Personal Days

By Ed Park

The title of Ed Park’s debut novel, Personal Days, is one of those perfect, HR-generated paradoxes. On the one hand, personal days offer the opportunity for freedom, for escape from the humdrum routine of desk-job life. On the other hand, that freedom is contained within a neat, organized little box, usually requiring a form to be filled out and approved to be taken, and in most offices I’ve heard of, you get precious few of them. And, of course, when you do end up using them, it’s more often than not for errands anyway. It’s the kind of title that so perfectly encapsulates the mentality of certain types of jobs, anyone who’s spent even a moderate amount of time working in an office will, seeing it, either smirk or grimace.

Personal Days is the story of a group of co-workers at a faceless sort of “everycompany”--we’re never told the company’s name, or even its business--that is in the midst of a brutal round of layoffs. By the time the book begins, the company is already a shell of its former self, reduced to a handful of sarcastic, distracted, or fatalistic employees and their inept manager. We’re introduced to the characters and the banality of their situation through a series of vignettes, discussions about the differences between the two nearby Starbucks, for example, or a description of the lunchroom dynamics. Eventually, the company is purchased by a group of “Californians,” and the firings resume. The employees become by turns frantic or simply resigned to their fates, being laid off one by one with no apparent logic behind any of it--the Californians and the local management are left quite opaque, with only overheard snippets of conference calls and hastily scribbled notes retrieved from trash cans providing any clues to what’s going on. The real story, revealed in the last of three sections, is even more absurd than anyone guesses.

Park divides his story into three sections, each structured differently from the rest. The first section is a collection of fragments separated by bold-faced headers, while the second reads like a software EULA, complete with paragraph and subsection numbers. The third takes the form of an email from one of the peripheral characters of the first two sections to another who has recently been fired. I was immediately reminded of Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs, both from the idiosyncratic formatting and the presentation of office culture. Personal Days cuts harder, though, I think. Much of Coupland’s story is about his characters’ attempt to start their own company, while Park’s characters are never given that kind of agency. Everything about corporate life in Personal Days is dehumanizing, disjointed, and ultimately purposeless.

There’s a lot of humor in this book, and Park is spot-on and merciless as he skewers every aspect of cubicle life. I had a hard time laughing, though. The outlook is just too dark, and there’s never really any hope or redemption given. Even the glimpses we’re given of life after being laid off seem hopelessly mundane. And though we are given an outpouring of emotion and humanness in the stream-of-consciousness email that comprises the final section, it ultimately only serves to make the ending that much more poignant, as we come to realize that the email never reaches its destination.

As a satire and as a portrait of everyday life for so many of us, I have to say that Personal Days is pretty successful. It does feel gimmicky at times, but Park tells the story skillfully enough that I was able to see through the writing tricks well enough to draw me into what I found to be a compelling work narrative. I’m interested to see what he does next.

Started: 5/4/2010 | Finished: 5/11/2010

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Sharpe's Eagle

By Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe’s Eagle was the first of the Sharpe novels to be written, and it’s the second in the chronology of the “main” series (at least, as defined by Penguin Books). Picking up some months after the events of Sharpe’s Rifles, this episode finds the title character and his company attached to the South Essex Battalion for the relatively routine assignment of destroying a Spanish bridge in order to keep it from being used by the French. Unfortunately, both his new battalion and the Spanish unit that accompanies them are led by incompetents, officers who bought their commissions rather than being promoted on merit. (This is, as Cornwell makes clear, the rule rather than the exception in the Royal Army of the Napoleonic era.) Sharpe finds himself caught in an unnecessary battle, and though he and his men acquit themselves well, the South Essex as a whole is mismanaged and defeated, and suffer the ultimate dishonor of losing their regimental colors. Sharpe is forced to fight his way clear of the debacle, and in order to save both his career and his unit’s honor, vows to make up for the loss of the South Essex’s flag by doing something that’s never been done before: capturing a French standard, the eagle of the title. Along the way, he must outwit not only his enemies but the schemes and betrayals of the South Essex’s commander and his foppish nephew, as well.

What was most interesting to me about Sharpe’s Eagle was how consistent the tone and characters were with what I saw in Sharpe’s Rifles. Mind you, although the books are adjacent in the chronology of the series, seven years and six other novels actually came between the writing of the two. I might have thought that a gap like that would be problematic, but this episode flows directly from the previous as though they were chapters in a single book. That’s more of a testament to Rifles than Eagle, of course, but it certainly shows the truth of the claim that where you start this series isn’t terribly important.

Everything I liked about Rifles is present in Eagle--the vivid battles, the camaraderie between the men, the friendship between Sharpe and Harper, and the wonderfully flawed character of Sharpe, himself--so in that respect it was a successful story for me. If it didn’t add much more, that’s alright because I don’t really need--or want--anything else.

I tell you: it’s going to take some effort on my part to space out this series and read other stuff in between episodes.

Started: 4/26/2010 | Finished: 5/1/2010

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Young Miles

By Lois McMaster Bujold

Young Miles is the second omnibus in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. Picking up a decade or so after the events of the first volume--which I read and enjoyed earlier this year--this set of stories recounts the events of the early career of Miles Vorkosigan, the son of Cordelia's Honor's protagonists, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. Over the course of the three constituent works (The Warrior's Apprentice, the short story The Mountains of Mourning, and The Vor Game) Miles has adventures with a mercenary fleet, solves a mystery in his home district's backcountry, graduates from the Barrayaran Imperial Academy, stops an interstellar war, and rescues his emperor. As you might guess from a description like that, it's a pretty fun read.

If anything, I liked Young Miles even more than Cordelia's Honor. The backstory of the first volume was woven into these stories quite neatly, and combined with the fact that new characters brought new perspectives on old events, it made returning to this world feel like slipping on a comfortable old sweater; I experienced a feeling of nostalgia that was surprising given that it had only been a few months since my first encounter with the series. Additionally, the change in protagonist from Cordelia to Miles worked well for me, though that's no surprise given how many of my favorite SF and fantasy adventures have been coming-of-age stories. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get over that; most of the time I don't think I want to.

The only thing that bothered me a bit about this collection was the overall structure of the third section, The Vor Game. That novel actually won the Hugo when it was originally released, something that I don't quite get. The story was kind of sprawling and all over the place, and while everything does eventually tie together, it felt loose and episodic while I was actually in it.

Still, the character of Miles Vorkosigan was instantly likeable, both empathetic and funny. I understand he is the main character of most of the rest of the series, and I'm looking forward to reading more about him.

Started: 4/15/2010 | Finished: 4/23/2010

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The Stone War

By Madeleine Robins

In something of an odd coincidence, this is the third book out of the last four I've read that was about New York.  This one came to me via a co-worker, with whom I've been trading books and DVDs lately. I lent him my copies of Forever, Good Omens, and Neverwhere, and he lent me The Stone War.

The book is set in a dystopian near-future New York City where crime and homelessness have run rampant.  Most of the city's residents have retreated into locked-down apartment buildings staffed with armed guards, while the homeless have been granted the legal right to squat in doorways and street-side gardens. The main character, John Tietjen, is one of the few who loves the city the way it used to be and still walks the streets unafraid.

This is the scene as we are introduced into Tietjen's life, and we watch as he interacts with his neighbors, argues with his ex-wife, and tries, unsuccessfully, to get his children interested in the city. Suddenly, while he's away on a business trip, an unknown catastrophe falls upon the city, with thousands killed and most of the rest fleeing as refugees. Tietjen makes his way back to New York, discovering an eerie ruin, covered with damage that no natural causes can explain. He brings together a small community of survivors, who must fend for themselves against the challenges of rebuilding, not to mention darker forces loose in the city.

Overall, The Stone Rose was an enjoyable read, but I kept feeling like it could have been more. It was author Madeleine Robins' first novel, and had many of the strengths and weaknesses first novels so often have. On the one hand, Robins' ideas were strong and she clearly has a passion for writing--older writers often seem to burn out long before they actually stop writing, to their readers' detriment. Unfortunately, her vision just wasn't executed that well. Much of what's set up in the initial parts of the book is dropped completely after the disaster, which left me feeling very unsatisfied with the overall direction of the story. Too, it's never really explained or resolved just what's so special about Tietjen, though numerous references are made to him being so. And the picture of an empty New York City, twisted and ravaged by supernatural forces, is wonderfully evocative and provides an opportunity for some truly dark or eerie scenes, I couldn't help but feel that Robins wasn't able to fully deliver on that promise in the way a more experienced writer might, though she did reach in that direction.

It may sound as though I'm bashing the book, which isn't really my intention--as I mentioned before, it was pretty enjoyable overall. I think the reason for my disappointment is just that there was so much potential for this to be a truly great story, but unfortunately that story never fully materialized.

Started: 4/12/2010 | Finished: 4/14/2010

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The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer was the second of two movies that Juliette and I saw while we were visiting my parents. Neither of us knew anything about it going in--we'd never even heard of it. But my stepdad said that it was good, so we figured we'd give it a chance.

As it turned out, The Ghost Writer was Roman Polanski's newest thriller. The title character, a nameless writer played by Ewan McGregor, is hired to re-write the memoirs of Adam Lang, a former prime minister of the UK, played by Pierce Brosnan. As you might expect, though, all is not what it seems, and as the writer works, he begins to uncover secrets about Lang's past that put his own life in danger.

The only other Polanski film I've seen is Chinatown, and while there are some similarities--in each film, the protagonist is a lone outsider who is brought in for a seemingly innocuous job, only to find himself caught up in much bigger events. The Ghost Writer, though, falls far short of Polanski's 1974 classic.

There just wasn't much to work with, really. None of the characters are particularly interesting or well-rounded, and none of the performances are inspired or quirky enough to make them work in spite of the lack of material in the script. Instead, the entire film hangs on the plot and atmosphere. That can work when the story concept is original or unexpected, but while this movie does have enough twists and turns to keep most people guessing, it doesn't do it any better than any other conspiracy thriller, nor does it really bring anything new to the genre.

In order to make up for the underwhelming script, Polanski tries to manufacture tension with his filmcraft, presenting us with bleak, forbidding images, everything in harshly desaturated grays. On top of which, the pacing is very slow for much of the movie--there are long stretches with very few lines. The idea must have been to heighten the sense of isolation by making everything seem cold and quiet, but it just didn't work very well for me.

There wasn't anything horribly wrong with The Ghost Writer and I imagine that there are a number of people who would agree with my parents that it was pretty good. But in the end I just didn't feel engaged by it, which seems to me a rather glaring flaw in a thriller. Still, it was nice to spend a little time in a movie theater again, eating popcorn and sitting next to Juliette without any interruptions. That's something I definitely don't get enough of these days.

Viewed: 4/3/2010 | Released: 3/19/2010 | Score: C+

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Crazy Heart

My first instinct as I sat down to write this review was to make some kind of comment about how late it was in coming. But, going back through my review archives, I noticed that an annoyingly high proportion of my reviews start that way, and reading them one after another, it just sounds whiny and self-indulgent.

This review is starting off much better, I'm sure.

I think I first heard about Crazy Heart in the lead-up to the Golden Globes, when everyone was talking about Jeff Bridges' chances at winning Best Actor. Of course that piqued my interest, since Bridges is one of my favorite living actors. Then he won the Golden Globe, and then the Oscar, and I put it on my Netflix "saved" list and more or less gave up on seeing it in the theater.

It turned out, though, that it was still playing at the independent theater down the street from my parents' house when we went out there to visit them, and Juliette and I were happy enough to take my mom's offer of babysitting. We actually considered just staying in and going to bed early, but my mom was so eager to spend time with Jason and so insistent that we enjoy ourselves that she practically shoved us out the door. I'm glad she did, though. (Thanks, mom.)

Most of what I'd heard and read about Crazy Heart said it was an adequate but not terribly impressive film that was turned into something more by the strength of Bridges' exquisite performance. But I think that it really had two pillars holding it up--not just Jeff Bridges, but also the music.

There was a time in my life that I described my musical tastes as "everything but country and rap." Since then, though, I've found something to connect with in both genres. I'm still not much for the sort of country-pop that seems to be in vogue these days, but some older stuff--Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Strait--does resonate. The music in Crazy Heart hearkens back to those earlier styles of country music, I think, and works well largely because the songs really mean something in the context of the narrative. It also doesn't hurt that Jeff Bridges is a surprisingly good singer.

Of course, I can't write a review of this movie without talking about the performances, especially Jeff Bridges'. And he was brilliant. But that's not much of a surprise--in my opinion, Bridges is one of the most consistent actors currently working. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Duvall were both also excellent, and Colin Farrell was also surprisingly good.

Still, for all the talk this movie got and continues to get for its performances, what's really stuck with me has been the music. Juliette commented on the way out that she wanted to start listening to country now. I think it very well may come to pass.

Viewed: 3/31/2010 | Released: 12/16/2009 | Score: A-

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The Shadow of the Wind

By Carlos Ruiz Zafón

"I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time."

That's the first sentence of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's novel The Shadow of the Wind. It calls to mind the opening line of Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude in the way it manages to be simultaneously simple and yet powerfully evocative of a huge story yet to come. The name "Cemetary of Forgotten Books," of course, immediately brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges. And the spooky undercurrent, the hint of intrigue, can't help but make you think of Umberto Eco. If that one sentence isn't enough to hook you, well, I'm not sure that reading my reviews will be particularly useful to you. It was all it took for me to become totally enraptured by this book.

Following that first sentence, the narrator--young Daniel Sempere, the son of a Barcelona bookseller--finds and is enthralled by a book that few others have heard of, the eponym of the Ruiz Zafón's novel. In fact, Daniel finds that he may have the last copy of any of the author's works, as someone has been determinedly finding and destroying every copy of everything the author--Julian Carax--ever wrote. The story of the book and its author is steadily revealed, layer by layer, and the more Daniel discovers, the more drawn into the events leading up to the disappearance of the other books and Carax, himself.

There's so much to love about this book. To begin with, the writing is just a joy. I'm not kidding when I compare Ruiz Zafón to Borges and Eco and García Márquez--some of my favorite authors. In style, in plot, in the wonderful depiction of the setting--Barcelona in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War--Ruiz Zafón belongs in the same pantheon as those men. The story becomes, at times, so grandly convoluted and so full of passions and revenge and tragedy that in the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been completely over the top. Yet Ruiz Zafón manages, through a combination of exquisite language and precise control over the layers of plot and how they're revealed, to craft a simply marvelous story.

Of course, what I loved most about The Shadow of the Wind were the parts between all the rushing around and tragically doomed love and madness. The parts about Daniel. I've mentioned before what a sucker I am for bildungsroman, and certainly I related to Daniel's journey into manhood. But it's in the quieter moments of the novel that I found something really great. The tenderness of Daniel's father and all he does for his son--and, of course, how little the teenaged narrator appreciates it at the time, and the regret Daniel later feels about that. The friendship between Daniel and the vagrant he takes in, Fermín Romero de Torres. The strain that develops between he and his childhood friend, Tomás. There's a delicacy and a deep understanding of youth and growth and relationships underpinning everything that resonated with me in a way I haven't felt from a book in some time. Between that and the excitement of the main plot, it's no wonder that I ended up staying up until 3 in the morning to finish the last half of the book in one sitting.

I'm not sure what more I can say about The Shadow of the Wind without sounding hyperbolic--in fact, I may have already crossed that line. But if I must sum it up somehow, let me put it this way: this is the best novel I've read in years.

Started: 3/8/2010 | Finished: 3/12/2010

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By Pete Hamill

Reading Forever immediately after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay made for an interesting comparison, since both books are about New York, both written by men who obviously have deep and abiding love for the city. But where Kavalier & Klay is more a portrait, a snapshot of the city at a particular moment, Forever is more like a time-lapse film. And while Michael Chabon's novel exudes the vigor and excitement of the post-war era, Pete Hamill's book has that sense of solemnity that I associate with Old-World legends and, perhaps, magic realism. Actually, Forever probably fits that latter camp pretty well, given both its premise and its execution.

Forever is the story of Cormac O'Connor, born in 1723 outside of Belfast. At the age of 17, Cormac makes his way across the Atlantic to New York to avenge his father's murder, in the process of which he's mortally wounded. He's brought back from the brink of death by an African shaman, who gives him the "gift" of eternal life, though with the condition that he can never leave the island of Manhattan. Thereafter, we follow Cormac through the history of the city, straight through until the present day. Cormac sees the Revolutionary War, the Great Fire of New York in 1835, the corruption of Tammany Hall, and the destruction of 9/11, and Hamill presents it all with a sharp eye for history.

I found this book interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the main character. In some ways it's tempting to see Cormac as heroic for his moral stance against slavery and injustice and his actions in helping the little guy. He appreciates art and music, accumulates a wealth of knowledge, and loves the city that he's watched grow from its infancy. Too, the tragic nature of his solitude plays on our sympathies. And yet, the genius of Hamill's characterization is that as alluring a character as Cormac is, he's more complex than that. He reveals himself to be selfish, even mean at times. And his adherence to the code of his Gaelic ancestors--requiring him to seek revenge not only on his father's murderer, but also all of the man's descendants--leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth. Or mine, anyway.

All in all, Forever is a great read, the prose constantly evolving and changing along with the history it recounts--the opening chapters, recounting Cormac's youth, read like a fable, but before the end of the book the style catches up to the modern day. The whole thing is just beautiful.

Pete Hamill seems to get called "a New York legend" with some frequency--which you'd expect of a man who was editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News. I'd say, though, that even if he'd done nothing else, the strength of this book alone might just be enough to earn him that title.

Started: 2/23/2010 | Finished: 3/5/2010

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

By Michael Chabon

This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. And recently Entertainment Weekly named it one of the ten best novels of the decade. Well, I thought it was pretty great, too.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is about a lot of things. It's about the title characters, of course. When the story opens in 1939, Joe Kavalier arrives at the home of his aunt and her son, Sam Klayman, having escaped Nazi-occupied Prague. When I say "escaped" in that context you might think of something like Casablanca--forged travel papers, traveling under the cover of night, and so on. And all that is the case here as well, but Joe's escape is made all the more spectacular because he's a trained magician and escape artist. He's also a talented artist of the more normal type, and he and Sam end up becoming influential figures in the development of the modern comic book. The novel documents their rise to fame during the pre-war years and the events that lead up to and then follow the break-up of their partnership.

But it's about more than that. Reading this book, the main story was almost incidental to my enjoyment. Because it's also a history of the golden age of comics, a portrait of war-era New York, a meditation on sexuality, family, friendship, and fathers and sons. It's about escape, both literal and figurative, and about magic, both the sleight-of-hand of the stage magician and the everyday magic of life. And it's all done masterfully. Scenes from this story broke my heart, while others had me laughing out loud--no mean feat for a book. The prose at times borders on purple, but instead of feeling over the top it gives the whole thing a lyrical quality, at once realistic but reminiscent of a fairy tale. Other authors have managed that feeling--Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind--but I'm not sure any have done it better.

If there's anything I didn't like about Kavalier & Clay, it would be the ending. There's little in the way of denouement and, in my opinion, even less of resolution. I'm not sure what I was supposed to feel, because I suppose there is resonance with the themes of escape and freedom, but what I ended up feeling was disappointment and sadness.

Despite that, I wasn't disappointed in the book as a whole. Maybe it's because there was so much more to love about the book than just the plot and the characters. Maybe I just didn't need the ending to live up to the rest of the book, and maybe there wasn't really any way it could. In any case, I'm glad I read it, and I'm happy to give it my whole-hearted recommendation.

Started: 1/27/2010 | Finished: 2/22/2010

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Sharpe's Rifles

By Bernard Cornwell

I think that my introduction to the Sharpe novels came from Wikipedia, of all places. I was reading the Horatio Hornblower article, which noted near the bottom that it had inspired Bernard Cornwell's series. Being a pretty big fan of the Hornblower series, I put the Sharpe series on my list as something to check out. The series comprises 24 books, and it was a little difficult to figure out which one to start with. The first written was Sharpe's Eagle, and the first in the main character's chronology is Sharpe's Tiger. This one, Sharpe's Rifles, is the first in what I gather is considered the "main" series--at least, the copy I picked up has a big "1" on the spine. In any event, supposedly each novel stands more or less on its own, so the particular starting point may not matter much.

Having finished this first volume, I can see the comparison to the Hornblower novels. Both Richard Sharpe and Horatio Hornblower are British military officers during the Napoleonic Wars. Both suffer from a lack of the wealth and influence common to officers of their day--consequently, both are relatively socially awkward. Both turn out to be brilliant commanders. They're even relatively close in age. Both series feature historical scenery and a lot of action, and the novels in each are fun and easy to read.

On the other hand, there's also a fair amount to distinguish Sharpe from Hornblower, the most obvious point being that Sharpe is in the Army rather than the Navy. Clearly, that means a difference in milieu--battles on land instead of at sea--but there's a difference in culture as well. One thing that Forester commented on often in his series was the relative indiscipline of sailors in the Royal Navy as opposed to the strict rank and file of the Army. Despite an attempted mutiny at the outset of Sharpe's Rifles, that discipline is quite apparent. And it makes sense--when your life and the success of your mission depends on your entire group being able to maneuver in exact formation, to line up across from your enemy and keep standing there, shoulder to shoulder, while being shot at, well-trained and tightly disciplined soldiers are necessary. It gives the characters in Sharpe's Rifles a harder edge than the ones in the Hornblower novels. Too, a battle at sea doesn't leave much visible evidence--ships sink and debris soon scatters. When the smoke clears after an infantry battle, the bodies of fallen soldiers and scars on the land and buildings stay around, and it's exactly that sort of scene that this novel opens with. All of this combines to give Sharpe's Rifles a gritter, more hard-scrabble feel than anything in the Hornblower series.

As I mentioned, I found this book to be quite enjoyable, and a pretty quick read. I'll definitely be continuing the series, and I look forward to discovering more about the life and adventures of Richard Sharpe.

Started: 1/16/2010 | Finished: 1/22/2010

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