Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is a young adult book, the first in a trilogy (books one and two have been published, book three is expected in 2010).  I recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest, tiniest, vaguest interest in YA literature.  If normally you avoid YA books like the plague but you loved Harry Potter, give The Hunger Games a try.  Not because they are at all similar.  They aren't.  Just because if you can approach one children's book with an open mind, there's reason to believe you could do it again.  If you thought Harry Potter was silly...well, that's one thing The Hunger Games isn't.  It's a grim sandwich, with a side of more grim, and an icy glass of grim to wash it all down with.  And that's only a slight exaggeration.

So far I've convinced two people to read it, and they both loved it.  One of them told me - and I quote - that it's the best thing she's read since East of Eden (she read East of Eden about a year ago, not, like, three weeks ago).

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future, in a country called Panem.  Panem is in North America, what used to be the United States, but history doesn't reach that far back anymore.  Power and plenty are concentrated in the Capitol, the seat of government, while citizens in the twelve outlying districts are worked to the bone, denied the most basic freedoms, and forced to participate in the yearly Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games seamlessly marry punishment and entertainment.  Every year, two young people between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each of the twelve outlying districts by lottery and forced to compete in a battle to the death.  Twenty-four contestants - called Tributes - enter the arena, but only one will leave it alive.  The event is tarted up with a lot of pageantry, taped and broadcast in an edited form over the state-controlled TV station.  The arena where they compete changes every year - sometimes it's a desert, sometimes a jungle, sometimes a waterworld.  The Tributes don't find out what the arena will look like until they enter it, and those who refuse to participate in the bloodbath don't get very far - the Gamemakers can engineer environmental disasters, like a blistering volcano, to get rid of people who won't play along.

Like I said, pretty grim. And yet - this is part of the book's insidious charm - it's a lot of fun to read.  The pacing of the book is amazing, and the protagonist grabbed my heart and ran away with it from the first page.  Collins tricks the reader into participating in exactly the behavior the book is engineered to, it's not original, but the technique is put to good use here.

Collins eases us into the story.  We start reading about Katniss, a girl-child who keeps her family from starving by illegally hunting game and trading it on the black market for bare necessities.  It's a hard-scrabble life, but it's not all bleak: she spends her days wandering the woods with her handsome friend Gale, and evenings with her sweet, 12 year old sister Prim.

But as a reader, you know things are going to change, so even these early passages have an edge of menace.  The yearly lottery arrives, and Katniss ends up in the games.  She's sent to the Capitol to prepare, but her visit there is full of fun and luxury. She eats fine food, she marvels at advanced technology she's never seen before, she meets her stylist. The sharp, menacing atmosphere thickens - but so does the crazy, unreal showmanship of it all.

And then the Hunger Games start.  I got to like Katniss so much that the idea of seeing her hurt, or being right there with her on the page as she hurt someone else, became almost unbearable. Of course, both of my fears came true. But Collins kept pulling me along, interspersing scenes of real horror with calmer, sweeter interludes. I had time to catch my breath and brace myself before the next onslaught, much like Katniss does. The tension ratchets up steadily, page by page, while the progress of the Games sends the reader veering about wildly on an emotional roller coaster, full of highs and lows.

The book is great because it's got so much more to offer than a heart-in-your-throat adrenaline rush.  There's the political aspect, especially the government's media savvy.  It's like Soviet propaganda if it were re-tooled by a bunch of Hollywood marketing execs.  And the experience of the Tributes is an obvious commentary on reality TV.  Not only does Katniss doubt everyone around her, she can't trust her own feelings: is she brave, or is she faking it for the camera?  Does she care about her allies in the arena, or does she just want them to think she cares?  She doesn't know, and the confusion does real damage to her sense of who she is.

The Hunger Games is a thought-provoking book wrapped up in a gripping adventure story.  I couldn't put it down once I'd started, and I've had some great discussions about it since.  In short, read it.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

I had a relationship with Tristram Shandy.  First I fell in love.  We had a lengthy honeymoon period, during which I gushed about it to anybody who would listen.  After the honeymoon ended, we settled into a comfortable companionship.  Then...I have to admit it...things started to go sour.  The same qualities that once dazzled me began to seem tired, I stopped laughing at all its jokes, I no longer looked forward to a future together.  And then I turned the final page and our relationship was over - not a moment too soon.

I'm not sure I have ever started out so enthusiastic about a book, and finished so tepid.  I was ready to clear out a spot on my top ten list - I don't actually have a top ten list, but there are books that would probably be on it if I ever did make one - because it seemed like such a tour de force.  Endlessly imaginative, brilliant, Rabelaisian, absolutely hilarious.  Like a magician pulling rabbits from his hat, or a star quarterback nimbly dodging past all the competition, it's a show of pure virtuosity.

If you don't quite know what Tristram Shandy is - it's an 18th century novel written by Laurence Sterne pretending to be a memoir written by the eponymous Tristram Shandy.  Tristram starts at the beginning - the day of his birth - and it's well past the halfway point in the novel before he's finished being born.  Every time he tries to progress through the story of his life, he's drawn farther into the past.  His uncle Toby was present on his birthday, and in the process of introducing him Tristram gives us his whole life story.  But he can't stick to his digressions either.  Tristram tries to write about Toby and ends up discussing the minutiae of siege warfare (shades of Sebald's Austerlitz there - I'm sure the connection is intentional, and it kind of made me want to reread Austerlitz).

It's great.  It's great, it's done perfectly, and it's fun to read.  It carried me through the first two-thirds of the book in a state of sheer euphoria, and then I crashed.  Partly because a couple of the digressions left me honestly confused (The whole trip to France?  Can someone explain this to me?), but mostly because I started to wonder if the sheer fecundity of the book was a mirage, if Sterne had whipped up a one-trick pony and ridden it a little too long.  I have to admit that once you've figured out his schtick it's kind of predictable.

And the conclusion was pretty unsatisfying.  It just sort of...ends.  The final section seemed like a meandering, tepid fade-out.  And it leaves us with so many unanswered questions.  We never really learn anything about Tristram, beyond a few tantalizing hints.  I could believe that Sterne intentionally leaves the reader unsatisfied...but, well, I was still unsatisfied.

Anyhow, a few of my favorite quotations:

"Have not the wisest men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, -- have they not had their Hobby-Horses;--their running horses,--their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets, --their maggots and their butterflies?
"brisk trotting and slow argumentation, like wit and judgment, were two incompatible movements"
"When to gratify a private appetite, it is once resolved upon, that an innocent and an helpless creature shall be sacrificed, 'tis an easy matter to pick up sticks enough from any thicket where it has strayed, to make a fire to offer it up with"
"the thin juice of a man's understanding"
"Shall we be destined to the days of eternity, on holy-days, as well as working-days, to be shewing the relicks of learning, as monks do the relicks of their saints--without working one--one single miracle with them?"
"The ancient Goths of Germany, who (the learned Cluverius is positive) were first seated in teh country between the Vistula and the Oder, and who afterwards incorporated the Herculi, the Bugians, and some other Vandallick clans to 'em-- had all of them a wise custom of debating every thing of importance to their state, twice, that is,--once drunk, and once sober:-- Drunk---that their councils might not want vigour;-- and sober--that they might not want discretion"
This is a sort of quintessential Shandyism, where the author addresses the reader directly: "To conceive this right,-- call for pen and ink--here's paper ready to your hand.--Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind--as like your mistress as you can--as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you--'tis all one to me"
"That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best--I'm sure it is the most religious--for I begin with writing the first sentence--and trusting to Almighty God for the second"
"I have been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune; and though I will not wrong her by saying, She has ever made me feel the weight of any great or signal evil;--yet with all the good temper in the world I affirm it of her, that in every stage of my life, and at every turn and corner where she could get fairly at me, the ungracious duchess has pelted me with a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small Hero sustained."

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch

I'm a bit conflicted.  It was a good book.  Really and thoroughly good.  It did many wonderful things; working simple discussions of ideas into the plot; fleshing out these ideas through the actions taking place in the plot; mixing a hint of fantasy and unreality in with a cool, clear view of the world.

However, at some level it didn't pass muster.  The language was adroit, apt, everywhere clear and enjoyable, but lacked a certain sparkle.  It wasn't phenomenal.  Most of all, somehow despite the fact that the book did such a good job of wedding the extraordinary with the banal, the realm of absolute morality with a very familiar day-to-day, I felt that it never quite took flight.  There was something heavily earthbound about it.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

Sebald is like a pillow.  Or a breath.

Somehow, despite the fact that his language is so specialized, so apt, like a finger touching the exact spot you've been looking for on a map, the book is like a laying-over or a net, something that surrounds but doesn't quite touch the solid center of meaning or feeling.

There's a tremendous amount of delicacy about his writing for this reason, so that his use of language, in its precision, never seems blunt or hard like a weapon or machine, but rather fragile and almost anxious.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The book is set in an unprepossessing village town named Stockyard, its protagonists cling by the skin of their teeth to their nobility, most of the characters in the book are totally insufferable, and aside from the murder and the fatal trial, nothing particularly extaordinary happens.  And yet, after I finished the book, I found myself thinking, "Oh!  That's the way to live!  What passion!"

A second later, I was horrified at myself.  No, that is most decidedly not the way to live.

I loved when Katya comes to visit Mitya in prison (after Katya has, during a hysterical fit at Mitya's trial, offered up the evidence that condemns him) and Mitya says, "do you know, five days ago, that same evening, I loved you...when you fell down and were carried out."  And why?  When Katya is condemning Mitya, once her fiancée, Dostoevsky writes,
"Oh, of course, such an avowal is only possible once in a lifetime - at the hour of death, for instance, on the way to the scaffold!  But it was in Katya's character, and it was such a moment in her life.  It was the same impetuous Katya who had thrown herself on the mercy of a young profligate to save her father, the same Katya who had just before, in her pride and chastity, sacrificed herself and her maidenly modesty before all these people, telling of Mitya's generous conduct, in the hope of softening his fate a little.  And now, again, she sacrificed herself, but this time it was for another, and perhaps only now - perhaps only at this moment - she felt and knew how dear that other was to her!"
There are a lot of books that show the epic of the everyday; the great upheavals that explode all around us while we walk down the street.  Maybe the virtue of Dostoevsky is that he is pitiless, but writes with great love.

You can't help but admire Katya, even as you hate her.  Just like you can't help but admire Mitya, even though you'd normally hate him.

Dostoevsky abolishes the whole notion of justice, by making human justice impossible and leaving only the possibility of divine justice.  And this is why, in The Brothers Karamazov, nobody is wrong, but nobody is right, either.  Or - and this is also possible - everybody is wrong.

There are certainly despicable characters to contend with.  Rakitin and Fyodor Pavolovich.  But they are comparatively minor.  Aloysha is the only character who is wholly admirable - but he's also something of a shadow compared to the more forceful characters - from Ivan and Dimitri to Grushenka and Katya.  He is almost a blank space; the empty box of a confessional, or the envelope that secures a message as it passes from hand to hand.  And then there's the fact that Aloysha is so childlike.  Aloysha is pure because he has not lived.  I don't think that anyone who has done much living in Dostoevsky can remain pure.  On the other hand, there are many who don't do much living and still aren't pure.

The reader is even roped into sympathizing with the prosecuting attorney, who is so meticulous and sincere.  Even amidst such a miscarriage of justice, you can't hate anyone, or blame anyone.  You can only grieve.

I was really glad when Aloysha gave a speech at the end.  I'd been waiting for him to really say something since the book began.  The sweetness of it warmed my heart.
"And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honor or fall to great misfortune - still let us always remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us, for the time we were loving that poor boy, better perhaps than we are....
"You must know that there is nothing higher or stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home....
"...the cruelest and most mocking of us - if we do indeed become so - will not dare to laugh inwardly at having been skind and good at this moment!  What's more, perhaps, that one memory may keep him from great evil and he will reflect and say, 'Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!'  Let him laugh to himself, that's no matter, a man often laughs at what's good and kind.  That's only from thoughtlessness.  but I assure you, oys, that as he laughs he will say at once in his heart, 'No, I do wrong to laugh, for that's not a thing to laugh at.'"

The Passion of Michel Foucault, by James Miller

An excellent biography and cultural history that sets Foucault's philosophy into the context of his life, and his life into the context of his times.  The result is a particularly illuminating description of the second half of the twentieth century.  Miller considers Foucault in relation to his influences (Sade, Artaud, Bataille, and especially Nietzsche), his love/hate relationship with Sartre, his relationship with his philosophical peers (Derrida, Barthes, Chomsky, Habermas, Deleuze, etc.), and his history of political engagement, especially during May '68 and the Iranian Revolution.

But the main focus of the book is the integration of biography and philosophy, with particular emphasis on Foucault's sexuality - his interest in S&M and his homosexuality - in relations to his interest in marginalized groups and violence.  Foucault's death from AIDS and his frequent presence in the gay bathhouses of San Francisco is one of the key points of the text, particularly the possibility that he engaged in unprotected sex while aware that he was dying, and probably aware that he was dying from AIDS.  His experimentation with drugs - marijuana, LSD and opium - also receives a fair bit of attention.

The book gives the impression that Foucault was prone to histrionics in his writing, always a bit overwrought and dire.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

The strange thing about Sebald is the double voice I hear when I read it; there is the voice of the text - so clean and precise - and then a second, which is warm and fuzzy - the voice of an older man.  I've never read a book that I imagined so strongly as sound.

I love the way that Sebald writes.  Somehow his concrete descriptions swallow the metaphors and imagery, so that no matter how extraordinary they are I read them as muted, the tone smooth, sort of damp.  Like here: "He said that he could see things then with the greatest clarity, as one sees them in dreams, things he had not thought he still had within him, doubtless because he himself was small, but also because the shelves reached all the four meters up to the ceiling.  The light in the emporium, coming through the small transom windows let into the tops of the display window backboards, was dim even on the brightest of days..."

Here's another: "ever since I had once visited Munich I had felt nothing to be so unambiguously linked to the word city as the presence of heaps of rubble fire-scorched walls, and the gaps of windows through which one could see the vacant air."

The blurb on the back of the book says that Sebald had a "quarrel" with Proust (I can only assume that the word quarrel is meant to signify respectful disagreement - although, actually, it occurs to me that Proust would have had different feelings about memory if he'd had the kind of memories that Sebald writes about) and I have a note scrawled on page 141 of my book: "the quarrel is this: for Proust, memory brings completion, wholeness.  Sebald seems to see memory as destructive - almost an active force.  His precision may be an attempt to subdue memory, to tame it, order it, make it unnatural and foreign."

The book is really haunting.  Of course, not unlike Proust, it's an excavation - a search for lost time - an attempt to attach images, places, names to stories told by dead and dying friends.  To fill out details and gaps.  But everywhere, the people Sebald meets are passionately dedicated to the destruction of the past.  Destroying themselves (it's a book full of suicides), destroying the houses that sheltered the horrors.  But it doesn't do them any good, they can't escape.  They surround themselves with debris, like Ferber haunting the periphery of the rotting asylum, or the doctor eating the fruits of the abandoned garden.

The conclusion, at the end, is that the only thing worse than remembering is willing forgetfulness ("I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves").

If you do not remember, you are contemptible...but if you do, you are doomed.

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Foucault's Pendulum combines the worst qualities of chi-chi French films with the worst qualities of low-budget slasher flicks.  On the one hand, it takes a long time to go nowhere.  On the other hand, it's like putting that clichéd scene where the girl goes down alone into the dark basement wearing high heels on endless repeat.  You want to smack her upside the head and say, "If you don't want to die, down't go down there, stupid!"...Advice that the protagonists of Foucault's Pendulum could use.

The book explores the possibility that one or another of the secret societies generally believed to be mythical (or extinct) are, in fact, real and very powerful indeed.   Is it the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Jews?  Did they control all of history?  A handful of bookish nerds at a publishing house dedicate much, much too much of their time rifling through crackpot occultist books looking for answers.

The narrator, Casaubon, is dull and hard to like.  His posse of cowardly friends ditto.  His girlfriends are interchangeable, their characters undeveloped.  All the women in the novel, for that matter, are one dimensional stereotypes.  The enemy, the Templars or the Illuminati or whoever, are ridiculous.

The reader is reminded periodically throughout the novel that the protagonists' attempts to get to the heart of the secret society are foolish, that their discoveries are tripe, and that they, the bookish nerds, are insane.  Call me crazy, but giving away the surprise ending before the tension has started to build is not the best move.

Eco's obsession with list-making makes sense in the medieval-set thriller In the Name of the Rose.  Here, it's just annoying.  Adding the diary entries of Belbo, the editor who can't write well and knows it, into the text of the novel is tedious.  Most of all, the book is boring and has no real payoff.  It's more than half over before the plot kicks in, long after I stopped caring.

What a waste of some great one-liners.

NB: I wish I could go back and explain some of my damning comments a little better, backing them up with an example or two, or a bit of plot summary.  Unfortunately, I have no memory of reading Foucault's Pendulum, and this is all I wrote at the time.

I now know that Casaubon is the name of a particularly repulsive character in George Eliot's Middlemarch.  Yet I don't like Foucault's Pendulum any more than I did before.  Curious.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

One sentence review of Anna Karenina: Tolstoy is sending God a job application, in case he's looking for a replacement.  Thanks, Tolstoy.

Full review: When Anna jumped in front of the train, I was relieved.  I'd been waiting for her to die ever since the race when Vronsky killed his horse.  When I turned the last page, I felt more like I'd faithfully accomplished a painful duty than like I was saying farewell to a beloved friend.

I find Tolstoy to be smug and self-satisfied to the extreme.  Tolstoy and Anna Karenina were recommended to me left and right; I was told that Tolstoy really understood women, and sympathized with their tragedy - I was told that there is a special term for his kind treatment of these tragic characters, "Toylstoyan pity."  And I think the term couldn't be more apt - because this is the ugly kind of pity.  The sort that slyly places the pity-er in a position of superiority.  The pity-er gets to enjoy being better off than the pitied person and self-consciously meritorious about his/her bleeding heart.  Such a bargain.

I was constantly aware of Tolstoy's craft, of the author pulling the puppet strings behind the scenes.  Their behavior frequently struck me as unnatural and artificial, and I could only make sense of it as the the author showing off.  He says: see, this horse that Vronsky kills, - this horse is Anna!  He says: see, this ill-fated love affair of Anna's has a foil in the lawful union of Levin and Kitty, such good and loving souls!  He says: see, Anna and Stiva are brother and sister, and they make parallel choices throughout the novel!  He says, over and over again: look at how brilliant I am, with my parallel plotlines and foreshadowing!

I think that Tolstoy is convinced his characters deserve what they get - Stiva deserves financial ruin and disrespect, Anna deserves death, Vronsky deserves pity and death, and Levin and Kitty deserve a happy life in the country.  Tolstoy is happy with himself for having grasped and described human nature, content in his ability to properly penalize or reward the actions and motivations of mankind, summarized so neatly in his characters.

I kept that that every time Levin appeared in the book it was Tolstoy chortling, "Here's the way to go!  If only you others would follow suit!"  Indeed, Tolstoy, if only we could all be more like you.  Thanks for letting us know.

W by Georges Perec

The chapters in W alternate between a fiction about an imaginary island called W., devoted entirely to sport, and chapters giving an autobiographical account of Perec's childhood during WWII. Both stories are told in a very crisp, matter-of-fact tone, but the contrast between the two is striking.  We read about young Perec's shuffling about and hiding and the death of his parents, though not from his own point of view.  Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly clear that life on sport-loving W.  is a sort of filtered reflection of the concentration camps (it's a bit like Plato's Republic, too). And because the actual details of life on W. are new, the horror and disgust they provoke is fresh.  So although the tone throughout is emotionally detached, the two stories operate like a chemical reaction - while each is neutral in isolation, the combination of the two unnerving and horrific.

W is an experimental novel, but it's not cold or empty; the language is very simple and it was a pleasure to read, went very quickly.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

I have never read a book so long that I hated so much.  The more I read, the more I hated it, and then I hated it because it would not end.

A lot of the ideas in it ought to appeal to me - the enmeshing of disease and love, the fleshly-spiritual cross currents, the discursive style - but I was totally unmoved.

I hated every last character in the book, and that didn't help; but many of Proust's characters are unlikable, and I love Proust.  I think the difference is that in the end, though Marcel can't respect people like the Verdurins, they nonetheless become heroic...they become larger than life.  I felt like all the people, all the events in the Magic Mountain, shrunk into dust bunnies, filth on the floor, something meaningless and a little repulsive.

I hated the endless descriptions of the natural environment.  I hated the endless philosophical debates between Settembrini and anyone.  I hated Hans Castorp.  I hated the endless repetition.  I do not know how many hundreds of times I read about the "excellent lounge chairs" or the "hearty meals" at the Sanatorium. I was reminded countless times how and when the patients wrapped themselves in blankets.  Eventually, every time I saw those details, I would be infuriated.

The only thing I liked about the whole book was Clavdia Chauchat.  She was magnificent.  I loved the way that Mann described her body, her movements, her hands, her eyes.  I loved her dialogue, her sly and suggestive slink.  I loved her name, and I love that she cruelly rejected Hans Castorp, because I would have, too.

NB: It's a few years now since I wrote this, and I have to say that there is at least one thing about The Magic Mountain that I recall with great pleasure.  Hans Castorp - a worthless sniveler if ever there was one - gets his clumsy mitts on an X-Ray of Clavdia Chauchat.  Of her chest I think?  He finds it profoundly erotic.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

I really loved Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is structured very similarly, splicing together a contemporary narrative with another story set in the past, making the reader privy to both and to the richness of the connections between the two while the present-day characters in the book are deprived that knowledge.

In both cases, there's a search: in Everything is Illuminated, Safran Foer is looking for the place where his family is from.  In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a boy is looking for a lock to fit a mysterious key.  In both cases, the reader finds the journey (and even the eventual conclusion) to be satisfying while the seeker himself is frustrated.  In both cases, the style of writing is very similar - the narratives set in the past have the same frantic rhythm, the same delicate shades of magical realism, the same explosions of vivid prose.

Basically, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a very different book, but pressed in the same mould as its predecessor.  That's a little disappointing.  I had hoped Safran Foer had more potential to grow as an author.

I imagine I was seeing a very strong influence from two other writers.  Martin Amis, and in particular his book Time's Arrow, and W.G. Sebald.  Amis' book Time's Arrow is set during WWII and its trick is that time progresses backwards through the novel - it's not the telling of the narrative that's scrambled, it's the events themselves, reversing cause and effect.  One of Sebald's quirks as an author is his use of photographs.  Foer doesn't copy any phrase or image, but he uses their tricks without modification, and they still have the tone and function of their sources.  They fit, but feel borrowed, like they still belong to someone else.

Now, both Amis and Sebald have a very similar interest in urban, contemporary Jewish identity and WWII/Holocaust narratives.  Foer falls into the same category.  It makes sense that there's a connection, that Foer would find those other authors intruding on his own creation, but he is putting himself in danger of being overwhelmed by their inventions.

But I'm circling the book itself.  It's a really beautiful novel.  I didn't snap it up originally because I had heard that it was written from the perspective of a 10 year old boy, and I heard that it was about September 11, and I imagined a trainwreck.  I had heard true, on both counts, but it's no trainwreck.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is full of details that are delightful, charming, funny; the boy is precocious and sweet, and his running commentary is never simple or dull.  His dad died in the World Trade Center, and 9-11 is not a political event in the book.  It returns 9/11 to what it was before it was co-opted by Bush et al, and I have to admit that it's been hard to remember the tragedy itself with all the baggage it's been carrying for so long now.  So Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a good reminder.

Nana, by Emile Zola

I ended up feeling pretty disgusted by Zola after finishing Nana.  The only other book of Zola's that I've read was La Curée - I read it during my semester abroad in Paris.  I don't remember the narrative arc exactly, but it's about an aristocratic woman who marries into the nouveau riche of real estate speculators during Haussmanization.  The woman - so went hte professor - stands in for the old Paris and so while developers mutilate the old city, the same thing happens to her.

Nana is a sort of opposite plot.  She is born a petite bourgeoise, becomes a prostitute, and slowly rises up through the theater to become a wealthy, coveted courtesan.  The book is amazing, fabulously written and rich and brutal..but nearly every character is corrupt, perverted, sick, and Zola describes Nana as the fly that passes the disease around.  She becomes a kind of Dorian Gray - a beautiful, desirable creature who absorbs all the filth around her and is ultimately destroyed by it.

At the beginning, I really liked Nana.  She was stupid but kind, unaffected, charming.  But she plays all of her cards wrong and burns her bridges - falling in love with a man who beats her, spending extravagantly and always beyond her means, embarrassing her patrons.  In the process she becomes crass, unkind, repulsive.  Of course she finally catches a horrible disease and dies, disfigured, her life of vice written all over her beautiful body.  An by that time there was some satisfaction in her death, some release.

But I hated Zola for writing these books where women, as symbols, suffer and die to pay for - or just embody - the sins of all.