Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Read Any Good Books Lately?

These are two books I haven’t read “lately” but rather, within the last six months or so. They have some similarities in that both books deal with themes of families redefined and both writers use a distinctly comic tone to tell their sometimes tragic stories.

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster is a funny, often touching account of Nathan Glass, a retired insurance salesman, divorced from his wife and estranged from his daughter, who moves to Brooklyn “to die.” While there decides to pen “The Book of Human Folly,” which contains every colossally stupid blunder he has ever committed in his life. But in his new environs he meets an unlikely cast of characters who become his new family: a long-lost, underachieving nephew, a flamboyant used-book salesman, an HIV positive Jamaican drag queen, a hard-boiled Italian widow and a silent little girl who shows up on his doorstep unannounced.

Perhaps as penance for his own “human folly” he helps each one of these characters with their own struggles and quests. The plot twists, turns and intertwines, leading from Brooklyn to Vermont to “Carolina, Carolina.” Auster explores the concept of sanctuary in literature with allusions to Thoreau, Whitman and Hawthorne but with a distinctly urban tone reminiscent of Damon Runyon. Told in the first person, Nathan’s delicious New York accent practically leaps off the page. I read this book about six months ago, but the characters continue to haunt.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir by Dave Eggers and begins with an account of the author’s parents dying of cancer within six months of each other. They leave behind four children ranging in age from 10 years to early 20s. The author himself is a college student at the time. Left with only each other, the siblings begin to redefine their family, assuming parental roles to their younger brother, selling off all the family possessions and moving west to Berkley, CA.

I began loving this book with its tongue-in-cheek tone, self-deprecating humor and false bravado. But Eggers would have been well served by a good editor. He falls into the trap of the self-indulgent memoirist with a too-long, two person scene in the middle of the book in which he recounts in maudlin detail everything we just read. This scene is set as a casting interview for MTV’s The Real World. Following this, the book trails off into seemingly unrelated anecdotes of the struggling young writer’s attempt to create a fledgling magazine and his coming of age as an adult. This overwritten work seems to diminish the potentially“heartbreaking” story the author is trying to tell. Nevertheless, it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

So how about you? Read any good books lately?

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At 10:13 AM, Blogger Matt said...

I've just started it, but so far I love "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver.

At 4:07 PM, Blogger Todd HellsKitchen said...

I need to read more books. I do.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger LSL said...

Great review of Heartbreaking. I was touched by parts of the book, but overall left confused and a little apathetic by the end.

And I think Matt will LOVE The Poisonwood Bible. There are a few parts of that book that I've almost memorized from reading them so many times. It's exceptional.


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