Narwhal Party

Favorite Things: George Saunders
12/31/2010, 9:44 am
Filed under: Books, Words | Tags: , , , ,

One of my favorite endeavors of 2010 has been delving into the stories of George Saunders. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t find his work earlier, but this year I read his three collections, Pastoralia, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, and In Persuasion Nation (in that order). Most of his stories are build on some strange, vague premise, absurd and funny and often unsettling. But Saunders’ power lies in his ability to create these absurd circumstances and, just when you’re getting your footing, take a powerfully human turn that is usually packed with startlingly authentic emotion and power. Most of the time, these turns are shocking, especially when they are in stories about extreme reality shows, unnecessary inventions, strange theme parks, ghosts, and television commercials. Yet he draws so much humanity out of such ridiculous circumstances.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker’s blog, The Book Bench, Saunders touches on this skill of his:

If I want the reader to feel sympathy for a character, I cleave the character in half, on his birthday. And then it starts raining. And he’s made of sugar.

Are people made of sugar? Is it raining? How often does a guy get cut in half on his birthday? Still, the story about the sugar-guy being cut in half on his birthday in the rain is not saying: this happens. It is saying, If this happened, what would that be like? Its subject becomes, say, undeserved misery—which does happen. We know that, we feel it. And maybe (the argument goes) it was necessary to make this exaggerated sugar-guy and cut him in half in order to remind ourselves, at sufficient volume, that undeserved misery exists—to sort of rarify and present that feeling so we might feel it anew.

Read the fantastic new story, “Escape From Spiderhead” from a recent New Yorker, here.


Atmospheric Disturbances
03/26/2010, 10:29 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , ,

The always wonderful RadioLab podcast ran a short story on Capgras–a disorder in which a person believes a friend or relative has been replaced by an identical looking impostor. You can stream it here, or just subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. I highly recommend spending some time with their earlier episodes.

The episode immediately reminded me of Atmospheric Disturbances, the wonderful debut novel from Rivka Galchen. The narrator suffers from Capgras, or something like it, believing that his wife has been replaced by a doppelganger. It’s an engaging experience with an unreliable narrator that involves conspiracy theories about meteorology, Argentina, and secret societies…I highly recommend it. Here’s a “book trailer” for it:

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
03/03/2010, 9:07 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , ,

The nine stories that comprise Well’s Tower’s debut book follow characters—mostly men—of all ages that just can’t quite get it right. They’re all on the verge of something, for better or worse. Most of them try, or at least intend to try, but fall short again and again. The stories range from eerie to embarrassing and most of them include some sort of violence blooming out of the commonplace. The stories aren’t necessarily dark; in fact they are often charmingly funny. In the opening story, “The Brown Coast,” the protagonist is trying to escape a lost job, a lawsuit, and a failed marriage, and seems to only dig himself deeper. In “Retreat,” a brotherly rivalry leads only to failure. “Down Through The Valley” features a narrator who, in doing a favor for his ex-wife’s boyfriend, unexpectedly creates violent chaos. Other stories feature other failures and losers: a senile chess fanatic, a boy faking illness to avoid his stepfather, an elderly war vet soliciting a prostitute. In “Wild America,” much like the James Joyce story “An Encounter,” the thing causing that sinking fear in us never quite comes to pass, or is even outright mentioned. There’s also a gory and poignant story about Vikings… Here is a short, animated adaptation:

Tower also has a wonderful story called “Raw Water” in McSweeney’s Thirty-Two.

And here is a wonderful article from The Rumpus on Wells Tower’s 90s post-punk band.

Jocks v. Nerds: Internal Conflict?
02/16/2010, 11:22 am
Filed under: Books, Sports | Tags: , , , , , ,

I came across this WSJ article through The Book Bench, The New Yorker’s book blog. Apparently the growing number of foreign-born NBA players are in many cases, avid readers. Most players fill their time with video games and iPods, but there is an increasing number of players who unwind the old-fashioned way. Clearly this has everything to do with America’s electronic/consumer culture and kids eschewing a full college career for an early trip to the Big Show. It’s good to know that some cultures are still able to instill reading habits, even among the jocks. And even though it was an assignment from Lakers coach Phil Jackson, it warms my heart to think that Pau Gasol is reading 2666 . Here’s the article.

02/11/2010, 9:37 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , ,

When I first read J.D. Salinger’s truly iconic novel, The Catcher In The Rye, it was on the insistence of a friend whose life had apparently been forever altered upon reading it. This friend was a bit older than the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, probably 17 or 18 at the time, and I was 20. This friend was so affected by Salinger’s work that he promptly drafted a novella that was embarrassingly similar in voice: the cadence of the narration, the flippant disregard for everyone around him who just didn’t get it. So after his prodding, I finally decided to have a run at the book. And I only made it about 25 pages in before quitting out of apathy. Salinger’s fearless adoption of Holden Caulfield’s voice stood like an implacable roadblock in front of me. Holden’s honesty was discomforting. The outdated slang felt awkward. I didn’t connect with the spoiled rich kid who hated everything. Holden seemed to be the biggest phony of them all. I called him a whiner and moved on.

As I read Catcher now, I’m able to distance myself from the narrative voice a bit and respect the book for what it does. Other authors have won me over by delving so deeply into the first person perspective—Faulkner in The Sound And The Fury is the best example—so I felt much more open to Catcher as an in-depth character study. Once I realized that I didn’t have to agree with Holden, or continually sympathize with him, the book took on a much more enjoyable tone. This isn’t to say I didn’t identify with Holden in many instances throughout the book—mostly the awkward and confused optimism that occasionally fights its way through the clouds before it’s quickly obstructed again. The book’s title comes from a fleeting stream-of-conscience moment of earnest mis-remembrance, but his sincerity in wanting to save the innocent youth from the phony world is endearing—as his love for his little sister and his dead brother. There are times in which Holden’s apathy shifts into painfully genuine love, and he often catches himself and pulls his ennui back down like his red hunting cap. And it’s at these moments that Salinger so accurately encompasses the adolescent voice, which is why this book has been able to deeply affect young people, despite the dramatic changes in teen life. [Couldn’t Holden just as easily posted a MySpace blog about his angst?] In the end, Holden Caulfield is no hero to me, as he was to my friend (and countless others), but he’s much easier to listen to now.

It’s clear now, too, that Holden is less bratty and more genuinely troubled. His attitude isn’t merely the hopelessness of a spoiled rich kid struggling through adolescence, fighting through his emotions. There are many hints at real trouble beneath the surface: he’d rather cut a boy’s head off with an axe than punch him in the face, he’s haunted by the image of a school mate’s suicide, he refers to his hunting cap as a “people-hunting” cap. He is clearly pained by the death of his little brother. He alludes to past run-ins with “perverts.” Still, he complains of the weight of his money, the burden of having better luggage than his roommate. And despite all the sympathetic qualities, at these moments, I want to pull the goddam red cap over his face and push him back out in the rain.

Now that Salinger has passed, and I’m a teacher planning on handing this book off to students, I thought it would be a good read, and I was right. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I would still recommend Nine Stories before it, any day.

02/01/2010, 8:11 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , ,

Await Your Reply
Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is meticulously built around the complications of our concepts of identity. In Dan Chaon’s second novel, identities are stolen, invented, and deliberately left behind, leaving the characters to wrestle with the resulting affects. Throughout this taught novel, told with focus on three separate characters who are pulled closer together with each chapter, the reader is forced to confront their concept of identity—who we truly are and where the boundaries lie. It would be hard to detail too much of the story without hinting or spoiling what unfolds, so I won’t try. The book is often eerie, constantly hinting at madness (whether feigned or otherwise, we’re never quite sure). It opens, abruptly and without explanation, on an empty highway in rural Michigan, with a severed hand in a cooler. Similar images combine with troubling uncertainty to create a sense mystery and suspense that is often absent from popular literary fiction. The three seemingly separate stories end in cliffhangers, and hints and clues are skillfully (even menacingly) dropped throughout. Though this is the first book of Dan Chaon’s I’ve read, I know that he works in short fiction (his first pursuit) as much as he does in novels, and the serialized format employed here seems to lend to his experience with smaller-scale stories, quite successfully. The book holds up as beautiful prose, as well as a thoroughly entertaining read. Certainly recommended.

Upon reading the character name Jay Kozelek, I immediately thought of Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon frontman, Mark Kozelek. Upon further investigation, his music is included on a “soundtrack” for the book, found on Chaon’s site. In honor of the shared surname, here is a song from the equally eerie/beautiful singer-songwriter.

Mark Kozelek, “Cary Me Ohio”

Mark Kozelek covering the Bonnie “Prince” Billy song, “New Partner”

Visit Chaon’s official site here.

2009: Books
01/17/2010, 8:56 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , ,

So I figured the best way to get this blog going would be to write a few posts looking back on 2009. My favorite albums can be seen below, with more posts to come. I read more books last year than any other year of my life. Here are a few of my favorites (read in, not necessarily published in ’09):

My absolute favorites were 2666 and The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño–expect longer, more detailed and gushing posts to follow. Other books that are helpless next to these, yet were still vastly enjoyable include:

Last Evenings On Earth, Roberto Bolaño

–A wonderful sort story collection. For anyone interested in Bolaño, this would be a great place to begin. It was written much earlier than his masterworks, but still gives the reader a taste of his themes and various styles. Some of the stories are absolutely phenomenal in their ability to contain entire worlds in a limited space.

The Skating Rink, Roberto Bolaño

–This was apparently Bolaño’s first novel published in Spanish. Reading it after reading much of his later work, it’s clearly a warm-up to where he was going. Many of the writer’s favorite ideas and themes—violence, drinking, a Spanish campground, sex, multiple perspectives, expatriate poets—appear in this brief, yet engaging novel.

Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen

I read this quickly over the course of my trip to Boston in the summer of 2009. It still feels hot and sticky and exciting because of it. It’s written playfully—an unreliable narrator, a character that shares the name of the author. It moves quickly, too. Echoes of Nabokov and Pynchon’s Lot 49 constantly ring throughout. It turns out that there is a lot of fun to be had in the mind of a conspiracy theorist who thinks his wife has been swapped out for a doppelganger. I look forward to more from Galchen.

Foreskin’s Lament, by Shalom Auslander

I became interested in this book because of Auslander’s work on This American Life. Though I’m never too interested in memoirs, this is so touching and funny and honest, that I forgive it its genre. In fact, it reads more like a novel, jumping between the childhood and adulthood of a religiously terrified writer who destroys entire drafts in fear of God’s wrath. Auslander’s honesty is powerful and leads to insights that more fearful writers couldn’t achieve. The paradox here: fearlessly detailing your fears. It’s absolutely hilarious, too.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

The only other Eggers book I’ve read, What Is The What?, was enjoyable but suffered under the weight of its length and its gamble of first-person perspective. Here, Eggers again tells a true account of startling events in the life on an American immigrant, but rectifies the problems he struggled against in the past. Hurricane Katrina happened nearly five years ago, but the shock that Zeitoun unleashes is new and palpable. It tells the story of a New Orleans apart from the tourist magnet of Bourbon Street—inhabited by real Americans with real stories that deserve to be read.

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

A Dutch-born New Yorker, braving the waters of a disintegrating marriage, gets mixed up with a wild, entrepreneurial Trinidadian, obsessed with the game of cricket. Engaging. O’Neill has a powerful stillness in his voice.

Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

Another New York novel written by an Irishman. McCann takes on several narrators, mostly in 1974. The aging hooker grandma feels a bit forced, yes, but everything else clicks extremely well. A powerful novel about chance and chaos and loss. Winner of the National Book Award.

Lush Life, by Richard Price

Truthfully, this was a bit of a letdown, if only because of the lofty expectations I held for a writer who has been responsible for some of the best episodes of The Wire. I realize those expectations are a bit unfair, just like I realize that this was a joy to read. Another New York novel (third on the list, I know, but don’t worry, I have no intentions to move to, let alone visit the city). Like The Wire, Lush Life paints an objective picture of cops and crime in a city in constant flux.