sat, 09-apr-2011, 11:03

Piper, Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Piper

After my disappointment that Skippy Dies was eliminated from The Morning News Tournament of Books, I decided I should read the book that beat it, and which eventually won in the final round by a one-vote margin, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, just out in paperback. After beating Skippy, Goon Squad was beaten by Franzen’s heavyweight, but came back in the zombie round and eventually met Freedom (again) in the finals.

Some of the comments from judges choosing Goon Squad:

  • Sarah Manguso: Franzen made me weep for lost love, but Egan reminded me that death is coming.
  • Jennifer Weiner: Egan gets my vote, because if Franzen takes the prize, then the terrorists win (and because even if he doesn’t, you know the Los Angeles Times will run his picture anyhow).
  • Anthony Doerr: Which of these two books might help, to borrow Zadie’s Smith’s clause, “shake the novel out of its present complacency?” Egan’s.
  • Michele Filgate: There’s no comparison. Egan’s novel is innovative and playful, while simultaneously smart and captivating.
  • Andrew Womack: For me, this decision comes down to pacing, and Franzen is the Pink Floyd to Egan’s Sex Pistols; by the end of Freedom I couldn’t take another meandering guitar solo, while I was dazzled by how much Goon Squad packed into such a compact space.

Jennifer Egan (on hearing she won):

  • A rooster will fit perfectly into our Brooklyn landscape…our sons will be thrilled; our two cats, even more so.

I just finished it, and I was blown away. I wasn’t expecting to like it much: a “novel” of connected short stories, ho hum. An entire chapter done using a piece of software implicated in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster (PowerPoint), yetch. But the way the stories weave through time and from one character’s viewpoint to another, never so obvious as to touch the same scene twice, but covering such a wide swath of time was amazing. For me, it wasn’t until the last chapter, which takes place at some point in the 2020’s, that the collective effective of the stories really came together into a very real feeling for the things we gain and (mostly) lose in our lives; the way our decisions combine to make a life.

The final contest in the Tournament really was a fitting one—both Egan and Franzen are attempting to describe modern life in America (as cliché as that sounds). Franzen does this by filling his book with the full lives of his three main characters. Egan does it by sprinkling her chapters with short bursts from a wide range of related characters, varying perspective, time, age, and narrative style in each. The challenge for Franzen is how to tell the full story of three people without the reader growing sick of them. The challenge for Egan is getting us to actually care about the characters in the short time we spend with them, or at the very least be willing to listen to what they have to say.

She succeeds, spectacularly.

tags: books  Piper  review 
sun, 03-apr-2011, 18:49

Jenson with Piercing

Jenson with Piercing

Jenson’s yawn pretty much summarizes my feeling about this book. The main character has convinced himself he needs to murder someone to avoid stabbing his child with an ice pick. He carefully plans how he’d do this but when he gets a prostitute who will serve as victim, she’s as damaged as he is. Much of the story concerns the back and forth as these two damaged individuals try to figure out what is going on with the other. My problem was that I really felt no investment in any of the characters and the whole premise seemed really unlikely.

One good thing: the book was short.

tags: books  Jenson 
fri, 01-apr-2011, 06:06

Opening day

Tim Lincecum and the Giants

Yesterday was opening day in Major League Baseball. Yahoo!

I watched bits of Tigers v. Yankees, Padres v. Cardinals, and much of the Giants v. Dodgers game, all on my iPhone. I haven’t subscribed to MLB.tv, but yesterday’s games were sponsored by Volvo, so anyone with the MLB 11 app could watch for free. The quality is reasonable, and the app seems smart about not consuming all the available bandwidth.

I root for the A’s, Giants and Phillies (and favor the Tigers and Cubs when there are no other rooting interests). All three are pretty good teams, and all of them have the starting pitching to contend, but may have trouble scoring runs. The A’s have no power threat and a cadre of fragile, replacement-level position players, the Giants need a good season from Posey, Sandoval and rookie Brandon Belt, and the Phillies are hurting without Werth and Utley. But however it turns out, it’s great to have baseball back.

Well, however it turns out as long as the Yankees, Angels, Braves and Dodgers don’t wind up in the World Series…

thu, 24-mar-2011, 18:28

Deuce and Vixen

Deuce and Vixen
Photo by Andrea Swingley

Deuce died today from liver failure probably caused by a problem with his bile duct or gall bladder. He was just shy of fourteen years old and was a very healthy dog except for a having a toe removed a few months ago due to a slow growing tumor and an incident a couple years ago where he somehow managed to break his tail (!?).

Dusenberg (he came from a litter named after luxury cars) was our first sled dog and our second dog after Nika. He was a tall, gorgeous looking husky with a great coat and very upright and alert ears. We got him in the fall of 2001 when he was four years old, and despite his many quirks, he was a great dog once you learned how to handle him so he felt comfortable. He was an outdoor dog for the first six years we had him, coming inside only for food. Whenever we’d try to keep him in the house beyond dinnertime he’d pace back and forth until we let him out again. Then, suddenly, in December 2007, he decided that being in the house was OK. It took several more months before he learned to lay on a dog bed instead of the floor, and by the end of his life, he actually preferred being in the house, curled up on a dog bed. After his foot surgery, he stayed inside every night, and often during the day while we were at work.

He’d still get nervous when anything changed or he heard loud noises, often grabbing a dog bowl and pacing around with it like a safety blanket:

Deuce with a bowl

He was a very sweet dog, and the only one in our yard that would run away from a fight instead of trying to get involved in it. Whenever I’d clean the dog yard, he would follow close behind me, patiently waiting for me to turn around and pet his head. And in the last year, he enjoyed playing with the kittens, pawing at them and pulling them around on the floor (video at the bottom). Every morning when I came down the stairs, there’d be Deuce curled up on a dog bed (he was afraid of going up the stairs). Tomorrow morning will be hard, not seeing his furry ears and bright face looking at me as I come down the stairs.

Rest in peace Mr. Deuce. We love you.


tags: memorial  Deuce  dogs  Dusenberg 
sun, 13-mar-2011, 16:47

Swamplandia! and Tallys

Swamplandia! and Tallys

I just finished Swamplandia!, the first novel by one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list (the author, Karen Russell was born in, gaak!, 1981) about a family of alligator wrestlers in the Thousand Islands region of Florida. Despite that description, it’s a lot less Geek Love, and a lot more non-traditional Bildungsroman. I enjoyed the book, particularly how convincingly the environments of the characters were drawn. The details, sights, sounds and smells of the Florida swamps and jungles, and the unpleasant realities of a low-income job at an amusement park (or really anywhere else):

…the hours contracted or accordioned outward depending on several variables that Kiwi had catalogued: difficulty of task, boredom of task, degree to which task humiliates me personally.

The main character is the girl Ava, who narrates her half of the story in the first person, but I found I enjoyed Kiwi and his struggles on the mainland more. Once the story got going (which for me, was when all the characters had left Swamplandia!) I ripped through it in a couple days.

I hadn’t realized how much southern Florida had been destroyed by a variety of ill-advised Army Core of Engineers projects and non-native species introductions. This book, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (which I read in 2009) really makes you appreciate what the place must have been like before humans got around to messing around with it.

tags: books  review  Swamplandia! 

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