Four Books in One Month!!!

As the title of the post suggests, for the first time in a long while I had a chance to read. A lot. Specifically, I read four novels in the span of 30 days. While perhaps they are not all worthy of their own review, collectively they most certainly are. Here’s the mini-list for those who want to quit reading now:

  1. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by M. Chabon
  2. The Imperfectionists by T. Rachman
  3. The Savage Detectives by R. Bolano
  4. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by “J. Austen”

I think the picture here really says it all. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a somewhat futuristic tale in which all the Jews have (temporarily) been relocated to Alaska. Of course, the time is quickly approaching for the Jews to leave Alaska, and thus life is…shall we say…a bit hectic. The story centers around a forty-something detective who hasn’t coped with either his son’s death (which in part caused his divorce) or the mysterious death of his aviator sister. He’s a miserable creature, an alcoholic, and he lives in a cesspool of an apartment. In fact, the must-solve murder about which the plot revolves takes place in the afore-mentioned apartment building. And, of course, for added challenges our main detective is “re-united” with his ex-wife–who happens to be his superior–and discovers that the apartment death is related to his sister’s death, and then the Jewish mafia shows up, and and and….

This was my first work by Chabon, and while I don’t necessarily think it should be my last, it sadly will be my last for a long while. The plot was too bizarre for me, and I could not empathize with the hero at all. As the end neared he also seemed to take on an almost Rambo “you-can’t-kill-me” quality that was completely unbelievable. Writing-wise there were quite a few puny turns of the phrase (for example, “sholem” is a variant of “shalom” which was connected to “peace” which was connected to “piece” which was connected to “gun.” Ergo, in this novel, “sholem” meant “gun”) and the glossary in the back helped quite a bit. I think Chabon definitely had some strong skills but his plot was too crazy and his character wasn’t substantial enough to hold my attention. This is not a book I would recommend highly.

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I have been blessed with predominantly good luck in regards to debut novels. While this was not originally on my list of books to read before I turn 30, I saw this book while out-and-about, and it looked very interesting. Rachman also undoubtedly has the necessary “creds” to write about reporters in foreign lands–he is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and worked as a foreign correspondent in Rome. How could this book fail?

Answer: it couldn’t!

I inhaled this. Though the majority of the story took place in Italy, the location was relatively arbitrary and did not really play too much of a role. It was all about the characters. While I hate the adjective, the people in the stories were “real.” Because they were so flawed, because they were so desperate for the approval of others (particularly the approval of those they love or respect), because they were such liars, these characters were easy-to-relate to, so lovably and understandably human. Rachman wasn’t just writing about an antiquated newspaper struggling to exist in the modern world of e-journals; he was writing about individuals trying desperately to be remembered or loved or even just noticed while their worlds are engulfing them. Read this. Now.

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Clearly I am just not getting something here. I had heard nothing but rave reviews of this book and this posthumously-received (at least in America) author. I have learned from this reading experience to take a huge grain of salt with any book with the NY Times Book of the Year stamp on it.

Imagine Henry Miller without the cursing and drinking, then add a 20 year time-span and you kinda see where this novel is going; i.e., nowhere fast. It’s about a group of men (primarily), mostly living abroad, having a lot of sex, and otherwise doing nothing. Technically it’s about a group of poets based out of Mexico called the “visceral realists,” led by Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. The work is in three parts: parts I and III are diary entries of the teenager Juan Garcia Madero. These entries chronicle Madero’s initial involvement in the visceral movement in Mexico City circa 1976. Part II–by far the longest part–is a roughly 400 page series of interview/diary-type entries from a collection of no less than 20 characters from 1976 to 1996. The worst-part: this section is not chronologically or geographically arranged. First it’s 1976 and we’re still in Mexico, then it’s 1983 and we’re in Israel, then back to 1979 but now we’re in Barcelona. It’s ridiculous. I’m not sure what’s more random, the “structure” of the book or the “plot points” the “characters” have to tell.

The worst part about this book was that I just couldn’t see the point. What was Bolano trying to say? What was a reader supposed to learn from Arturo, Ulises, and Juan? How were we supposed to feel about the visceral realist movement? These questions remain completely unanswered, which makes it very hard for me to feel that this book is worth keeping, reading again, or recommending.

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Last, but certainly not least. This is the perfect summer read. Having read the original before, I can attest that this is predominantly the Austen classic with some creative mad-ilbbing (for example, the first line is now, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”). While certainly there are better page-turners out there, this book is a fast read, a silly read, and a fun read. Definitely would recommend it; however, I really think that everyone should read the original before tackling the zombie-edition.

Why do I say the original should be read first? What surprised me most by reading this book was that I gained a deep respect for the original. In undergrad, a friend of mine said I just HAD to read Pride and Prejudice. When I asked her for a plot summary, her response was not overwhelmingly helpful: “Girl, it’s all about pride. And prejudice. And…and LOVE!” I read it, and for the last four or five years I have thought it was “just okay”–the obligatory Austen read; however, reading the zombie version made me realize how magical the true Austen-version is. Even with the ninjas, and zombies, and pentagrams of death, this is still a love story, and a good one at that. All the “modern-day horror” insertions are topical. Liz and Darcy still have a painful series of misunderstandings, Darcy still manages to “prove” his love for Liz in a horribly chivalrous and romantic way, and they both manage to conquer their pride and prejudices. Liz is still a strong female lead (though in this version she’s much more physically strong), Jane is still incapable of saying anything mean about anyone, Mr. Wickham is still odious, and Mrs. Bennet is still the most annoying character in all of literature. In short, these characters remain the same and–quite frankly–the fact that so much can change plot-wise (however minor) and yet the characters retain that which makes them special or loved or unique is a testament to how brilliant Austen really was. So, again, read this book–but read the original first!!!

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