The Book Catapult

Autumn Readings

My reading in the last couple of weeks has slowed to a crawl, at least by my normally frantic pace. In those weeks, I’ve moved across town, which always takes more out of you than when you cross state lines and travel thousands of miles, and I’ve tried to maintain the Warwick’s Twitter feed, Facebook page, and blog as much as possible during my days, which is proving to be just as hard as keeping the Catapult up to date. (Luckily, we have multiple contributors, so I don’t have to produce quite so much content.) I’ve also written a few short reviews for KPBS’s Culture Lust blog on Thomas Pynchon, Ron Currie, Reif LarsonJonathan Lethem, and Jess Walter (coming soon) – most of which I’ve mentioned here already, but, of course this is my blog afterall. I’ve also started a “program” of sorts at the store where I rap at folks over coffee, discussing what’s new & awesome in the world of books, interspersed, of course, with my own recommendations. Anyhow, I’ll mention here a couple of the books I’ve read lately, leaving out the ones that aren’t to be published until 2010 – a hazard of the job, I’m afraid. You will have to wait for my thoughts on Ray Banks’ No More Heroes (March 2010), The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbo (March 2010), If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr (March 2010), and John Burdett’s The Godfather of Kathmandu (January 10, 2010). (Spoiler: they’re all pretty awesome.)

The Museum of Innocence – Orhan Pamuk
There’s no denying Pamuk’s incredible gift for language – regardless of whether it’s translated from Turkish or not, I suppose. I really enjoyed the clever, intricate My Name is Red, which I read after he was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, although I haven’t been able to devote myself to Snow, which feels a bit more impenetrable on the surface. Previous work aside, I was giving his new book my full attention for about 10 days when I became thoroughly bogged down by the narrator’s obsessions and self-flagellation – too much for anyone with anything on their plate. In 1975 Istanbul, Kemal is engaged to Sibel – a status of near sacred importance in Turkish society, second only to the sanctity of female virginity and purity. When he meets his distant cousin, Füsun, he falls into a secret, passionate love affair with her, shattering all cultural mores and threatening both of their futures in their homeland. When she breaks the affair off – for obvious reasons, really – Kemal reaches a level of obsession that is almost unwatchable, certainly unreadable, at least for me. I think that if you find yourself not wanting to pick the book up when you have the chance to get a bit of reading in, maybe you should give it a break. So I did. I may go back to it, who knows.

Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer
mmmm, ham sandwichNovelist Foer (Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) has spent the majority of his adult life as a vegetarian – partially as a selective omnivore – but when on the cusp of first-time fatherhood, he began to question where it is that our meat comes from and whether he should raise his child as strictly vegetarian in light of those facts. This book is the result of his pondering research. Let me be clear: I am an omnivore. I don’t eat a lot of meat, but I do eat it. And I thoroughly enjoy what I eat. What bothered me about his argument against eating meat was just that – it felt like an argument for argument’s sake, without offering any real world solutions for those of us who currently have meat in our diets. Factory farming is a serious problem in this country – one which the majority of us are blissfully unaware of – and there’s no doubt that real reform is needed. However, I got the sense that Foer was covertly trying to convince the reader that meat is bad – forcing us to gaze upon the bloody, violent slaughterhouses and the shit-stained chicken coops – rather than accepting the fact that some human beings are omnivores, even carnivores, and offering some guidance. It’s easy to report back on the terrible conditions on the factory farms of America (Fast Food Nation?) but another thing entirely to have the journalistic responsibility to offer at least a conclusion to your argument, if not a solution to the very problem you present. Not to rag on him further, since I genuinely like the guy, but it all felt very disjointed, bouncing from tuna farming (just barely) to cattle to chicken to pigs, interspersing transcripted monologues from industry insiders and PETA members – none of it ever felt fully formed or cohesive. There are flashes of genuinely interesting pieces of information (that definitely have gotten me to rethink where my food comes from) but ultimately it disappoints with it’s lack of definitive solutions.

The Kingdom of Ohio – Matthew Flaming
Unlike the rest of the books I’ve mentioned here, Flaming’s book is not yet released, but I don’t feel like I’d be ruining anything for you by telling you about it, since, to be honest, you more than likely won’t read it anyway. This had tremendous potential, at least in my opinion: set in turn-of-the-century Manhattan as the intricate subway tunnels were being built and featuring Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and alternate reality time travelers from a lost kingdom in Ohio, but it never really came together and even the historically based characters felt flat and wooden. (I say, watch David Bowie’s incredible performance as Tesla in The Prestige instead.) The ending – when the whole time-travel, alternate-reality-thing should have come together – really fizzled and never delivered the goods.

The Financial Lives of the Poets – Jess Walter
I’ve written quite a bit on this already – I have a post on the Warwick’s blog and an upcoming review on Culture Lust – but it’s becoming abundantly clear that this is one of the best books I’ve read all year. Walter, the author of the Edgar-winning Citizen Vince and the National Book Award-nominated The Zero, is clever enough to have created a wildly comic novel with a moving, very real, very human story at it’s center. The moral is: selling weed is never the way out, no matter how good of an idea it may seem like, since you were probably just high when you thought of it anyway.

The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet – Arturo Perez-Reverte
I know that I previously, mildly bashed the author and his website in an earlier posting, but that had nothing to do with how I feel about the man’s writing. I truly think that this series gets stronger with each book – Perez-Revete abandons the weighty period dialogue (1620’s Spain) and poetry readings a bit in this 5th “Captain Alatriste” novel, making it much more readable, leaving more room for the idiosyncrasies of Alatriste’s personality to shine and for narrator Inigo Balboa to begin to come into his own. In this episode, Alatriste ends up mired in dangerous, shadowy conspiracies when his favor falls on an actress fancied by King Philip IV. Unlike the others, this doesn’t rely so heavily on the previous books – you can certainly read this as a stand-alone. Great escapist reading for history buffs & mystery readers alike.

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