When it's good, Curtis Sittenfeld's prep school picaresque is ingratiatingly so—by turns nostalgic, observant, funny and heartbreaking. When it's not so good, the story becomes grating, its neurotic heroine insufferable, its supporting characters somewhat arbitrary and occasionally inscrutable. Nevertheless, this is a solid first novel—deeply felt, literate and, finally, rewarding.
At least judging from this somewhat lazily, if entertainingly, written production diary of the 1996 Pfeiffer-Redford sudser "Up Close & Personal," the late John Gregory Dunne had less in common with his wife, Joan Didion, than with his tediously self-promoting brother Dominick. Catty score-settling, name-dropping and inexcusable factual lapses (movie titles incorrectly recalled, productions attributed to the wrong studio) aside, and the lamentable absence of Didion's brand of stately dry-ice observation notwithstanding, Monster is a quick, acerbic industry survey. Readers seeking more substantive dream-factory insight would do well to read The Devil's Candy by Julie Salomon.
This uneven collection of A.M. Homes' short stories begins bangingly with the deadpan tale of a stagnant married couple who rekindle their spark by lighting up a crack pipe. A subsequent vignette about an abducted boy who induces a sort of buyer's remorse in his kidnapper is somewhat less effective but nevertheless intriguing. The rest of the stories are frequently too similar in their quietly desperate neurasthenia, eventually blurring together in a single high-pitched whine that's all posturing portraiture and not enough plot.
Ann Patchett's musical saga of Latin American guerillas and their political hostages manages to be magic realist without veering into surrealist camp. If you're willing to suspend disbelief and accept that a world-famous soprano can sooth a bunch of ornery insurgents—and that genuine love can blossom despite obvious Stockholm Syndrome overtones—the graceful prose and (perhaps overly) picturesque imagery will go down real nice-like.
What passes for cute in your twenties is often tragic in your forties. In that respect, Jpod doesn't so much revisit Microserfs as it does rip that earlier novel off—poorly—and that's a real tragedy. Douglas Coupland clearly had a couple of good yarns in him, but over time his biting irony has calcified into bitterness and his acute bead on pop culture has lapsed into a lazy litany of hyphenated consumer references. Jpod is so disposable it should come with an expiration date. I won't even get into the author's tedious attempt at "flexing" by writing himself into the story—which I suppose is meant to operate on some level of parody but exhibits at best a deluded sense of self-awareness. Dull-de-dull-dull. On the plus side, the text is so larded with badly typeset pictographic garbage that the book may be consumed in a couple of noncommittal shittings. Oops. Sittings.
Space-elevator yarn—or ribbon, to borrow the novel's idiom—is your typical visionary Arthur C. Clarke specimen hobbled by the author's typically wooden characters and dialog. Nevertheless, the ideas alone are worth the slog, and it's a quick read despite the intermittent and unnecessary forays into South Asian mysticism.
A recent reviewing of the Kubrick opus impelled me to pick up Clarke's novel; and while his telling lacks the director's signature atmospherics, the author's crisp grasp of science is expectedly illuminating and visionary, despite the story's somewhat ragged metaphysical ending. The usual caveats concerning about Clarke's sturdy prose, stolid dialog and square characters.
The usual Crichtonian miasma of misanthropy, misogyny, dry exposition, drier polemics and outrageously misapplied technology. If for nothing else, worth reading for the inevitable poo-flinging scene involving a transgenic ape passed off as a developmentally-disabled human second-grader. That said, this is a badly written novel even by the author's lax standards. The too-numerous storylines cycle so wildly that it's difficult to keep track of which cardboard character said or did what to whom in any given reading.
Joshua Ferris' elegiac workplace seriocomedy captures that magic hour between the implosion of the dotcom era and the explosions of 9/11. The latter events are never explicitly mentioned among the story's myriad antics and ruminations, but the specter of innocence redefined and priorities redirected nevertheless brings depth and nuance to what could have been just another throwaway corporate chronicle.
Max Barry's would-be futuristic satire reads like a failed screenplay, replete with generic action sequences populated with dumb, spiteful characters. Its setting is thinly conceived and curiously dated, as if the hyper-capitalist day-after-tomorrow it presents exists only to excuse the author's unconvincing social speculations. He certainly doesn't seem inspired by the time-shift in any operational way. The novel's views on technology and media are so retrograde that, apart from its improbable corporate contortions, it may as well have been set in the early Nineties. The belabored, fake surface-cool is further undermined by idiosyncratically dull, repetitive prose and a persistent, almost dysthymic over-reliance on deus ex machina that would be laughable if it weren't so irritating. This is a bad book. Readers who think otherwise should probably steer clear of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, whose effortlessly superior explorations they would likely find upsetting or alienating.
As long as it sticks to situation comedy, Max Barry's Coupland-lite corporate satire succeeds as a reasonably unchallenging in-flight diversion. Unfortunately, laughable-in-the-wrong-way sex scenes, lazy character arcs and preachy apparatchik posturing eventually sink what might have been a breezy, disposable trade paperback. Most embarrassingly, Barry's tendency to overuse stock descriptive phrases, carried over from his earlier works, is distracting and suggestive of slack editorial oversight.
Ed Park's contribution to the office lit genre invites comparison to Max Barry's Company as well as Joshua Ferris' Then We Came To the End—sharing the former's mind-fuck-as-occupational-hazard anxieties and the latter's distinctive use of the first person plural narrative voice in its early goings. With respect to quality, it falls between the two—head and shoulders above Barry in terms of the polish of its prose and the sophistication of its observations but not entirely sustaining Ferris' fit and finish. Park strikes out on his own in the novel's stream-of-consciousness finale, achieving an almost noirish tone that's simultaneously gripping and just a bit heartbreaking.
Ann Patchett's latest novel, set against the backdrop of a particularly snowy and eventful winter day in Boston, is par for the author's course, examining issues of class, race and gender, among other topicalities, with expected elegance and generosity. If the novel finally fails to scale the operatic heights of lyricism set forth in Patchett's previous novel, 2001's magic-realist fable Bel Canto, and the coda feels ever so slightly forced and artificially sweetened, it's only because the subject matter this time around, and the thoughtful characters Patchett has created, seem a bit too sensible for the gentle excess of idealism that concludes the tale.
Having read a reasonable number of Apple and Disney corporate histories over the years, I found myself largely familiar with author David A. Price's documentation of Pixar's story-so-far, given the digital animation studio's longstanding residence at the intersection of the aforementioned companies' millennial trajectories. This familiarity lends a warmed-over air to Price's account, an impression exacerbated by the obvious fact that the author didn't have direct access to most of the story's major players: much of the text reads as if it were culled secondhand, albeit skillfully, from readily available sources of business journalism and various internet clearinghouses. In some instances, Price will allude to seemingly interesting episodes in the Disney-Pixar-Apple narrative without elaboration—whereupon a simple Googling by the reader of the pertinent terms will yield comparatively more colorful and informative rundowns. The lack of intimate insight into the workings of Pixar also results in a portrait of its principal functionaries that occasionally deviates from the established public-relations depiction of a creative utopia—hinting at intriguing patterns of ego and pettiness—but subsequently fails to build on those glimpses. The absence of any real inside dish is most glaring in light of the book's release having obviously been timed to benefit from the marketing ramp-up to Disney-Pixar's WALL·E, which Price makes no reference to whatsoever. To be fair, unlike a lot of his Disney-Pixar-Apple-chronicling peers, Price seems to have a genuine fondness for and familiarity with the companies' products, which comes across in the ease and accuracy with which he tackles the relevant technicalities and business machinations. It's just a shame the end result is so flatly rendered.
Tracy Chevalier's debt to Vermeer is as plain as her simple, evocative prose in this imagined account of the artist's complicity with his subject and muse. The author's unspoken, and perhaps unintentional, debt to the writer Guy de Maupassant is equally profound, if more subtly summoned by the story's gently sustained sense of life's ironies, justices and injustices. This is a book best enjoyed, like some good paintings, in a single sitting.
Lyrical and slight, The Brief History of the Dead combines a magic-realist meditation on the afterlife with intriguing hints of science fiction, but the story ultimately flounders in the wake of author Kevin Brockmeier's endless similes and metaphors. Lovely as the imagery is, the omnipresence of the word "like" begins to whine like tinnitus. The penultimate chapter is so choked with purple, belabored visuals that it's practically one unicorn and a rainbow away from reading like a precocious teenage girl's diary. And the conclusion is an abrupt copout, period.
Gibson's familiar idées fixes—passing references to Cornell boxes, nodal points, lateral thinking and the like—survive his inaugural foray into the present tense intact. The added currency also allows him to wax hypertextually on topics as varied as terrorism, Russian oil, globalization and viral marketing. If Gibson's tendency to let his characters exposit lengthily loses some of its energy in the absence of a novel future setting, his peerless ability to channel corporate intrigue, consumerism, semiotics and Japanese culture into gleaming prose and brutal, beautiful set pieces is as vital as ever.
Author Peter Lefcourt charmingly acknowledges the datedness of this 1991 novel in the reprint's new foreword, but he doesn't touch on the usual timeless limitations of tomes about Hollywood—i.e., the unconvincing savoir-faux-familiar name-dropping and the informed cynicism and contempt for the industry at odds with a predictably unrealistic storyline and deus ex machina-tooled characters. Nevertheless, it's a light, upbeat read, and there are some decent laughs to be had at the expense of the typical parade of slutty starlets and irascible executives. Personal peeve: a lame romantic sideplot involving two thinly-written principals that does nothing but eat up whitespace.