A while ago, I made myself a promise to read more. Read more I have, but reviews on the blog? They’ve been lacking, obviously.
I think I know the reason for that. I volunteered for a book-review website for a long time, and my volunteer duties included writing reviews. As fun as it was, it became very tiresome, particularly since both my husband and I were volunteers. The site came to dominate our lives until we said: enough.
So while I enjoy talking books with my husband (we had a great discussion the other day about Mary Kay Zuravleff’s Man Alive!), I have yet to get back into the swing of things with writing about the books I read. But it has been nice to read more, period.
An aside: Man Alive! always brings to mind that awesome Simpsons quote from the episode where Mr. Burns is polluting Springfield and Moe’s Tavern is filled with black smoke:
Man alive! There are … men alive in here!
Anyway … this morning I just finished reading Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely. If you’re looking for a book to read, it’s not this one! What was supposed to be a promising look at being lonely even within a community turned into a mess of thinly drawn characters, overwritten passages, disparate narratives that never quite made sense, and an international plot thrown in for good measure. Maybe it’s me: I honestly had no idea what the hell was going on. And I consider myself to be a good critic, but I was lost, people. Whatever Maazel was trying to do, it went over my head.
It took me a little over two weeks to read the book. It started off with promise, but by the time I hit the end of the first third, I contemplated putting it down. But no, I sallied forth, figuring that the stories all had to come together, right, or at least serve a purpose within their own narratives? Nope. With 50 pages to go, I figured I needed to finish it and be done with it. And guess what’s going into our donate pile as we make another sweep through our bookshelves before our new ones are installed? Maazel can write, but a cohesive story this was not.
Before that, I read Edan Lepucki’s California. If you remember, California was given the Colbert bump thanks to his outage over Amazon’s dealings with publisher Hatchette. As a debut author, the unavailability of Lepucki’s novel on Amazon meant disastrous sales for her. So Colbert, along with Sherman Alexie, recommended that people buy California via Powell’s and other indie bookstores. Alexie said it was an excellent novel. Since I trust Alexie implicitly in matters of letters (I mean, how could you not?), I went ahead and ordered California.
Well. That’s the last time I ever trust Alexie when it comes to book recommendations.
California was also something of a mess. It’s post-apocalyptic literary fiction, which should be straight up my alley, but again, it faltered. Selfish, thin characters who are together, but you can’t fathom why. An antagonist who loves to hear himself talk (he is the carbon copy of every Bond villain ever; exposition has its limitations). An ending that has you side-eying the main characters because changed they have not. The entire time I just imagined sullen hipsters populating Mad Max.
Clearly, the book is also going into the donate pile.
What have been some successes, you ask? Well, there was Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which is a searing tale of humanity and beauty amidst the chaos of the two Chechen wars. The linkages that Marra creates among all his characters weave together well; the horror of war is presented full force, with imagery that both terrifies and illuminates; the conflicts of the characters, so keenly felt, forge believable moments that force them closer together instead of apart. It’s probably the best book I’ve read all year.
The aforementioned Man Alive! was also a worthy read, though it did lack tension; the affluent Bethesda family that populates its narrative never really ends up losing anything despite the lightning strike that purportedly changes their lives (literally; the husband and father of the story is hit by lightning in the first few pages). Sure, they seemingly lose themselves, but you can’t exactly put your finger on why. That somewhat weakens their descent into madness. It’s great for discussion, though, as mentioned above. Zuravleff, too, is an excellent writer, and poses a lot of questions about what it means to be a family and what can cause them to fall apart.
Now, with vacation looming, I need to select books to take with me. There are so many books on our shelf that are unread; I’m unsure what to select. But it’s fun to know, despite my last two disappointing reads, it’s always possible to stumble on something as exquisite as Marra’s book was, or as thought-provoking as Zuravleff’s.