Books I Read This Month - July 2012

A Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

After the death of both his parents from cancer, Dave Eggers, in his early-twenties, was left to take care of his preteen brother. In this memoir, he recounts the trials and joys of being the guardian to a young boy while struggling through the transition into adulthood and writing fame. This book is both hilarious and touching, both scatological and sweet, and written in the goofy, thoughtful, and awkwardly (but at the same time lyrically) thorough voice that marks much of Eggers’ works.

A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

A fictionalization of the last few years of Flannery O’Connor’s life. Debilitated by lupus, the writer returns to her hometown where a newlywed couple, a marijuana-dependent curtain-maker, and her own protective mother become annoyed by Flannery’s collection of 50+ peacocks. This novel is a brilliant homage to Flannery O’Connor’s work, both in writing style and in exploration of characters. Every single character comes to life on the page with distinct emotion, motivation, and occasionally humor. An extraordinary book fit for fans of Flannery O’Connor (and anyone else, really).I enjoyed it thoroughly and hung on every word.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I first picked up this book two or three years ago, but I had to put it down because I was bored stiff. However, I always feel guilty for starting and not finishing a book, so I had to give it another shot. I must admit, though, that my interest in restarting it was only piqued because of my obsession with the BBC series Sherlock and, incidentally, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the antagonist in the film version of this book. I am incredibly glad I returned to this book. It is perhaps one of the best novels I have ever read, though the ending left me feeling a bit empty (due to the darkness of the theme, not in the least due to the plot). It begins with a thirteen-year-old girl who attempts to write a play but quickly becomes discouraged by such childish (as she comes to believe of it) matters when she witnesses her sister’s flirtation with a family friend. A horrendous crime and Briony’s newfound, yet not fully developed, knowledge of the adult world lead to a devastating mistake that haunts Briony for the rest of her life, a mistake for which Briony seeks atonement. I am indebted to my unhealthy obsession with attractive British men for bringing me back to this magnificent novel. I quickly added all of Ian McEwan's works to my to-read list. This book also plays with some of the same themes I am developing in my work-in-progress, so I am planning on re-reading it eventually to see what I can learn from this talented author.

Contact by Carl Sagan

When Ellie Harroway, director of a project searching for radio waves as evidence of life on other planets, confirms communication with extraterrestrials, a machine set for the stars is built following the instructions given to the scientists by the aliens, and a team of five is chosen (Ellie being one) to travel into space to meet them. Ellie is confident and intelligent, these aspects of her character influenced by her father, who died when she was young but who raised her with strong values. This book explores a wide range of themes, especially when it comes to the reaction of humans when encountering foreign species (a rejection of religion by some and an expansion and accentuation of religious beliefs by others). Carl Sagan was scientist first, writer second, as evidenced by the dense jargon and vernacular, though his literary skills were excellently honed. This is both a science-fiction novel exploring religious themes and a feminist work. It can sometimes be a bit difficult to get through the long (though necessary) passages, but the insightful payoff in the end is well worth the read.


Paris Metro by Carl D. Malmgren

Although at the start of the book this does not appear to be a wholly original work, as numerous fictionalizations of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald have been attempted, when mid-way through the book murder strikes the Paris art scene of the 1920s, it quickly becomes an intriguing new perspective on these American writers’ lifestyles. The murder of a black man named Peterson in a hotel room in 1925 is well-documented in historical texts, but never has the crime been solved or used in a fictional context, though Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and their compatriots were involved. The use of this true-to-life incident is not the only aspect that makes this picaresque novel unique, however; the literary techniques employed are reminiscent of the writers into whose lives it delves.

The story begins when journalist Nick Edwards arrives in Paris in May of 1925, planning on writing an article about the lives of the expatriates there. The first person he meets, by coincidence, is Ernest Hemingway, who quickly brings him into what he calls the “writing fraternity.” Almost immediately, Nick is thrust into the art scene, meeting characters including, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Dick and Nicole Diver, Pauline Pfeiffer, and numerous others. From thereon in, the novel is almost strictly dialogue, which—though the lack of description may leave some readers wanting—is witty, honest, and effective in developing the characters.

The macro setting—Paris in 1925—is apparent; the culture and vernacular of the time and place are distinct. However, the micro settings from scene to scene are often ambiguous. Most scenes take place in a café or at a party, but these are the only qualifiers. Even the characters are not described in much detail, unless their appearance is uniquely notable, like Pauline Pfeiffer, for example, who, as a fashion writer, wears a fur coat and a silk shirt that accentuates her beautiful figure.

While during the first third of the book the reader may wish for more in the area of description and action, and perhaps less in dialogue, it is only a matter of time before they get swept up in the glamor and magic of 1920s Paris, much like Nick Edwards does. He begins uncertain, insecure, and curious, but before he knows it, he has abandoned his project and moved on to writing his own novel, mingling with the expatriates and becoming one himself.

The book on many occasions seems to be describing itself, in particular one paragraph: “But it would also have the shortcomings of the picaresque—a series of colorful scenes and short encounters connected only by the picaro, the vagabond protagonist. In simple terms, Nick’s story lacked a plot.” This self-referential exposition is not distracting—in fact it is intriguing—and resolves itself at the end of the book when we see it is “Signed, N. Edwards, Paris, 1927.” While Nick Edwards is altogether a fictional character, his interactions with these famous historical figures, his and their dialogue matching in quality, quantity, and lyricism, he seems as real as they do.

If one were to analyze this novel with a critical literary eye, one would see numerous shortcomings, including the complete lack of description of setting—Malmgren simply states “He found himself in Paris,” and offers no further backdrop for the dialogue—but even with a strict and expecting view, the pages of this book simply melt away as the reader becomes absorbed with the beautifully developed characters—developed solely through the medium of dialogue—and the thought processes of expatriate artists and rogues. Malmgren follows the advice of Hemingway as embedded within the book itself: “the same goes for words in a piece of fiction. Some few are there to work and the rest are mere decoration. I try to strip away the merely decorative, the inessential from my prose. And then I take it one step further—by slicing into what some people would think belong to the essential: names, background info, even to the point of contention… Like the character, the reader lives the experience.”

In theory, the literary techniques used in this book are risky to the point of making a writer seem foolish to approach them, but Malmgren succeeds flawlessly in adopting and meshing the writing styles of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Obviously well-researched, Paris Metro is a truly absorbing read that keeps the reader gripped and perched on the edge of their seat, even if there is no action. The action essentially is the non-action; the purpose of this novel is to reveal the context of the works published in the era: the utterly self-absorbed, sex-obsessed, and roguish behaviors of these writers that produced these works we today call great. Not only does this book paint a distinct picture of time and place, but it also reveals the secrets of the minimalist writing technique both in plainly describing it and in using it effectively. Writers, history buffs, and those interested in the art scene of 1920s Paris will enjoy this book. 

Between Eden and the Open Road by Philip Gaber

In this series of vaguely connected prose poems, Philip Gaber displays an apt ability to put emotions into words. Placed into the category of literary fiction, these vignettes are a peculiar form, half flash fiction, half poetry. And though it is odd, surrealist, and occasionally pretentious, Between Eden and the Open Road is an intriguing and thought-provoking read.

In “The dust of everyday life,” Pablo Picasso guest teaches a class of elementary students, attempting to convey his conception of the art of the human face as a means of revealing the psyche, as well as taking an interest in the school teacher. “The bright coming morn” takes the narrator to the streets, where he meets a drunken homeless man who claims to have been a famous writer, losing his home and going bankrupt after becoming a crack addict. The narrator, presumably also a writer, finds an odd sort of comfort in the homeless man’s words. Just fired from his job, the narrator of “Our absence from life” meets a woman at a train station who is visiting her sister; the narrator as well is visiting his own family, and both characters are having difficulty connecting with their relatives and end up dumping their shared worries on each other, the woman leaving the encounter feeling more encouraged and confident than the narrator. The last few lines of the story, as with the last few lines of the majority of Gaber’s story, sum up the emotions in the vignette and leave the reader with a sense of solemnity and honesty, albeit a dark sense: “As we pulled into the drive, I just sat there, staring at the front door. The cabby turned around to check on me. ‘Ya alright, kid?’ he said. I waited. “…I think I’m going to check into a motel tonight instead…”

Gaber plays with themes such as the fear of commitment, facing adult life and choices, and attempting to make a mark on the world as a way of being remembered and easing the fear of being forgotten. These ideas are concepts to which almost anyone can relate, and Gaber’s portrayal of the deep worries that plague us every day is a success. The characters that populate these vignettes are snarky, facetious, clever, and often drunk, and the dialogue is sharp and memorable. Wandering through life in a perpetual existential crisis, the narrator of many of the vignettes (assumedly Gaber) relates his encounter with an individual or a peculiar situation, seems to have a momentary epiphany in the last few sentences of the story, and then carry on with his life, uncertain how to utilize his new knowledge in everyday life. The honesty of the prose is dreary yet insightful, and the lyricism of the words translates the existential conflicts effectively onto the page.

Though readers may be apprehensive about the form of the work, the emotions and situations portrayed in Between Eden and the Open Road are sure to be relatable, moving, and darkly funny. One can’t help but to think that if Philip Gaber were to write a novel, it could be the next Fight Club or Catcher in the Rye

For the Love of Books Part 1

Our favorite books change our lives and make us who we are. But what makes our favorite books our favorites? Why do we love the books we love?

My top three favorite books of all time are probably Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and The Time Traveler Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. At first glance, they appear to have nothing in common, but a closer reveals that the main character, a relatively optimistic bystander, must venture into unknown territory, search for the reason why they are faced with immensely powerful evil adversaries, and come out on the other side with the belief that love can overcome all evils. Obviously they each do this is strikingly different ways and differ in their approach to the definition of “love,” but that is the main connection I have found between my favorite books.

What about you? Why do you love the books you love? Is it the characters? The adventure or plot twists or action? Or is it the message portrayed?

Peace, Aimee

The Wicked Wives by Gus Pelagatti

When Reggie Stoner is found dead in Great Depression era Philadelphia, his death is ruled as caused by pneumonia. However, First Assistant DA Tom Rossi notices that Stoner exhibited more symptoms of arsenic poisoning rather than the illness. After Stoner’s widow, Lillian, receives a large sum in insurance money, Rossi becomes obsessed with the idea that Stoner’s death was a murder. He soon spies Lillian having an affair with an Italian lothario, Giorgio DiSipio. Ready to swoop in and arrest her, Rossi is stopped by her uncle, the corrupt Deputy Mayor Bill Evans, who Rossi suspects is exchanging sex for money with his niece. Soon numerous other suspicious deaths occur, all leading the wives to collect their deceased husband’s insurance money. Giorgio DiSipio, Rossi realizes, is more than just a wannabe mobster and petty criminal; he has supplied seventeen women with poison, leading them to believe that if they murder their husbands, he will run away and be with them. Each one believes DiSipio is their one true love, and each is unaware of the other lovers.

The fast pace keeps readers on the edge of their seats, wondering how Rossi will possibly get past Evans’ influence in the police department. With excellent dialogue, this deeply-researched and well-written novel offers both a gritty crime conspiracy and an intriguing look into the minds of the desperate people living in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. While the novel explores dark topics such as lust, greed, infidelity, and incest, its tone is light, never disturbing the reader too much. The characters are fully developed, the protagonists likeable, and the antagonists menacing. It is the characters in particular that keep the reader hooked. Rossi is a typical good guy, though he is willing to go to the edge of the law in order to solve the serial murders, and Evans and DiSipio are both gritty antagonists in their own right. DiSipio is fairly light-hearted, almost playful in his love affairs, while Evans is a darker creature who elicits a deeper hatred from readers and illuminates the corruption of greedy higher-ups in government systems. The women are at the heart of the story, their lust and cunning both making the reader cringe and intriguing them, making them want to know more about their motives.

Only a few grammatical and punctuation errors appear throughout the book, but they rarely distract.

Author Gus Pelagatti has over forty years of experience in Philadelphia’s courts as a lawyer and has obviously put a lot of time, effort, and passion into The Wicked Wives. A novel of time and place, those who enjoy either historical fiction or true crime books will surely devour this novel.