Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, by Yann Martel

If Thursday’s Grandma Next had to read the ten most boring books on earth before she could die, perhaps I’ve been sentenced to reading the ten worst books. I’d better take it easy, however, because I’ve recently read two of them, and when combined with my junior high school English classes (Farewell to Manzanar, The House on Mango Street, and The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson all come to mind), I must be halfway to dying. I wanted to move beyond these crap books, and I was excited to do so, but then I realized just how much God hates me when I started reading The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel.

The book is four short stories, taking its title from the first and longest. When I finished the first, I thought perhaps finishing the entire book was something like going on a snipe hunt: no one really expects you to do it, because it can’t actually be done. Everything about Martel’s book screams “hack,” from the “Ain’t it cute?” title to the writing group prompt premises of the plots to the uninterrupted navel gazing of the actual text itself. The narrator is so ego-centric as to assume that the terminal illness of a recent acquaintance somehow revolves around him. He invents a game that “is the only thing that matters” in the acquaintance’s life. Excuse me? “The only thing that matters”? This guy is 19 and going to die, and you think you and your idea is so important that it’s somehow going to give meaning to his remaining existence? The game turns out to be telling each other stories, but THE STORY WE’RE READING DOESN’T TELL US THE STORIES THEY TOLD EACH OTHER. We’re reading the fact that stories were told, not the actual stories. Again with the navel gazing. The story is that a story exists.

It's all downhill from there. Next comes a story about listening to Vietnam veterans play orchestral music, but the narrator again manages to turn it into something about him in an attention-whore sort of way. Then comes a series of letters from a prison warden telling conflicting stories of how a condemned man died. I understand being proud of your English 201 assignments, but I think they should probably stay in the filing cabinet where they belong. By the time I got to some story ostensibly about the narrator's grandmother (but again, really about the narrator in some poorly defined way), I was thrilled that, five years ago I fought off that initial post-Life of Pi impulse to buy this book.

Let me just finish by saying The Facts Behind the Blah Blah Blah proves that, just because an author can write one really good book doesn’t mean to expect to like anything else he commits to paper.

Rating: 0 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Amberville, by Tim Davys

Tim Davys is a pseudonym. Some say a pseudonym is something you use when you are embarrassed of your current novel, or when your publisher is embarrassed of your last one. Book reviews I read from the Chicago Sun-Times and the San Francisco Chronicle suggest Tim Davys used a pseudonym because it is a Swedish public figure, which means it's one of the following people:

Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, Nicholaus Arson, Vigilante Carlstroem, Dr. Matt Destruction, or Chris Dangerous. Or possibly Björn Borg.

Whichever of the ten famous Swedes it was, Davys wrote a crime drama about stuffed animals. I've never actually read a book from Jasper Fforde's Nursury Crime series, but I read the Thursday Next book that introduced the Nursury Crime palate, as it were, so when I first picked this book up (again, because I was browsing the library shelves when the sisters I was supposed to tutor didn't show up) and read the back, I thought, "Huh, like a Nursury Crimes book."

What I didn't know at the time was that this book is like a Nursury Crimes book after ten Red Bulls and a speedball. Stuffed animals with drug adictions, sexual perversions, and penchants for masochistic violence. Teenaged me would have thought this book was cool because it was iconoclastic to give stuffed animals such base character traits. Adult me thinks this book was cool because of the what the symbolism of it says about the human condition. Teenaged me would have kicked adult me's pretensious ass, but I'm pretty lucky in that the two have never met.

Here's the plot: Eric Bear's shady past life catches up with him, requiring him to do a dangerous, nearly-impossible job to save the life of the rabbit he loves. Eric has a twin brother who was incapable of living in a world that requires you to cheat around the edges. The capacity of good men for evil, and of evil men for good, is explored with a proctoscope. A dramatic ending is left unresolved in the final chapter, which is followed by an epilogue with the smart-ass note, "To be read as needed." But I enjoyed the smart-assedness of it, and it resolved the dramatic ending, so no one got hurt.

I enjoyed this book. The Los Angeles Times review found fault with the translation, but at no point did I find it distracting. There were curious word choices, but even with an English writer I've found them, and I'm usually happier that they're there. Any of the strange turns of phrase could have been true to the original Swedish, so I didn't mind at all.

I don't know that I would read this book a second time, since I've got about 100 books to read on my "read these someday" list. If I could go back in time (and successfully dodge the ass-kicking teenaged me has waiting for me), I would read this book again the first time. I would recommend this book to a friend who enjoyed similiarly quarky novels. I would definitely read the back of the next Tim Davys book I saw. All in all, an enjoyable book with something to say.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ivy and Bean and the Ghost that Had to Go, by Annie Barrows

Ivy and Bean are back, and this time, they...mean...BUSINESS.

Okay, that might be an exaggeration. But at least they're back. My daughter was very excited to have another Ivy and Bean book to read, and I was fairly excited to read it to her. Since we ended up reading it concurrent with Bubble and Squeak, the most horrifying book known to man, I came to appreciate this Ivy and Bean book even more.

One day Ivy and Bean notice a strange reflection on the floor of the girls' bathroom. Ivy explains it as the effect of a ghost, and says the bathroom needs a bit of an exorcism (although she doesn't call it that).

This book had exactly the right amount of scariness for my daughter, which is to say, it had nearly no scariness at all. The ghostiness was all non-haunting and non-threatening, and it is strongly suggested throughout the book that the ghost is just something Ivy made up. Even so, I don't remember there being a non-ghost explanation for the reflection at the end of the book.

The most annoying thing about the book was the teacher's name: Ms. Aruba-Tate. I couldn't bring myself to say it, so I would say, "Ms.," and my kids would say, "Aruba-Tate." And this lady's name came up frequently, let me tell you. Why couldn't she just be a non-hyphenated, non-unreal-last-named, non-feminist-empowered woman, like a Miss Atkinson or a Mrs. Johannsen?

Like Katie Kazoo, Junie B. Jones, and Judy Moody, my daughter has moved on without me, having read the third Ivy and Bean book on her own. She tells me it is good, however, and will shortly be starting the fourth.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.