Friday, August 28, 2009

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: I recently realized that I have a huge gaping hole in my formal and informal literary education. I have virutally no exposure to American writers from the South, particulary those associated with the Southern Gothic literary style including William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams etc.

On a recent trip to New Orleans I endeavored to remedy this deficiency and I stopped by Faulkner House Books and asked the woman who worked there (who is an expert in all things Faulkner) which of his books I should read first. She handed my a copy of As I Lay Dying with a big smile. This choice was not a suprising one, As I Lay Dying is considered Faulkner's most accessible novel and is the usually recommended as the best starting point for new readers to Faulker's body of work.

I confess to being extremely frustrated with the beginning several chapters of As I Lay Dying. The rural dialect was difficult to understand. Additionally, the stream of conscious narrative was confusing. Each chapter is narrated from the point of view of a different character. The character narrarating the chapter would refer to "him" "her" or "it" and you had no idea who or what was being referenced since stream of conscious writing necessarily eliminates exposition. My frustration lifted after several chapters though and I began to enjoy the book immensely. The rural dialect seemed more accessible and the people and objects who were unidentified in previous chapters eventually become known in later chapters.

This is not a book where you can put your brain on autopilot and enjoy the ride - it requires what I call "active reading" - Faulkner forces you to put the pieces together and you have to pay attention to understand the narrative. However, when you eventually figure that issue or event that was confused and unclear eariler in the novel it is extremely satisfying - like finishing a sukodu puzzle or eating nachos.

There has been much discussion and scholarship about the themes of As I Lay Dying: subjective truth vs. objective truth, social definitions of normalcy, personal isolation, limitations and pride associated with poverty, and the ugly nature of physical processes. However, it is not the novel's themes or social commentary that have stayed with me since I finished this book. Stripped away of all themes, symbols and motifs, this book at its core, in my opinion, is a very dark comedy - and I like dark comedies.

The basic plot line revolves around a family of ignorant rural hillbillies who are taking the decomposing corpse of the family matriarch to a town 30 miles away for burial. What makes it really dark is that it takes them several days to get started so that the body is badly decomposing and reeking throughout the ardous journey under the hot Mississippi sun. Their wagon is followed by buzzards and they bring disgust and inconvenience upon every person or town unfortunate enough to cross their path. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic either, for although they claim to be transporting the body out of respect for the dead woman's wishes in reality they all have their own selfish motivations for the trip whether it be to obtain false teeth or an abortion. That said, there are several characters that I did find myself warming up to and kept me emotional invested in the story; Darl and Cash in particular.

In the end it was the clever writing (one which offered reward after challenging readers) and the deliciously evil and darkly comical plot line that won me over. I look forward to reading more of Faulkner's work.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (2008)

Reviewer: Trixie Belden

Rating: 5 Pierogies

The Hunger Games is one of those books that when you finish, you feel sad because the story is over and you will never be able to read it for the first time again. I read this book in two days and I am now disappointed in myself for not having slowed down to savor it. Let this be a warning for future readers of The Hunger Games – do not allow yourself to speed-read through this book or you will regret it later!

I am happy to report that The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic America and the main character – Katniss – is from an area that was once known as Appalachia. The main industry in her poor region is coal mining. Based on these clues, I decided that Katniss was probably from Pittsburgh – no wonder she was a smart, strong, and compassionate girl! Suzanne Collins’s nod to Pittsburgh (at least in my imagination) definitely set me up to love the book.

In the Hunger Games, 24 children are taken by the government every year and forced to participate in a reality television show where they fight to the death, leaving one child alive and victorious. After the government randomly selects Katniss’s little sister to participate, Katniss makes the ultimate sacrifice and volunteers to take her place in the game.

While playing, underdog Katniss must “outplay, outsmart, and outlast” her competitors. I loved the premise of this novel and learning about how Katniss played the game – her strategies, friendships, alliances, etc. Suzanne Collins succeeded in being descriptive, but not too descriptive in a way that would have interrupted the fast pace of this novel.

I found The Hunger Games to be extremely engaging and addictive. I highly recommend it as an entertaining and thought-provoking read. I also note that while this book is categorized as young adult, I found that it easily crosses over to an adult audience. Its sequel, Catching Fire, comes out September 1, and I plan to be at Barnes and Nobel first thing in the morning on September 1 to pick it up.

Marley & Me: Life and Love With the World's Worst Dog, John Grogan (2005)

Editor's Note: We were recently informed by a reader and friend that the books featured on Yinzer Bookclub are "snooty" - this review seeks to remedy this problem. Indeed, we are often quite responsive to literary fads and mass commercialization. Harry Potter Theme Park anyone? WOO HOO!

Reviewer: Spudbabe

Rating: 2 Overcooked Pierogies

Review: John Grogan is a journalist who wrote such a touching eulogy for his dog in the newspaper, he was encouraged to write an autobiographical book about his family’s relationship with their dog, Marley. The story was apprently so compelling that it was a New York Times bestseller and inspired a movie starring Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, and Dylan Henry.

Marley is an adorable, but badly behaved Labrador Retriever who was adopted by the Grogan’s shortly after they were married. He is with them through their ups and downs, and all the stages of this young family. They are inevitably taught about themselves, life, and love. Awwwwww!

I am an animal lover who can relate completely to the story of a family’s love for their dog. Some parts were truly touching and sweet. One or two were funny-ish, and the end made me cry like an infant. The problem I had were the stories about the family. I found many of their choices that set up these supposedly hilarious stories to be stupid and annoying. I thought John Grogan was totally unlikable, and quite frankly, I don’t need to know how they conceived their children. I guess the appeal is supposed to be fact that they are an ordinary family. But I don’t really want to read 304 pages about a boring family that I don’t like.

The bottom line is that this should have been a 100 page novella focused solely on the dog. I think it could have been very tender and moving. Instead, John Grogan forced us to read way too much about him and it was incredibly cheesy. I also found it to be emotionally manipulative at times, which I do not appreciate.

I would say this is a good light read, but it’s not that good, and it’s too upsetting to be considered light. So I guess if you like to cry hysterically over something that isn’t very good and find tedious journalists to be fascinating, this is the book for you!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Asheville N.C.

Posted By: Elle Ewok

On a recent trip to Asheville, North Carolina I visited the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. It is his mother's old boarding house, Old Kentucky Home, which was immortalized as "Dixieland" in his largely autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929). It is preserved as it existed in the early 1900s.

The visit would have been more meaningful had I read Look Homeward, Angel prior to the tour but it was still interesting historically and has provided a context for my imagination as I read the novel now (I picked up a copy in the gift shop). The best part of the tour was when the elderly tour guide caught my bored mother trying to escape early and made her stay. I can't take her anywhere!

For Thomas Wolfe fans who haven't made it to Asheville, I have posted some pictures I took of Old Kentucky Home. Included is a picture of Julia Wolfe's bedroom (Eliza Gant in Look Homeward, Angel) with her personal belongings still scattered about the room. The other picture is of the early 20th century kitchen.

The memorial is located at 52 North Market Street in Asheville and the admission fee is only $1.

Yinzer Cats Are Really Cute & Literate

Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo (2007)

Reviewer: Trixie Belden

Rating: 2 Pierogies

I read Bridge of Sighs because it was the monthly selection of my book club. According to members of the club, Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls, is a beautiful writer and they surmised that Bridge of Sighs would be a great read. After reading the novel, I agree that Richard Russo can write beautifully, however, it fell short on all other requirements for a good book.

Bridge of Sighs tells the story of a man named Louis C. Lynch (nicknamed Lucy after an unfortunate roll calling incident in kindergarten) who is writing his life story starting from the age of five. And my god, his story is detailed. Just from reading pages 1-200 (and let’s not talk about pages 201-600), I could practically recite the weather and what Lucy had for lunch every day until he reached high school, not to mention every slight, sneer, or smile directed his way. One would assume that Richard Russo had an editor, but I saw no sign of one while reading this book.

In short (and let this be a lesson to you Richard Russo), Lucy was an awkward child who had no friends, except for a neighbor boy named Bobby Marconi. Bobby, however, does not consider Lucy to be a friend because he finds him to be pathetically needy (I mostly shared this sentiment). Their lives are contrasted throughout the novel as Lucy’s parents are “good” and Bobby’s parents are “bad”. In high school, Lucy’s father buys a perpetually failing corner store and Lucy, Bobby, and Lucy’s girlfriend Sarah find their lives revolving around the store and each other.

In addition to my complaints about the lack of editing (it was all I could do to make it past page 300), I had quite a few other complaints about this book.

First, for most of the book, I did not find the central characters to be appealing. For instance, Lucy was a weak boy who could not handle the rigors of childhood. I know that kids are mean, but I have no more sympathy for Lucy than I do for any other kid going through elementary school and middle school. Growing up is hard, yes, but we all do it and we all move on without fixating on our childhood problems for over 200 pages. It was just too much character development. For other reasons, I also did not like Lucy’s parents or Bobby. Although the characters grew on me towards the end, it felt like too little, too late.

I also found Richard Russo’s portrayal of the main female characters to be off-putting. Both Lucy’s mother and Sarah were talented and smart women who chose to marry their spouses for stability and devotion rather than for true love. The author contrasted their choices with the choices of Sarah’s mother and Bobby’s mother who married men that were exciting to them, but who ended up treating them badly. My problem with this portrayal is that it suggests that women have no control over their own destinies – that they must blindly succumb to the personality of the man that they marry and give up their futures to the whim of their spouse. Richard Russo also fails to acknowledge that not all men (and women) fall into his black and white categories. Not all smart, educated men are selfish and cruel and not all simple men are kind. Similarly, not all smart women are willing to sacrifice their dreams for stability.

While the book picked up its pace in the last 200 pages, I was left with a feeling of dislike towards the characters. And that made me feel bad about myself - that I am not as kind-hearted and open-minded towards people less fortunate or less ambitious than myself as I should be. In conclusion, while it may be a good thing that this book made me more aware of my own faults, I can’t help feeling that I wasted too much time (600+ pages) learning this lesson.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Dance With Dragons, George R.R. Martin (2010)

Release Date: September 28, 2010

Posted By: Elle Ewok

Mark your calendars, according to Amazon, A Dance With Dragons will be released next September 2010. Well, it seems the old perv is finally making some progress!

A Dance With Dragons is the highly anticipated 5th book of the incomparable series A Song of Ice and Fire. Its release date has been pushed back repeatedly. The first book of this seven book series was published in 1996 and readers have become rather impatient with the slow publication of the remainder of the series. By the time A Dance With Dragons is published next year it will have been five years between the fourth and fifth books. I know some of you will say that these are long books with detailed plots and that patience is a virtue. To you I say, SHUT THE HELL UP! This is America 2009 - the Golden Age of Narcassistic Entitlement. As such, George R.R. Martin needs to get his pudgy rear in gear and convert his blood, sweat and tears into a product for our consumption NOW. Then the government should give us copies for free. LITERACY IS A RIGHT! GIVE US FREE SHIT!

I affectionately refer to Mr. Martin as a perv because of the disturbing and ridiculously gratuitous sexual violence directed towards women and the bizarre, detailed, hyper-sexual content revolving around a 13 year old girl in the first two books of the series. However, due to desensitization and the unparalleled entertainment value otherwise present in the books, I have always recommend this series enthusiastically.

The POV characters for A Dance With Dragons have been released (YAY!): Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Bran Stark, Arya Stark, Asha Greyjoy, Theon Greyjoy, Quentyn Martell, Varamyr Sixskins and one further yet to be revealed character.

It is wonderful to see that some of the best characters will be coming back, I've missed them.

At 61 years old and a chubster many are fearful that Mr. Martin will not live long enough to complete his masterpiece at this pace. The Yinzer Book Club wishes Mr. Martin continued good health and a good yinzer work ethic.

Yinzer Smackdown: Spudbabe v. Trixie

The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova (2005)

Literary Piece of Gold or Literary Piece of Poo? You Decide!

For years now Spudbabe and Trixie have argued the merits of Kostova's 2005's bestseller.

Trixie: "The Historian is like The DaVinci Code on crack – beautifully written and well researched, it captivated me with its complex story of a father and daughter unraveling a horrifying mystery leading to Dracula. I devoured this book like none other – thank you Elizabeth Kostova!!!"

Spudbabe: "If I had to sum up this book in one sentence it would be: The Vampire Da Vinci Code minus everything good. The whole time I read this I kept thinking 'this has to get better, it's a mystery about vampires!' Spoiler alert: it didn't. So if you like unimaginative and boring vampire stories with unlikable characters, read the Twilight saga. If you want to read something slightly less terrible and embarrassing, read the Historian. I give it two soggy pierogies."

Elle Ewok: "I don't know, I only read 30 pages and then threw it against the wall. I guess that means I don't like it. Considering I will watch or read anything having to do with Vampires this is bad - I mean I continue to watch TRUE BLOOD for God's sake."

We have decided to resolve this contentious Yinzer Bookclub debate by turing it over to all three of our readers. Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn (1989)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 2 Pierogies

Review: I believe originality is a virtue that should be recognized and celebrated and Geek Love excels in this regard. If you are one of those people, like myself, who watch the TLC shows about the quests of the morbidly obese to get laid, the tree man, the woman with 200 pound legs and people with disfiguring tumors this book may have a certain appeal. Typically, after indulging my sick curiosities by watching a TLC show documenting the misery of another human being, I inevitably feel an overwhelming weight of shame which is pretty much how I felt upon completing Geek Love. The premise of Geek Love involves a couple who purposely conceive children with physical deformities in order to populate the freak show of their traveling carnival. Clearly this premise is disturbing and twisted but Dunn somehow managed to make it feel realistic and natural in context at first. I actually really enjoyed the first half of the book describing Fabulon and the Binewski siblings' childhood because it was well-written, imaginative and managed to have some heart and sweetness despite the sick context in a bizarre sort of way.

About halfway through the book everything changed. I was laying on the couch reading when Boyfriend asked me how I was doing and I nearly bit his head off. Why? Well, I realized that Geek Love had transformed into a toxic piece of poo that had seeped into my circulatory system thus polluting my heart and mind. Dunn had commenced piling on one cruel and disgusting event on top of another; truly sick stuff that did not seem to have a greater purpose other than to challenge the reader's gag reflex. I couldn't shake the feeling that the Dunn was more interested in demonstrating her daring and how far she was willing to go to rather than writing a good story. Pushing the envelope can be great if it is done with purpose in a thought provoking and carefully crafted manner. However, it is a fine line and if you go too far too often the shock value is gone, the goodwill is gone and you are just left with a huge pile of garbage. Pain is a major theme through the book and if Dunn's intention was to inflict as much pain on her readers as possible she may be a genius afterall but I still want to punch her in the face. She is undeniably a very imaginative and talented writer. Technically the book was more than competent; but the content of this book became truly nauseating.

At first I was shocked and appalled to learn that Geek Love was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1989 then I realized that the National Book Award is probably awarded by a committee of godforsaken pretentious hippies so it makes sense. From me this book gets 2 Perogies, a bottle of dramamine and trip to the Confessional.