Tag Archives: America

An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

an-invisible-sign-of-my-own.jpgWith her stunning debut collection of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender showed herself to be “a writer who makes you glad for the very existence of language” San Francisco Chronicle. The book was a sensation; it spent seven weeks on The Los Angeles Times bestseller list, received ecstatic reviews nationwide, and established Aimee Bender as one of the freshest and most original voices in American fiction.

In An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender exceeds her early promise. She gives us the story of Mona Gray, a second-grade math teacher who has just turned twenty–a number which, like all numbers in her life, seems to have a profound significance. Mona lives her life under the shadow of her father’s long, weird, unnamed illness and her own bizarre compulsions. She excels at music, running, and sex, but ceases each activity just at the moment enjoyment becomes intense: Mona is “in love with quitting.” Only numbers provide the order and beauty she craves. “Mix up some numbers and you get an equation for the way the wind shifts or an axiom for the movement of water, or the height of someone, or for how skin feels. You can account for softness. You can explain everything.” With construction paper and Magic Markers, Mona arranges her classroom into “a beautiful museum of numbers,” but that could also describe her life: a collection of oddities, a static place, a hushed and insular world where disruption is unwelcome. Then the science teacher arrives, with burn marks on his fingers and a genius for teaching children the joys of coughing, and Mona’s strange and tidy universe is threatened by love, the supreme disorder. In her luminous, pitch-perfect prose, Bender conjures a dream world much like our own, a fairy tale grounded in a penetrating sense of what moves the human heart.

Like in her collection of short stories, The Girl In The Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender once again gives us a surreal tale of suburban malaise and magical realism. As expected, the protagonist, Mona Gray, is both endearing and eccentric, having had a nearly lifelong love affair with quitting. Mona always seems to be on the verge of mentally imploding (and physically as well, after buying an ax on her 20th birthday) but she keeps her demons at bay by soothing herself with math and numbers, which are solid and dependable and not subject to the random catastrophes that make up a life.

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The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann PackerA riveting novel about loyalty and self-knowledge, and the conflict between who we want to be to others and who we must be for ourselves.

Carrie Bell has lived in all her life. She’s had the same best friend, the same good relationship with her mother, the same boyfriend, Mike, now her fiancé, for as long as anyone can remember. It’s with real surprise she finds that, at age twenty-three, her life has begun to feel suffocating. She longs for a change, an upheaval, for a chance to begin again.

That chance is granted to her, terribly, when Mike is injured in an accident. Now Carrie has to question everything she thought she knew about herself and the meaning of home. She must ask: How much do we owe the people we love? Is it a sign of strength or of weakness to walk away from someone in need?

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier reminds us how precarious our lives are and how quickly they can be divided into before and after, whether by random accident or by the force of our own desires. It begins with a disaster that could happen, out of the blue, in anybody’s life, and it forces us to ask how we would bear up in the face of tragedy and what we know, or think we know, about our deepest allegiances. Elegantly written and ferociously paced, emotionally nuanced and morally complex, The Dive from Clausen’s Pie marks the emergence of a prodigiously gifted new novelist.

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier tells the story of small-town girl Carrie’s struggle to break free from expectations, both hers and other people’s. She doesn’t have the courage to leave her boyfriend/fiance, Mike Mayer, so she instead acts cold and distant. Poor Mike also struggles but for a different reason: he wants to regain what he and Carrie have lost before they are forced to actually acknowledge its presence. This is what leads him to jump off Clausen’s Pier and break his neck, rendering him a quadriplegic. Carrie, naturally, is filled with guilt (but not necessarily tears as the novel uses countless pages to describe Carrie’s lack of tears) as she knows very well that it’s her emotional distance that caused Mike to jump off the pier. Tensions arise between Carrie & her friends and Carrie & Mike’s family, who are aware that she is pulling away from Mike, and had in fact been pulling away from him before the accident occurred. Unable to bear the pressure from her loved-ones and herself, Carrie decides to take off for New York without telling anyone. A spur-of-the-moment trip lasts months, and why shouldn’t it? Carrie is away from her family and from poor Mike for the first time in her young life. She embarks on an emotionally conflicting but sexually satisfying affair with Kilroy, who gives her excitement and the thrill of newness, but not much else. The freedom exhilarates her, but as the reader knows before Carrie does, it’s only a matter of time before regrets, guilt, and loyalty will her to come back to Madison.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Storytelling in the grand manner, The Secret History is a debut remarkable for its hypnotic erudition and acute psychological suspense, and for the richness of its emotions, ideas, and language.

There are the confessions, years afterward, of a young man who found at a small college the life of privilege and intellect he’d long coveted – and rarely has the glorious experience of youth infatuated with knowledge and with itself been so achingly realized. Then, amazed, Richard Papen is drawn into the ultimate inner circle: five students, worldly and self-assured, selected by a charismatic classics professor to participate in the search for truth and beauty. Together they study the mysteries of ancient Greek culture and spend long weekends at an old country house, reading, boating, basking in an Indian summer that stretches late into autumn.

Mesmerized by his new comrades, Richard is unaware of the crime which they have committed in his dreamy, unwitting presence. But once taken into their confidence, he and the others slowly and inevitably begin to believe in the necessity of murdering the one classmate and friend who might betray their secret and their future.

Hugely ambitious and compulsively readable, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of Dionysian abandon, of innocence corrupted by self-love and moral arrogance; and, finally, it is a story of guilt and responsibility. An astonishing achievement by any standard, The Secret History immediately establishes Donna Tartt as a supremely gifted novelist.

Nothing will make a book more unpalatable or pretentious (and, in some cases, intimidating) than calling it a thinking person’s book. But this, essentially, is what The Secret History is, although it is also many other things as well: a comedy of manners, a tragedy, a psychological thriller, a romance (although not in the bodice-ripping sense); that’s not to say that it’s not pretentious because it is.

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A Changed Man by Francine Prose

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

On an unseasonably warm spring afternoon, a young neo-Nazi named Vincent Nolan walks into the office of World Brotherhood Watch, a human rights foundation headed by a charismatic Holocaust survivor, Meyer Maslow. Vincent announces that he wants to make a radical change in his life. But what is Maslow to make of this rough-looking stranger who claims to have read Maslow’s books, who has Waffen-SS tattoos under his shirtsleeves, and who says that his mission is to save guys like him from becoming guys like him?

As he gradually turns into the sort of person who might actually be able to do that, Vincent also transforms those around him: Maslow, who fears that heroism has become a desk job; Bonnie Kalen, the foundation’s fund-raiser, a divorced single mother and a devoted believer in Maslow’s crusade against intolerance and injustice; and Bonnie’s teenage son, Danny, whose take on the world around him is at once openhearted, sharp-eyed, and as fundamentally decent as his mother’s.

Masterfully plotted, darkly comic, A Changed Man illuminates the everyday transactions in our lives, exposing what remains invisible in plain sight in our drug-addled and media-driven culture. Remarkable for the author’s tender sympathy for her characters, A Changed Man poses the essential questions: What constitutes a life worth living? Is it possible to change? What does it mean to be a moral human being? The fearless intelligence, wit, and humanity that inform this novel make it Francine Prose’s most accomplished yet.

Francine Prose’s characterization skills are superb, although her style took a bit of getting used to. Her style is almost too conversational and informal, which isn’t so much a criticism as much as an observation. I suspect the previous statement is more reflective of my personal preference anyway, rather than an actual detriment to the novel as a whole, because, despite what I say, the book was compulsively readable.

The fact that Vincent Nolan, the Neo-Nazi, was the most sympathetic, likeable character says a lot about Francine Prose’s ability. To be honest, though, Vincent wasn’t much of a Nazi to begin with, having (mostly) manufactured his bigotry after a bout of bad luck and bad decisions (girlfriend left him, he dunked an old Jewish lady in a swimming pool) left him homeless. Because the only person who could help him out was his cousin Raymond (a bona fide redneck with a swastika tattoo on his hand), Vincent figured that the best thing to do would be to join (or at least pretend to join) the Aryan Resistance Movement. A particularly good batch of ecstasy was instrumental in leading Vincent to renounce his bigoted ways and seek out the World Brotherhood Watch, headed by the charismatic (and sometimes opportunistic) Holocaust survivor, Meyer Maslow.

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House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet. No one could have anticipated the small but devoted following this terrifying story would soon command. Starting with an odd assortment of marginalized youth — musicians, tattoo artists, programmers, strippers, environmentalists, and adrenaline junkies — the book eventually made its way into the hands of older generations, who not only found themselves in those strangely arranged pages but also discovered a way back into the lives of their estranged children.

Now, for the first time, this astonishing novel is made available in book form, complete with the original colored words, vertical footnotes, and newly added second and third appendices.

The story remains unchanged, focusing on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story — of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams.

The verdict:

House of Leaves was alternately impressive, infuriating, and rewarding.
In short, it was fucking phenomenal.

I was initially reticent to pick up the book; the comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk turned me off, as i find Palahniuk to be the Dan Brown of would-be edgy, post-modern literature. (Sorry if that offends.) I figured that if this was just going to be Palahniuk, part deux, it would not be worth my time.

Having read House of Leaves, I can understand the basis of the comparisons between the two writers. While Chuck Palahniuk treats his characters with contempt and reeks of judgmental grandstanding, Mark Danielewski’s writing has none of the moral superiority and shock value stylings that makes me grit my teeth (and that made Chuck Palahniuk famous).

But I digress.

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Filed under Debuts, Postmodern Literature, Speculative Fiction