Sunday, May 29, 2011

War Dances, by Sherman Alexie

I think I would be a better person if I spent a little time in Sherman Alexie's presence every day. He's smart and funny and reasonable and passionate. And he's good at taking a stand. I have really enjoyed everything I've read of his, including many interviews. Here is a very funny clip of him talking to Steven Colbert about why he won't allow any of his work to be sold electronically.

Some of the things I love about this book:

It is a perfectly balanced collection of prose and poetry. Everyone likes poetry, right, but how many of us can manage a whole book of it? Much better to have it mixed in with good old-fashioned prose.

It is always hard to tell whether these stories are autobiographical, fictional, or a combination of the two. For some reason this makes them all seem very real and very true. And it's not at all distracting, as I would have expected. Instead of wondering which parts are the author, and which parts are imagined, I find myself thinking that these are the thoughts and actions of a real person in a real situation.

The people in this book are all flawed, and are all exactly the kind of people I would like to hang out with. Alexie's characters all share an authenticity that is rare and delicate. I've always wondered how one would invent a person and make her true to herself; half the time I don't know how I'm going to feel about something, so how on earth would I know how my fictional character would feel? Apparently Sherman Alexie does not have this problem.

This is a quick read. Yet it is not at all fluffy. This, I think, is a rare gift, to be able to write stories that are true and rich and yet simple. It feels as though he's sitting a the table with you, telling you the story, choosing his words carefully, but not deliberating overlong, not complicating things.

I read The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian about a year ago, then immediately watched Smoke Signals, a movie for which he wrote the screenplay. I am now tempted to gather all things Alexie and power through them, but that would be like eating all your jellybeans on Easter morning. An indulgence which ultimately makes you wish you had some restraint.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Luis Zafon

This book was a little too melodramatic for me. I was initially charmed by the setting, and was prepared to wander down the alleys and sit in the cafes of Barcelona along with the protagonist. But then there was the part about him falling in love with the truly awful-sounding novel. And maybe adolescent boys in Spain, during Franco's rule, were very different from adolescent boys in the United States, in the 21st century, but this kid seemed way too self-possessed and self-reflective to be true. I was completely on board for the more fantastical magical stuff, but honestly there was very little else that seemed remotely plausible. A quarter of the way into it, I was wondering how soon I'd be done. So I stopped.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bonk, By Mary Roach

This book is subtitled "The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex". Which sums up Mary Roach's combination of humor and academic rigor. This book will tell you every single thing you never wanted to know about sex, in shuddering detail. I found myself physically cringing an awful lot while reading this book, but I had a hard time putting it down. It's not surprising that researchers want to understand the mechanics of sex more thoroughly, but some of their experiments verge on the masochistic.

Mary Roach is a very funny woman, which is one reason that I, an avowed avoider of nonfiction, read all of her books. She also has a talent for exploring subjects that are a little uncomfortable (see Stiff). I really admire her willingness to climb out from behind her stack of books to experience the ickier side of science. In the case of this book, she, and at times her apparently very understanding husband, participated in several of the studies she describes. That is dedication I admire.

The author herself notes that sex is not a subject that can be understood without taking into account the emotional side of the equation. Most of the studies she uncovers are, however, all about mechanics. It makes sense, of course, that scientists are interested in pure data. And I can imagine that funding proposals for sex research have to be carefully written. It is true that this kind of scientific pursuit has led to breakthroughs in both medicine and technology, but I still maintain that there is a little bit of magic at work in really good sex, and all the studies in the world aren't going to make either a pill or a device that can deliver it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Solar, by Ian McEwan

What a trifecta; Dan Chaon, Willy Vlautin and Ian McEwan! Every month should be filled with such great writers.

I have always maintained that success and happiness depend a lot on the personality traits one is born with. Luck of the genetic variety. The protagonist of Solar, Michael Beard, is blessed with both brilliance and confidence, and is unhampered by empathy. The combination is a fortunate one for him, if not for his professional associates and many ex-wives. A man of unappealing personal habits, and few physical charms, he nontheless seduces women at a rate that would make Wilt Chamberlain jealous. Twenty years after receiving the award, Beard is resting on his Nobel Laurels, collecting steep fees for describing the Beard-Einstein Conflation, the theory he piggybacked onto the more famous E=MC2. Unable, in his middle years, to come up with anything resembling his youthful brilliance, Beard falls back on the time-trusted method of stealing ideas. Which works pretty well for him.

I love this book, the way it makes a mockery of the idea that good deeds are rewarded, and that villains come to a bad end. McEwan builds the story with his usual skill, as his hero flees one mess only to land in another. Eventually his life is a tangle that will take a miracle to escape. I am not, of course, a spoiler, so you'll have to read it to see how it turns out.

Ian McEwan's books are different enough from one another to make me want to read them all. He certainly has a style, but it is more in the way he creates tension and drives a story to its climax than anything else. My favorites of his are On Chesil Beach, which is an incredible book, and Saturday, powerful in its own right.

Great fact about Ian McEwan: He wrote the libretto for the Opera For You. Although it is available in book form, why would one want to read an opera? I would, however, love to see it. Opera seems like the perfect venue for his talent.