The Happiest People in the World

The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke

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When a Danish cartoonist’s house is bombed by terrorists, a rogue CIA agent decides to fake his death and stash him in Nowhere, USA. The title refers to Denmark, the country that tops many international measures of well-being, which is contrasted with the setting of the majority of the book, a claustrophobically small town in upstate New York. The plot is driven by an inept spy making overly emotional decisions and the various marital problems caused by the cartoonist’s arrival. Much of the action takes place in and around the high school where the cartoonist finds a job as a counselor; the principal (and ex affair partner of the CIA agent) is one of the main characters. It’s a globally important topic explored in a provincial setting that encourages the ridiculousness of the characters to bloom.

The subject and Brock’s madcap style fit very well together, perhaps more exactly than in any other book of his I’ve read. The characters usually act in the most awkward way possible, which leads to some really hilarious moments. I identified what I think of as Brock’s ‘signature move’ here: An inner monologue that takes place in an instant, but on the page goes on a bit longer than expected, as the character’s thoughts become increasingly absurd and anxious. Usually the character decides not to say anything, even though he has just revealed a startling tenderness and sharp desire for connection. Often, the monologue is a single very long sentence. These passages deliver a significant emotional punch, while also showing insight and psychological astuteness.

The ending surprised me in its violence and bleakness, but was not entirely without hope. This book was tons of fun to read. I was happy to reunite with Brock when he came to the Southern Festival of Books, but I was even more thrilled to see that he’s still writing like this: with biting humor that alternately hides and exposes a great big heart.

The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

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This novel is about two Latin American writers traveling the world in the late seventies and eighties. They’re the supposed founders of a movement in Mexican poetry that never really got off the ground, visceral realism, and they’ve disappeared. Much of the book is about the mystery of where they’ve gone and why.

The novel begins with young Garcia Madero narrating as he discovers the visceral realist poets and has his sexual awakening. After about a hundred pages with him, the narration splinters as many different characters give their accounts of their dealings with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Each character’s story reads like an interview or monologue, which gives the reader the effect of feeling like she’s the detective herself, tracking Lima and Belano through Spain, Paris, and Africa, but constantly returning to where it all began in Mexico City. Then at the end, Garcia Madero finishes his narrative and the mystery of the first visceral realist poet Cesarea Tinajero, and the cause of Lima and Belano’s flight is revealed.

I didn’t really like the character of Garcia Madero, and I especially didn’t like reading about his raunchy sexual exploits, but since the book’s long middle section had so many female characters giving their own perspectives on sex and literature, I won’t call the book sexist. The most interesting aspects for me were the different characters’ opinions of Lima and Belano, and the various ideas about literature, Hispanic culture, and relationships that were expressed. The effect that Bolano achieve through his formal innovation was also quite impressive. I’m not sure that it needed to be this long, though.

100 Best Books of the Decade So Far

I guess that’s a fancy way of saying ‘the last 5 years.’ The editors of the Oyster Review have published their picks for the top 100 recently released books. It seems like a decent list. I’ve read 17 of them, which I think is a decent number, and reviewed 14 (so far). I’ve listed some of these books in my annual ‘Best of the Year’ posts, so I guess that means I concur with the editors. I was pleasantly surprised to see some YA books (and some crossover authors) here too. Does this mean the gap between serious adult literature and YA is narrowing?

Here are the books on the list that I’ve reviewed:

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

NW by Zadie Smith

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

And here are the books on this list that were already on my To-Read list:

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 92103I expected to be left in awe with this book, and I guess I’m disappointed both with it and with myself that I wasn’t. I’ve heard a lot about magical realism in writing workshops and literature classes (English/American and Spanish/Latin American), and I generally liked the other examples of that genre or style that I came across there. Marquez is the grandfather of magical realism, so of course I’d fall in love with his masterpiece, right? If only.

One Hundred Years of Solitude covers four generations of the Buendia family in a remote village in Columbia. For me the three main themes were the tumultuous love lives and marriages of the members of the family, the effects of political change and war, especially the military career of Colonel Aureliano Buendia, and the village’s sporadic contact with the outside world, whether through gypsies, new technologies, or a predatory banana company.

For me the greatest pleasure of the book was in the language, the sentences that took hyperbole just a step past belief into a magical place. The images are fantastic, in both senses of that word: swarms of orange butterflies as a sign of love, four years of rain, a plague of dead birds. It’s Technicolor and bursting with life. A few years ago I wanted to brush up my language skills so I read about a hundred pages of the book in the original Spanish. With that experience I can say that Marquez’s gift with language survives translation remarkably well. I was fascinated by the way the book dealt with political issues, especially the workers’ strike and the train station massacre scene. I also liked the circular ending.

There’s a lot of sex in this book, and it mostly either creeped me out or grossed me out. There’s marital rape, adults sleeping with and marrying children, prostitution, bigamy, and incest, all presented as if they were benign. My reaction to these scenes really colored my reaction to the book as a whole; without this element I would definitely have liked the book a lot more, but it would be half as long and an entirely different book. Maybe it makes me a prude, but I couldn’t really see the redeeming value of these scenes. It seemed like they were supposed to be romantic, or another expression of that characteristic exaggeration, but they didn’t have the intended effect on me.

This is a difficult book; I’d classify it with Faulkner and Tolstoy as a novel that is best read with the support of a class, or at least a family tree diagram for reference, and Sparknotes if you’re really lost. The Buendia family has a habit of recycling names, which makes it a pain to keep the characters straight. The narrative isn’t linear, but kind of spiral-shaped, revolving repeatedly around particular themes, images, and dramatic events. It’s occasionally hard to keep track of the fine line between present-time narration and a flashback. Difficulty isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a novel at all, but sometimes it’s the kind of thing readers like to be warned about.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

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I’ve been kind of outspoken in my criticisms of the Kingkiller Chronicles books, especially the sexism in The Wise Man’s Fear, so I wasn’t sure what expectations to bring to The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a short novel that’s focused on a minor character, Auri. Auri is a mysterious girl who lives in the Underthing, the sewers underneath the city.

For me this book was all about language and atmosphere and living inside the head of a character whose view of the world is quite strange. Auri’s whimsical way of seeing things is very charming. She imbues every object she encounters with personality. She has premonitions that she trusts implicitly, and which give her purpose. She’s kind of OCD, thinking all the time about the ‘proper place’ of everything, and convinced that dire consequences await her if she doesn’t do things exactly right. In some ways she reminded me of the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (who’s *ahem* not very stable). Here’s a quick quote to give you the flavor of Auri’s thoughts:

All flickerling and sticky with web, Auri made her way to Bakery. It wasn’t oveny today. It was hunkered down and sullen, like a forgotten kiln.

Those made-up words and delicious rhythms were so much fun to read. That’s what I mean about the quality of sentence-craftsmanship here. The pretty words Auri uses to frame her unusual ideas are what makes a reader go along with them and even learn to like her.

I was slightly uncomfortable about the extent to which Auri’s entire life seemed to revolve around Kvothe, the protagonist of The Kingkiller Chronicles. In this book, Kvothe isn’t referred to by name, but with the context of the other novels, it’s clear who Auri is thinking of. Everything she does, from repairing pipes to making soap, is directed toward preparing for him to visit her. Maybe the narrow time frame is what causes or exacerbates this issue. It might not be fair of me to say her whole life is focused on Kvothe when we really only see a week of her life (and Auri lives so much in the present that it’s impossible to generalize about her past or future based on this snippet). Still, it was a bit disconcerting to watch Auri build this incredibly intricate life in the Underthing–and then realize it’s not for her, but for a guy.

To be clear, I was never offended at all by this book, as I was by The Wise Man’s Fear; my reaction was mostly positive. I hope that this intense focus on the inner life of a female character means that Rothfuss’s future books will incorporate women’s perspectives as well.