle East is like!"

Parkin tries to touch upon some serious issues (AIDS, genocide, homelessness, female genital mutilation, feminism, prostitution, corporation, race, education, traditional African marriages) but they are more less mentioned in passing and not fully explored.

Now, the rest of the book group almost completely disagreed with me. They enjoyed the "light hearted" tone and outlook of the main character. They felt that this was a nice change for a book about Rwanda, to show that it's not all bad there and that people have happy lives. Sure. Fine. I'm just saying Parkin didn't do a good job with that premise. Maybe if the setting had been more indicative of Rwanda as a whole it would have worked. The book group, all middle-aged women, said I didn't "get it" because I'm a man. Please.

Why can I write so much more about the books I don't like than the ones I do?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Immigrant Song

Vida by Patricia Engel
182 pages
published by Black Cat

Vida is a hard nut to crack. Engel is clearly influenced by Junot Diaz, whom she gives a shout out to in her acknowledgements and Diaz also blurbs the front cover. That's pretty much why I read it, because this is the debut Diaz had been waiting for, apparently. But this influence comes off as more imitation than her own solid voice but then again, it is a debut and Engel is still finding that voice.

Moderately recommended though nothing new in terms of moving Latin American immigrant fiction forward, not to pigeon hole her stuff but I mean, that's what it least right now.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Boring Serial Killer?

Bound by Antonya Nelson
240 pages
published by Bloomsbury USA

A mother, Misty, dies in a car accident (possible suicide?), leaving behind a teenage daughter (Catherine or Cattie), who is now the legal obligation of the mother's childhood friend, for whom the daughter is named. This childhood friend, again, also named Catherine, must decide whether to take responsibility for this new child in her life, which generally forces her to wander back into her past, in Kansas, a past which she never really left in the first place. And then there's this serial killer who goes by the name BTK (Bind Torture Kill) who was at large during Catherine and Misty's childhood in Wichita and apparently he has resurfaced in the present day.

Mr. BTK isn't really a force in the novel as he is a ghost, just off stage. I was kinda hoping that he'd play a bigger role and at times I feel like he was just used as a big tease and that Nelson wanted to use him as an Idea rather than an actual character. So, I was disappointed in terms of no actual confrontation, kinda like the whole Chekhov thing with the gun introduced in the first act, etc. The gun never goes off in this book. Like I said, I think the whole "serial killer" device was used to sell the book, or the plot. I mean, I read it hoping to see some blend of literary fiction/suspense thriller type book.
And you know, now that I state all this out loud, I'm sure Nelson did the "BTK serial killer off stage" thing on purpose, using him only as a metaphor for the past and how it can "bind" us, trapping us in a way, from moving forward, and certainly "toture" us, and even "killing" us, emotionally. But for whatever reason, it didn't really resonate with me. Maybe because the characters pasts didn't seem that interesting.

Nelson's style and voice are a bit bland at times. Or maybe I feel like I've been reading very similar voices, a la Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan. All are great writers, though not doing anything particularly interesting with language or structure or even plot. But they get the job done.

I Learned This Word While Reading A Book, Vol. 35

zaftig- (of a woman) having a full, rounded figure; plump.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ask the Optimist!

The Braindead Megaphone: Essays by George Saunders
272 pages
published by Riverhead

George Saunders sure can write a great essay. His fiction is better, but these sure ain't bad either. Funny and compassionate as hell. My favorites were when he went to Dubai and toured the luxury hotels, the one with Ask the Optimist is really just astounding, and the one where he goes to visit the Buddha Boy in Nepal.


"Man, it occurs to me, is a joyful, buying-and-selling piece of work. I have been wrong, dead wrong, when I've decried consumerism. Consumerism is what we are. It is, in a sense, a holy impulse. A human being is someone who joyfully goes in pursuit of things, brings them home, then immediately starts planning how to get more. A human being is someone who wishes to improve his lot." pg.30

"The story, then, can be seen as a series of repetitions of one event: the reader leaves a little gas station at high speed, looking to the next one." pg.179

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Use Well Thy Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
562 pages
published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

I almost feel bad for Jonathan Franzen. It's not his fault Freedom was hailed as an American masterpiece before anyone even had a chance to read it. He writes a book, then he goes over it with his editor, and then the publishing, marketing machine takes care of the rest, launching his status into the ever hyperbolic atmosphere. Again, not his fault. Is he enjoying the praise and attention? Probably. But also, probably not. How can he possibly live up to this standard that critics, fans, and Oprah have set for him?

Well, the short answer is he can't. I tried my best to steer clear of most reviews, positive and negative, before reading Freedom. I had read The Corrections about five years ago and had enjoyed it. Having just finished my undergrad, it was one of the first novels I had read that wasn't assigned to me by a professor. And I had just ended a long, rather volatile relationship and I was desperate to escape into something. The Corrections worked. I read it over the course of several nights. Pretty much devoured it. Best book ever? No, not really. But I enjoyed it, and it re-awakened a love for books I hadn't felt since elementary school.

Now, five years, I've probably read 250 books (give or take) since The Corrections. I feel a bit more confident in my criticism and reader abilities. I know what I like (for the most part), I know what I don't like (for the most part), and I can defend my opinions (for the most part).

Again, I was oddly transfixed by Freedom. I read it in about five days. This is not to say I really liked it. The speed in which I read a book doesn't always correlate to my pleasure. I guess it says that Franzen's prose is very readable. Some people say lyrical...or that he's a great stylist, but that stuff doesn't mean anything really. Those are just nonsense words to me. But I'm confused by Freedom. It's not as good as everyone seems to think it is, but it's also not as bad either. I guess the conclusion I came to, after having read The Corrections and Freedom, is that Franzen is a slightly-better-than mediocre writer. And trust me, I'm not trying to be mean. I've given this a lot of thought, probably more than it warrants, and he's a good writer, but his work doesn't do anything for me in my gut.

Notes of Discontent: Patty's "autobiography", which we are led to believe is in fact written by Patty, is so clearly the voice of Franzen, that's hard to put that aside. Patty's "voice" sounds like the rest of the novel. Franzen's prose is nothing special. I usually end up scrawling down a sentence or more when I'm reading a book because I like the way the author said this or that, or presented an interesting idea, etc. I didn't write done a single sentence from Freedom. As such, I felt the book was about 200 pages too long. When the language and ideas are beautiful and interesting, I don't mind chewing through the pages (i.e. Infinite Jest). But much of the narrative just felt unnecessary at times.

Notes of Contentment: Freedom ends on a rather "happy" note, with most things wrapped up nicely. This is pretty brave of him and I'm sure he'll catch a lot of grief for that from his "open-ended", post-modern buddies. It's nice to see that not every literary novel has to end in a fragmented and ambiguous manner.

Franzen doesn't deserve the disgusting amount of praise but he also doesn't deserve the malicious attacks (I'm looking at your B.R. Meyers). The attacks are just so clearly a reaction to the over-the-top reviews. As a reader, we can't take them seriously because they mostly reek of jealousy. Because what if Franzen's work didn't garnish so much attention? What if he worked in moderate obscurity? Would those reviews be so venomous?

In summation, I have this to say about Freedom: Meh.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I Learned This Word While Reading A Book: Vol. 18

Cicatrix- a scar; a mark left by the healing of injured tissue