Friday, December 31, 2010

Water for Elephants (Sara Guen)

Last review of the year! I read this book ages ago, during what I'm now referring to as the Black Fall (more on that in next weekend's 2010 Review Recap!). I let it fall to the wayside, but certain circumstances made me pick it back up again. Those circumstances are the newly released trailer of the film—in theaters April 22—and the terrible acting therein. I am here to assure you that it is not just the acting you'll need to watch out for.


Water for Elephants, which takes place during the Great Depression, tells the incredible story of one Jacob Jankowski, a young veterinary student who decides to run away after learning of the untimely deaths of both of his parents. For reasons that are not entirely clear—or at the VERY least not entirely justified—Jacob runs away during his final exam at Cornell. Just stands up and walks right out, a good ten minutes before he would finish his four-year degree and earn his diploma. Okay...

Jacob, not having anywhere or anyone to run to, begins to follow the railroad tracks on the outskirts of town, and eventually finds himself face to face with a real life, honest to goodness, GEN-U-WINE circus! And what luck! Even though the circus is on the brink of financial destitution, hasn't paid its workers in weeks, and has resorted to throwing some unfortunate bastards off the train in the middle of the night, they just happen to need a veterinarian! Isn't that just incredible, folks? The Lord truly works in mysterious ways. It's a mystery how this book ever got published.

Jacob ends up falling in love with Marlena, the circus' star performer and young wife of the mentally unstable head animal trainer, August. From what I can tell of the film via the trailer, whoever cast this movie got it just right: the useless and generically handsome young buck (Rob Pattinson) tries to steal the unnecessarily headstrong but ultimately personality-less trophy heroine (Reese Witherspoon) from the only character in the story with any real depth to him (Christoph Waltz).Oh, and there's an angry midget, and an elephant who won't listen to anyone.

Through a series of mostly predictable events, Jacob attempts to win over Marlena, while also attempting to teach tricks to Rosie, the elephant, so that they can all save the show together. Aww. August, who is completely demented and possibly bipolar, claims that he is Jacob's best friend, but also tries to kill the kid a couple times. Top it all off with a ruthless, money-hungry circus owner and you've got yourself a recipe for a #1 New York Times Bestseller!

Oh, and I forgot to mention: the entire thing is framed within the memories/dreams/possibly psychotic delusions of an old man in a nursing home who misses his wife and wants more than anything to be back with the circus again.

The one thing that got me through the abysmal plot was the painstaking detail that Sara Gruen goes into to make this world come alive. You can absolutely, 100% tell that she did her research, and did it well. I'm no expert on early 20th-century traveling circuses myself, but it seemed like Gruen got all of her facts straight. She should be proud of that particular accomplishment, and I'm sure she is, because in the book she often goes out of her way to explain some completely erroneous detail of circus life just to prove that she knows what she's talking about.

The writing itself is not terrible—Gruen is a competent individual who can string together interesting sentences—and the book is not without its compelling moments, but the predictability of the plot and the flatness of the two main characters seriously dampens any true enthusiasm that could be raised by the read. It's entertaining, it's readable, and there are a few times when it's even enjoyable, but on the whole this is a completely generic title.


Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen

There is nothing unique about this story. It's Big Fish meets The Notebook meets Every Novel You've Ever Read Where There Is A Young Man Who Feels Out Of Place In A New Situation But Somehow Finds The Most Perfect Girl On The Planet And They Fall In Love But She's Taken Oh No What Are They Gonna Do?

Nicholas Sparks' best book yet!

You will breeze through this book. Some of you might even enjoy it. I hope to God that none of you love it.


See you next year, Genoshans!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Lump of Coal (Lemony Snicket)

This is a story about a lump of coal who can think, talk, and move itself around. Is there a more charming holiday tale to behold? Probably, but Lemony Snicket has not written one.
Merry Christmas Eve! Today I've got the perfect holiday stocking stuffer review, Lemony Snicket's The Lump of Coal! You may know Snicket, the pen name of author Daniel Handler, from his wonderfully morose set of children's books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. He has since written several other equally quirky children's books, but The Lump of Coal is so far my favorite.


"The story begins with a lump of coal, who for the sake of argument could think, talk, and move itself around." This lump of coal, saddened by the fact that he was unceremoniously dumped in a backyard by accident in the dead of winter, sets out to make a name for himself. His two great aspirations in life are to make charcoal art, or help to roast delicious meats as part of a bbq. After some minor setbacks, the lump of coal is placed in the stocking of a boy who has those same two desires, and they all live happily ever after. Sorry to spoil it for you.

The book is extremely short—only about 30 pages—but is delightfully charming. Also, even though Lemony Snicket has a habit of playing with the morose and strangely mundane, overall the book has a positive tone, going so far as to end with this bit of wisdom:
All these things are miracles. It is a miracle if you can find true friends, and it is a miracle if you have enough food to eat, and it is a miracle if you get to spend your days and evenings doing whatever it is you like to do, and the holiday season—like all the other seasons—is a good time not only to tell stories of miracles, but to think about the miracles in your own life, and to be grateful for them, and that's the end of this particular story.
The book may seem at first to be depressing and offbeat, but in fact it isn't much more so than any other fable or morality tale. It teaches children to live their dreams and settle for nothing less; if an ugly black rock can do what he loves, why can't everyone? The Lump of Coal also includes beautiful color illustrations from Brett Helquist, the same artist who drew the interiors for each of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books. This is a great little gift for the holidays.


The Lump of Coal
by Lemony Snicket (with illustrations by Brett Helquist)

Not a whole lot going on in this book, but what's there is quality.

If you like Lemony Snicket's Baudelairean style from A Series of Unfortunate Events, you'll love this one, too.

Great little Christmas story! You should read it to your kids every year!


Friday, December 17, 2010

Little Bee (Chris Cleave)

To be completely honest, I chose to read this book because of its cover. Seriously, the art is great and it’s got a nice glossy, textured finish. Also, the only insight you get from the back is that it’s a story about two women, and they don’t want to tell you what happens because the way it unfolds is apparently that good. They don’t want you to tell your friends what happens either, so they can find out for themselves. As this is my first review for the Genoshan, I’m not so sure we’re friends just yet. Are we? Well maybe we could be someday, and I think those back cover people have a point. Even though this wasn’t my favorite book, I still really enjoyed it so I’ll tell you enough to know that I did actually read it.


This book tells the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee trying to gain asylum in England, and Sarah, an English woman who once visited Nigeria, and the twisted way that their lives touched once, and then once again, and were never the same. Cleave alternates the perspective each chapter, unfolding the story once from one woman’s side and next from the other’s, creating gaps and then filling them in along the way. This lets the story unfold in a unique way, building an experience for the reader full of suspense and rich with insight into two very different characters’ lives.

Within the first two chapters, I was intrigued by the characters, moved by Cleave’s prose, and eager to find out more about how any facet of these two women’s lives could possibly be related. Little Bee starts out stuck in an detention center for immigrants, Sarah lives in the suburbs with her four-year-old son who is Batman and you better not say otherwise. Little Bee is released from the detention center and goes to find Sarah and her husband, Andrew. That’s when they’re all forced to confront a mysterious shared moment in their pasts, and things get - well, different. From the start, you can’t help but feel like you’re promised a big pay off. Both main characters constantly allude to this painful past event that will explain how everything is connected, but for most of the first half of the book, this lack of information makes the story seem like it’s just dragging on. At times it seemed as though there would never be a big reveal, or that the secret would not be nearly as shocking, scandalous, or intense as the hype. And in some ways it’s not, but there’s more. Yet just when I started to believe that this really was the worst book with the best beginning I’d ever read, it all got kicked up about eighteen notches and the second half of the book indeed delivered the payoff I had been expecting all along.


Story: 8 - A really unique story that manages to keep surprising you after you think that all of the surprising is done. It’s a well-done story of struggle told from two completely different angles, and Cleave manages to make sure that it never gets disjointed and everything has a purpose.

Style: 6.5 - I had a love/hate relationship with Cleave’s style in this book. Alternating the perspective each chapter did drive a sense of suspense throughout the story and I loved the extra dimension it brought to each character. At the same time, though, it contributed to about 100 pages of lagging plot. I also had some trouble getting the Nigerian speaking British English dialect, but I don’t necessarily fault the author for that since I’ve just never heard anyone speak like that before. At its best, though, the prose was incredibly cinematic. I felt like I could see Cleave’s descriptions as scenes in a movie, only to find after finishing the book that Little Bee is already in development as a feature film. I’d watch that.

General: 7.5 - Despite its shortcomings, I definitely loved Little Bee more than I hated it. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished reading it, and highly suspect that there are nuances in that first half that I missed because I was so skeptical that the ending would actually deliver. It took me about a week to get through the first half, but the second half I read in less than 24 hours. I’m not rushing to re-read it any time soon, but I do plan on it.

Overall: 7.33

Friday, December 10, 2010

DOUBLE REVIEW - Omega the Unknown

Steve Gerber is best known for creating Howard the Duck, America's favorite cigar-smoking anthropomorphic mallard (which would later be turned into an atrocious film produced by one George Lucas). But in 1976, he also created a lesser-known but critically acclaimed comic book character called Omega the Unknown, whose eponymous series was cancelled after only 10 issues. Then, in 2007, Brooklyn-based novelist Jonathan Lethem, author of Fortress of Solitude, and a longtime fan of the original Omega series, re-visited the concept, with the help of artist Farel Dalrymple.

Lethem ran with the original high concept of the series, but quickly took the story in his own direction. Gerber was initially angered by Lethem's re-imagining of his creation (at that point, still licensed to Marvel Comics), even going as far as to publicly denounce the series on his blog. The two writers eventually came to an understanding — Lethem persued the series out of an unabashed love for the source material, rather than an attempt by the publisher to retain the original copyright, as Gerber had originally expected. While the story of Omega the Unknown begins similarly under both writers, these are ultimately two very different tales that only share the same initial pitch.


Omega the Unknown follows the story of a young boy — "James-Michael Starling" in the Gerber story, "Titus Alexander Island" in the Lethem version — whose parents are tragically killed in an unfortunate car accident. Also? THEY'RE ROBOTS, as our teen protagonist quickly discovers. Meanwhile, there is a super hero — whom we assume is the titular "Omega," based on his costuming — who battles evil robots somewhere on a distant planet. In both versions of the story, Omega's battle with the robots ends up on Earth, right around the time that our protagonist wakes up from a coma. James Michael/Titus Alexander is remarkably verbose upon regaining consciousness; his syntax and diction are both incredibly formal, and notably evolved well beyond his age. James Michael/Titus Alexander is then attacked by the same evil robots (yes, I know) during his stay at the hospital, whom he destroys with energy blasts that burn the Greek letter Omega into his hands. Meanwhile, his dreams are consumed by the battle between Omega and his evil robot enemies.

James Michael/Titus Alexander is eventually released into the custody of an affectionate hospital employee, and attempts to live a normal life in Manhattan. He attends a public school Uptown, and deals with bullies and other typical high school problems, all of which are exacerbated by what seems to be a high-functioning form of autism. Meanwhile, Omega also attempts to live a normal life in Manhattan, seemingly guarding James Michael/Titus Alexander, despite the impending presence of GERA (Generic Evil Alien Robot Antagonists).


Okay, so Omega the Unknown is a weird story in both forms. There's no denying that. Steve Gerber's version attempts to position itself within the greater Marvel Universe, with Omega battling established Marvel characters such as the Hulk, Nitro, Blockbuster, and Ruby Thursday. Jonathan Lethem, on the other hand, creates a shallow, arrogant, self-important stand-in super hero called The Mink to function as the tertiary antagonist (after the Evil Alien Robots, who are OBVIOUSLY the primary antagonists) (YES, I know).

The initial premise of both stories is undeniably enticing — what is the connection between our protagonist and the mysterious Omega? Throughout the course of both series, the relationship between the characters remains unclear. Steve Gerber realistically portrays James Michael's struggle as an intelligent and gifted (albeit strange and possibly alien) student in the New York Public School System, in a way that no other writer at the time would have dared. Jonathan Lethem honors this tradition in his re-imagining, himself a product of the New York Public School System. The way that James Michael/Titus Alexander deals with bullies and friends in high school is painfully realistic in both versions of the story, and his difficulty understanding human interaction is always endearing — you can't help but root for the poor kid. Meanwhile, Omega's struggle with blending in and functioning in a normal society while simultaneously observing and protecting the protagonist is equally fascinating — in Jonathan Lethem's version, for example, Omega takes a job working in a hot dog truck that parks outside of Titus Alexander's school, and his attempt to operate as a pedestrian while keeping a lookout for Evil Alien Robots is incessantly charming.


Unfortunately, neither version of Omega the Unknown delivers a satisfactory conclusion to its undeniably intriguing premise. Steve Gerber's title was cancelled before he was able to answer all of its looming questions — in his final issue, Omega is killed, while James Michael visits his childhood home and discovers additional robot copies of his robot parents. Comic book writer Steven Grant revisited the story in The Defenders in 1979 and attempted to resolve the relationship between James Michael and Omega the Unknown, but this ending was neither adequate nor in line with Steven Garber's original intentions.

On the other hand, Jonathan Lethem's modern re-imagining of the story did come to a finite and intended conclusion; however, without an understanding of Gerber's initial design, it still falls flat. After building to an epic and explosive climax, Lethem's interpretation of Omega the Unknown crumbles in the final chapter, which is rendered without any dialogue at all. While this may seem like an interesting artistic decision, it fails to provide the reader with an adequate understanding of the story in which s/he has invested; the plot is complete, but the story is not, and the resolution is ultimately disappointing. The reviewer read both stories on Marvel's Digital Comic database, and upon reading the final chapter of Lethem's Omega the Unknown, initially thought that there was an error in the web presentation of the story. The broad thematic strokes are understood, but the prevailing mysteries regarding Omega the Unknown and his relationship to Titus Alexander Island remain unanswered.


Story: 6.5

The story of Omega the Unknown as it is presented in both versions is undeniably fascinating. The struggle of the autistic orphan savant James-Michael/Titus Alexander as he attempts to blend in to his Upper West Side High School after discovering that his "birth" parents are robots is absolutely captivating. Those who would seek out such a graphic novel can easily relate to James Michael's/Titus Alexander's struggle (robots and all! Well, maybe not robots), and will readily empathize with his attempts to fit in. Unfortunately, both Steve Gerber and Jonathan Lethem are capable enough writers to draw a reader in — and then leave him or her hanging without any form of adequate resolution. It's nearly impossible to keep yourself from investing in this tale — but unfortunately, such an expenditure never really pays off.

Style: 7 (Steve Gerber) 9 (Jonathan Lethem)

As with most late 70s/early 80s comic book writers, Steve Gerber teases his story with brilliance and poignance, but the prose suffers from being unnecessarily verbose. At the time, the parallel method of storytelling was revolutionary — the stories of both Omega and James Michael are equally intriguing, and the relevance of their connection is the investment that keeps you reading. Still, Gerber's writing style is fairly standard for the time.

The re-imagining of Omega the Unknown was Jonathan Lethem's first attempt at graphic fiction. Even when his efforts fall flat, however, his ambitions remain admirable. For example, Lethem narrates a good portion of the story from the point of view of a statue in the public park across the street from the apartment in which Titus Alexander takes up residence; even when this narrative device fumbles (in one chapter, the talking fountain head attempts to form a punk rock band, a subplot which, while entertaining, greatly detracts from the main story), Lethem's ardor and creativity still carry the story (until the very end). Furthermore, the use of The Mink as a stand-in for all Marvel Comics superheroes takes the story well beyond standard work-for-hire superhero pulp and positions in its own fantastical and infinitely more fascinating world.

General: 6.5 (Gerber) 8 (Lethem)

While I don't regret having read the original version of Omega the Unknown — as I said, the way in which the story realistically handles teenage life in Upper Manhattan was quite impressive for the times — I couldn't help but feel ultimately unsatisfied with what began as a ravishing narrative concept. While I understand that this was not necessarily Steve Gerber's fault, as the series was forced into cancellation before he had a chance to resolve many of his looming plot points, it still left me with a negative feeling, despite the positivity I felt while actually reading the story. Jonathan Lethem's take proved much more satisfying and entertaining — even though the final chapter was disappointing, Lethem more efficiently illustrated his ability to explore and present the ideas behind the Omega the Unknown concept. Even if the ultimate product leaves the reader desiring more, Lethem's story is almost fantastic enough to forgive its unsatisfactory conclusion. Almost.

Overall: 6.5 (Gerber) 7.85 (Lethem)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You: Twisted but Satisfied

In celebration of Thanksgiving this year, I celebrated by spending two nights straight nose-in to Jonathan Tropper's novel, This Is Where I Leave You.


The premise is simple: Dad dies and his dying wish is that his four kids sit shiva, a Jewish mourning ritual where the deceased's immediate family sits in short-legged chairs while everyone who's ever even heard of the deceased comes by to visit over seven days. It's a fairly reverent and dedicated form of grieving; a way to both remember the loved one who's passed while physically and - theoretically, anyway - emotionally being there for those left behind to grieve. The Foxmans, however, know how to suck the reverent out of everything.

The novel's greatest strength is found among its inhabitants: the relationships amongst siblings, between children and mother, between the Foxmans and their neighbors. Tropper succeeds at creating relationships that ebb and flow, changing not only based on the day or the mood, but also on who else is present in the room with them. You get the full sense of how people change based on who they're interacting with, and though Tropper overuses, for my taste, ellipses, the weaker parts of the book are easily forgotten when he uncovers the meat underneath.

Judd Foxman, having recently experienced the trauma of walking in on his wife having porn-grade sex with his boss, is the perfect narrator for the story. He has neither the patience nor the luxury of sugar coating his own anger and hurt or that of his siblings, and the result is a well-paced novel version of what TV series refer to as a bottle episode. Dad's death aggravates decades' worth of repressed anger amongst siblings and siblings-in-law and Judd, having lost everything including his wife, his job and his home, has no reasons left to play nice. He's vulnerable and finally able to come clean, laying everything bare without apology. Because of this he alternates between being a silent witness to marital tiffs and uncomfortable exchanges in the shiva room to instigating physical confrontations with his wife's new lover and yelling matches with his older brother Paul.

Judd isn't perfect in any other sense than he's a great venue through which to tell the stories of the Foxmans. He is a throbbing, festering wound of hatred and thwarted love and misunderstood intentions. As much as the others, he is beginning to realize the unalterable circumstances he now finds himself in, plagued by both the finality of the changes he's experienced and the replaying of the past moments when he could have avoided the path that catapulted him to his current reality. Tropper's characters don't just tell us how they're feeling, they make us feel it with them, experiencing as much confusion, conflict and resignation as we read, as they do experiencing it. Tropper tells so many stories at once, defying summation and complete resolution without bogging us down with reality; the characters are rich, complicated, and permanently sad, but also funny and so devoted to one another in both extremes of human emotion that we can't help but watch them burrow deeper into their problems, comforted only by the fact that they're doing it together, on really short chairs.


This Is Where I Leave You

by Jonathan Tropper

Story - 8.0

Someone once said that happy families are all the same, but unhappy families are unhappy in very unique ways. Tropper creates such a uniquely unhappy family and forces them together to be unhappy in a tiny room, a perfect storm of misunderstandings and pent up emotion. Without the overwrought waxing philosophical so familiar in books containing funerals, Tropper appeals to the self-centeredness in all of us to empathize with the narrator.

Style - 7.0

One of the complaints about Tropper's narrator and voice was that it was self-indulgent, that there were jokes that fell flat or brilliant writing for the sake of sounding brilliant. For once, however, I read this book as a reader rather than a writer and those flaws struck me as justifiable characteristics of the narrator rather than shortcomings of the writer.

General - 8.7

I read this book in two days and no matter how much free time I have on my hands, I will not spend valuable chunks of two vacation days reading a book I don't thoroughly enjoy. Tropper's characters are rich and compelling, and his conflicts are satisfying and nuanced as well as big enough to shake these people's entire universe.

Overall - 7.9

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