Kavalier & Clay is possibly the best modern Bildungsroman I've ever encountered. The story and character development are gloriously nuanced, taking the two main characters from Prague to Brooklyn and then from Manhattan to Antarctica and back again, all the while describing personal evolutions that are neither neat nor linear. It is the sort of book that I plan to re-visit.
When I do, I'll probably buy the print version. This has everything to do with David Colacci's reading. While he is great at pacing and expression, his voice for Joe Kavalier makes him sound exactly like Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog.
It's an image I couldn't get out of my head while listening: All I could imagine is Joe as a rubber hand puppet. And frankly, that kind of distraction does a terrible disservice to Chabon's text.
'The Martian' is a great story--the plot is exciting and very entertaining. But that's where things begin and end. And in a book where there is one character holding the entire work together, that is a serious problem. We spend literally hundreds of days with Mark, the main character, and yet we learn next to nothing about him. Does he have a family? No idea. Is he close with his parents? No idea. What does he miss most about Earth? No idea. All we know is that he considers himself quick-witted and funny and loves to joke around--even with himself. That's all fine and good, but it leads to character development that's a mile wide but an inch deep. Not very satisfying. I really wished Weir had explored Mark's internal life--we have 18 months alone with him on Mars, after all. It's not like there's not enough time to explore that. I want to know what Mark cares about, who he misses on Earth, what motivates him. All we actually learn is this: He wants a bath, to get laid, and a meal other than potatoes.
I imagine Chuck Wendig's pre-writing chats with himself went something like this, "How can I create the hottest, most bad-ass chick and put her into a story? I want to write a lead character that I'd totally want to be with."
So, with a healthy dose of Chuck Palahniuk's overwritten gross-out style and a basic template for a main character that is essentially nothing more than a potty-mouthed Stieg Larsson protagonist, we get Blackbirds. And with it, Chuck Wendig's dullard dream date, Miriam Black.
Not that this is only frat boy fiction--Wendig knows the word "macadam," after all, and uses it three times. Yes, this novel has aspirations beyond just giving us a hollow shell of a female lead who does very little other than rob people and talk tough. It courageously takes us into a world of stereotypical secondary characters (nearly all of whom are mawkish and cut-and-pasted from someone's tired rogue's gallery) and even ventures into the taboo territory of sexual violence against women and short, stocky lesbians.
Blackbirds has it all--including a massive plot gaffe towards the end of the book where Miriam is touched by an assailant and should be able to read his/her death but does not.
There is a good book in here. In fact, there are probably three or four of them. What Reamde does well is engage readers with a wide variety of scenes, contexts, characters, and storylines. Quite easily, this book could have been split into component parts and divided into complete novels. Taking that sort of approach would have also required that the slack, too-descriptive scenes be edited or removed and tightened up. Instead, what Stephenson has done with Reamde is create a loose mass of winding and complicated story arcs that move independently and do not resolve until the very end of the book. It's not an intellectual challenge to follow these threads--Stephenson's writing is never lush or even clever enough to demand much active attention--but it is tedious. And tedium is a killer in a book that lasts more than 38 hours in the reading.
Makkai's novel is largely about her main character and her inability to figure out what she wants from her life--from small decisions to larger ones, Lucy just cannot seem to make good choices. So she goes along with whatever is easiest at the time--and in the case of the novel's main plot strand, that means getting roped into driving a possibly gay tween across the country in a zany pseudo-kidnapping. It's a good, if not great, read.
What is less successful is Emily Bauer's little girl narrative tone. Still less successful than that is her Russian accent--a key skill for a reader narrating a book with major characters who hail from Russia. Bauer's Russian sounds more Indian than anything else, and she can't pronounce names that she really ought to have researched in advance: "Sergei" becomes "Seer-JAY" and "Andreev" becomes "AN-dreave," for example. It doesn't take much to pop the ballon and destroy a good reading, but Bauer manages to do it over and over again.
If fiction writers have one mantra, it's this: Show, don't tell. Somehow, nobody seems to have shared this with Connie Willis. And as a result, Blackout is full of wooden exposition of character thoughts, motivation, and action. Worst of all, the book is absolutely riddled with jarring two word sentences: "It wasn't." "She didn't." "He was." that kill any inference or subtlety in this book.
It's sad that our standards for science fiction are lower than they are for literary fiction, but if this was one of the best sci-fi/fantasy novels of 2010, that's a sad statement. I really kept hoping Blackout would get better as the story evolved, but as Connie herself would say: It didn't.
Kevin Roose thinks a lot about the ethics of passing himself off as an evangelical Christian at Liberty University--enough at least to work himself up into a lather over the deception. His moral quandary lurks behind most of his account, sometimes peeking its head through the curtains and sometimes just creating uncomfortable contours in the background. Either way, it is this dilemma that produces the novel's most interesting--and at turns, the most annoying--motif: Is lying to people about your identity wrong?
Roose spends much of his time in full hand-wringing mode, describing his internal agony at deceiving his fellow students. Then, in a flash, he forgives himself, claiming that his falsifications were the only way to get a 'true' picture of life at Liberty. Either way, this book is not about Falwell, Liberty University, or evangelicals, it is about Kevin Roose locked away in a Virginian Elsinore, trying to pass himself off as a born-again Christian. And quite frankly, the schtick gets boring within the first 50 pages.
I really do like Augusten Burroughs. I admire that he has made a mostly original name for himself in a genre that is dominated by David Sedaris, and I admire even more that he has the guts to put out a Christmas book when Sedaris's own holiday writing is so widely praised. But that's where the love ends. 'You Better Not Cry' is full of ponderous, meandering pieces that never really evolve into the gems that some of them really ought to become. Even the best, most memorable images--Burroughs biting off the face of a wax Santa, Burroughs waking up in a hotel room with a jolly old French Santa--get lost in a thicket of dull and pointless prose. But the worst thing about this book is the narration. Burroughs himself reads this book, doing so with a serious poet's stilted cadence that turns the entire audiobook into a completely unlistenable mess. This is the worst narration of any of the hundreds of audiobooks I have listened to, by quite some margin--distractingly slow and stacatto, the delivery here makes you wonder if Burroughs hasn't had a stroke. I was able to make it through the whole book one way: I set my iPhone to double-speed playback and then marveled at how, even at 200% of his original pace, Burroughs still sounded too slow. All I want for Christmas is for Burroughs to get his considerable talent back on track.
It is easy to engage with Bart's fascinating idea--follow 1998's summer movies from inception to release and then tell the story. Brilliant stuff. It's quick and engaging, if a little too journalistic on occasion, but overall a very good read.
But the audiobook's reader makes mistakes that derail and distract--for example, he can't pronounce "Warren Beatty," one of the book's central figures. He also screws up the name "Jet Li" several times. In a book where pronunciations are flexible (or fictional), this is less of an issue, but here, where we're talking about real people with real names, it's a shame that he couldn't take the time to ask someone.
I'm a big Adam Gopnik fan, but I couldn't really believe this was his work. His essays are often two or three times longer than they ought to be, playing out over the course of months upon months of events, only painfully slowly folding back to return to focus in on a point. That's fine-- even luxurious-- when it works, but in most of the pieces in this book, it doesn't.
Worse, Gopnik, who reads the book himself, has pronunciation issues with words and phrases like "Elizabethan" and "sine qua non." Stunning for such an educated guy, and it'll stop you dead in mid-listen.
Perhaps the utter strangeness of Paris is what made Gopnik's writing there so engaging. With that gone, he focuses instead on his children, who for all of their quirks, are nothing but familiar and never very interesting. I want my Gopnik struggling and unmoored, not manifestly wealthy and bourgeois.
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