Michael Patrick Brady

Books

The Library at Mount Char | Scott Hawkins

July 2, 2015

My review of Scott Hawkins’s The Library at Mount Char ran today in the Boston Globe.

This one started out promising, with some creepy H.P. Lovecraft/Stephen King vibes, but when you give your characters magic powers and don’t rein them in, or provide any kind of coherent system of boundaries and consequences, a plot can get real sloppy real fast. And while Scott Hawkins has a knack for creating some very imaginative, very macabre imagery, he has a lot of trouble crafting a solid, logical plot to hold it all together.

About a third of the way through the book, things go haywire, with the protagonist, Carolyn, resorting to increasingly irrational and convoluted means of manipulating those around her. And then two-thirds of the way through the book, Carolyn admits that it was all irrational and convoluted, but tries to convince us that it was actually part of a grander, brilliant plan that those around her were just too simple to comprehend. All in all, a real let down, and the review goes into more specifics on what a missed opportunity it is.


Books

The Pinch | Steve Stern

June 26, 2015

pinch

My review of Steve Stern’s The Pinch: A Novel/A History ran today in the Boston Globe.

I’ve written before about how frustrating I find framing stories (that is, when the main story of a novel is introduced via a separate, ostensibly related story that sets it up). I think it’s a hard thing to pull off well. And in the last few books I’ve read that have utilized this device, it’s been more of an irritation than anything else.

The Pinch is a great example. It’s the story of Muni Pinsker, a Russian refugee who makes his home in the Pinch district of Memphis, Tennessee in 1911. And it’s a great story! Stern manages to create a narrative full of surreal, fantastical happenings and Yiddish folklore that is also sweet, funny, deeply affecting, and emotional. It’s smart and engrossing, and I was excited to see where it was headed and read along with Stern’s rich, lyrical prose. He’s a great prose stylist.

But rather than simply tell us the story of Muni Pinsker, Stern was compelled to couch that narrative in another one. It’s Lenny Sklarew that finds Muni’s memoir in a bookstore in 1968. And to get to Muni, we have to go through Lenny. And Lenny is awful. His story is banal, and he’s a boor. When writing for Lenny, Stern’s prose becomes leaden, and the momentum of the story grinds to a halt. The book alternates between Muni chapters and Lenny chapters, and I can’t stress enough how hard it was to push through the latter. Thankfully, Muni was worth it, but what a slog.

Of course, Stern wraps up Lenny’s story with a bunch of metafictional flim-flam, including two separate endings. Yes, Lenny gets two endings, to Muni’s one! Yet, I suspect that I could’ve skipped every bit of Lenny and not missed out on anything of importance.

But I can still recommend The Pinch. And I do recommend it. At least half of it.


Jeopardy!

Well, That Was Fun…
My Jeopardy! Experience

April 24, 2015

Is there some way I can make this animated GIF my business card?

I didn’t realize I was on camera when removing my glasses, but I like the effect. I’m nearsighted, but I usually only wear my glasses to drive at night. At the Jeopardy! audition, the first thing I asked was, “How far away is the board from the contestants?” At home, I’m able to answer quickly because I can read through the question quickly, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to do that on stage.

It turns out the board is fairly legible from the podiums, but I was still anxious enough about it that I left my glasses on during the game. I wanted to take them off for the photo with Alex Trebek, but he snuck up behind me before I could. At the end of the game, when I was sure that I won, I didn’t want them in the celebratory shot. Just a little game show vanity. And after the win, I was comfortable enough to leave them off in games two and three.

Prelude

The morning of the taping, the other contestants and I gathered in the hotel lobby to wait for the shuttle to Sony Studios. Everyone was excited, and the mood was jovial. Then Alex Schraff, who I faced in my second game, arrived.

Alex had been at the previous day’s taping. He was supposed to play on that day, except Alex Jacob had swept all five games, and they won’t allow two people with the same name to face off against one another. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must have been for him.

Alex S. told us all about Alex J. That he was a six-day champion. That his buzzer timing was impeccable. That he’d won over $100,000 dollars. That he’d bet big on Daily Doubles and pull it off. The mood among the group darkened considerably. Interestingly, I didn’t even notice when Alex Jacob joined us—I didn’t see him until he got out of the shuttle at the studio. He was listening to his iPhone and was wearing a bright red shirt that he’d had to buy the night before. He’d run out of new outfits. The new shirt still had the creases in it from where it was folded for display.

On the ride over, I sat next to Rachel Pepe, who I faced in my first game. We talked about our training—both of us had used the J-Archive to study. Interestingly, though I’d spent an inordinate amount of time drilling myself on opera, U.S. presidents, and state and world capitals, only one question across my three games related to something I had learned from studying: that Sucre is one of the two capitals of Bolivia. So studying the J-Archive in the weeks before the show gave me just as much of an advantage as watching Animaniacs as a child did.

In Alex Jacob’s last game, he hit true a Daily Double with the answer “Blomfontein,” one of the three capitals of South Africa. That’s also something I had picked up from the J-Archive. When the question came up, Greg Seroka (who defeated me in my last game) and I both shook our heads because we knew Alex would get it. Nobody wanted to face him, and thankfully Todd Lovell took care of that for us.

On Stage

I was really unhappy with the categories in the first round of game one. Hodgepodge? Come on. That discomfort, along with general jitters, threw me off a bit. Thankfully, Todd and Rachel seemed to have just as much trouble as I did, and the first round was a bit of a bloodbath. Low scores all around.

But in the break between round one and Double Jeopardy, when I saw how close we all were still, it calmed me down. Also, the fact that my Jeopardy experience was (potentially) half over in what seemed to me like seconds helped me refocus. For whatever reason, I felt in that moment that I was going to win.

Daily Doubles

If you had asked me before the shows aired on TV how I had done with Daily Doubles, I would’ve told you I got more wrong than I got right. In my memory, I missed four or five, and hit maybe two or three. So imagine my surprise now, having seen the episodes, that I went four for eight. The speed of the games and the general excitement really make it hard to remember anything accurately.

I’d psyched myself up going in to bet big on Daily Doubles; everything I’d read said it was the right strategy, and obviously Alex Jacob was case in point. But when I got on stage and the scores were so close and the categories were so random seeming, I got conservative.

In Game 1, yes, I was thinking of The Usual Suspects when I said Quartet for the Skokie, Illinois company. It was a wild guess, and I had no expectation that it would be even close to correct. When I bet $2,001 on the Spanish Daily Double, I got the answer right (“Franco”), but the math wrong. I though the bet would give me just over twice Rachel’s score, but I was off.

In Game 2, my J-Archive studying worked against me on the Bach Daily Double. With the category, “Dedications,” I simply couldn’t dislodge The Goldberg Variations from my head, even though I knew they wanted a city. Alex Trebek was right to scold me for missing Brandenburg. Should’ve been a lay-up.

In Game 3, there was no hope for me on the “Nonfiction” Daily Double. Carl’s Jr. is just not something we have in Massachusetts. Thwarted by regionalism!

And I know my small bet on the “Calendars” Daily Double has been controversial on JBoard, but I have to stand by it. That category had been all over the place, and I didn’t feel comfortable going big and potentially knocking myself out of contention in Final Jeopardy. I had no reason to believe the Daily Double would be so easy. I decided I’d take my chances and hope the Final category was something that would give me an edge.

The Buzzer

I know it’s a Jeopardy! cliché, but the game really is all about the buzzer. What’s interesting is that the better a player gets at buzzing in, the worse the other players get. For example, when Greg Seroka got on that streak in round one of game three, my buzzer skills deteriorated. Because instead of trying to time my buzzing to Alex’s voice, or the light that tells you it’s alright to buzz in, I started trying to beat Greg at buzzing. So of course, I ended up ringing in too early and getting locked out. Thankfully, I was able to break out of that in Double Jeopardy and get back into play. Alex S. and Ashley Alley basically told me the same thing happened to them during game two, when I got on a streak.

Occasionally, I found myself trying to win the buzzer game and forgetting that I was in a trivia game. At least once, maybe twice, I was excited to have successfully rung in, only to realize I had no answer.

If you ever wondered what players are talking about in the silent chat with Alex that happens beneath the closing credits of the show, they’re talking about the buzzer.

The Categories

Beyond the first round game-one categories, which were dismal, I was disappointed I didn’t get to show off all the great things I’d learned about opera. There weren’t a lot of classic Jeopardy! categories to contend with, and frankly, I think a category like “Airports” is just really lame. But then again, I was blessed to be offered up some real comfortable ones, too: Authors: Born & Died; Plays & Playwrights; Irish Songs; Maps; I’m All About That Bassist. I’ll never get over Greg denying me the chance to run a full category by swooping in and stealing “Spinal Tap!”

Final Jeopardy

I won’t spend much time on game one. The clue was straightforward and the bet was basically predetermined by Rachel’s score.

In game two, I had a lock game already, and was actually disappointed that American Poetry was the category because I know I’m strong on it and would’ve rather had it turn up in a competitive game where I needed it. I could’ve bet $3,999 safely, but my conservative nature took over. $3,999 in the hand is worth an extra $3,999 in the bush. Rather than risk losing $3,999, I bet a buck and moved on.

Game three, I also thought this bet was pretty straightforward, but some people seem confused. Basically, I knew that in order to win, Greg had to get the question wrong. If he got it right, he had enough money to cover me if I bet everything. He had to make that bet. And if he got it wrong, I didn’t really need to do anything, because his bet to cover me would lose him enough money that I’d be on top. So I bet a little just in case he got skittish about the category, but not enough to put me in danger of missing if he lost. The J-Archive wagering calculator basically predicts our bets, based off of our scores at that time.

Maybe you wouldn’t have done it that way. At the time, it’s what felt right.

The Experience

The best part of the whole thing (aside from the money and the minor fame) was how nice everyone was. The other contestants were so great, and everyone is so excited to be there. It takes a lot just to get on the show; it’s an achievement in and of itself. And while it’s great to win, it’s hard knowing that two other people are going home disappointed. The contestant coordinators and the rest of the staff on Jeopardy! were incredible, and really made you feel like you were part of something special. And Alex Trebek was incredibly friendly and approachable. It was fun to see him interact with the audience during the commercial breaks, too.

In the first game, you can see I’m nervous. But after I won, I loosened up so much. You can see how much fun I’m having in the second game. And when I lost to Greg, I wasn’t even upset. He played a great game, and I’d kept it competitive. I was happy for Greg! He just got to fulfill his dream, just like I had. I was thrilled that I’d gotten all three Final Jeopardy clues correct—it was probably my biggest concern going in. As I left the stage, I shook Alex’s hand and told him that the whole thing had been a dream come true. It really was.

Post Script: The Accent

This is a subject I’ve addressed in another post, “Regarding the Accent.” Most people have been very kind about it, and a few are suspicious of how genuine my way of speaking is. I can only assure you that it is, and hope that the contents of the other post can serve to put it in the proper context. And anyway, who would fake such a thing? I’m not sure what advantage it would provide. I mean, in the Vine below, I think it’s clear that I was just speaking off the top of my head. I was getting ready to clarify myself, cause Alex’s confusion was so apparent.

I was glad that Alex seemed to enjoy it, and I don’t mind a little gentle ribbing. I like my accent, weird as it may be.


Jeopardy!

Regarding the Accent

April 23, 2015

image

The accent is not fake, but I understand why people think it’s weird. It’s definitely spotty.

I’m originally from Dorchester, and grew up with a pretty traditional Boston accent. Occasionally I’d get teased by non-accented peers in school about the way I pronounced certain things, but not a lot, because pretty much everybody in the area is familiar with the Boston accent.

But when I went to college (still in Boston, mind you!) I mixed with a lot of people from other places who simply could not understand what I was saying. Or, when they could, couldn’t keep a straight face. If I wanted to get through a sentence without having to stop and wait for everybody to have a good laugh about it, I had to adjust and over articulate. This was not entirely a conscious thing. There’s actually a linguistic term for this process.

What’s funny is, I would come home from school and my parents would then say I sounded strange. But my friends at school always knew when I’d just been at home, because my accent would be stronger when I returned.

So a lot of the time my accent is subtle or maybe not immediately obvious. But I never lost the classic non-rhoticity (the dropped Rs) and the combination and contrast between the the moments when you can’t tell and the moments when you can make it seem very harsh and jarring.

My accent is most prominent, I find, when I’m not thinking about what I’m saying. And in Jeopardy, the game moves so fast and you’re concentrating on buzzing in and thinking up the right response–there really isn’t time to think about how you’re saying it. Which is also probably why you hear it more in the answers than in the interview portion.

Basically, as I got older and had to interact more and more with people who didn’t have a Boston accent, in school and in my professional life, my own speech drifted simply because I needed to communicate with them more clearly.

So, if anything, if any part of my accent is “fake,” it’s the part that sounds like it isn’t from Boston.


Jeopardy!

Watch Me on Jeopardy!, April 21st, 2015

April 11, 2015

Me and Alex

It’s true, I’ll be realizing a lifelong dream on Tuesday, April 21st. Check your local listings. I’ll probably follow up with a write-up about the whole experience once it airs, and maybe I’ll do some live tweeting to make excuses for certain incorrect responses.


Books

Find Me | Laura van den Berg

February 17, 2015

findme

My review of Find Me by Laura van den Berg appeared today in the Boston Globe.

Last year, when I was trying to psych myself up to write some fiction, I picked up a few lit mags from the Harvard Book Store. I was looking for inspiration–by which I mean I was hoping to find stories that were kind of lame and underwhelming, to make writing and getting a short story published seem like an attainable goal.

Unfortunately, the very first story I read was Laura van den Berg’s “Antarctica,” from Glimmer Train #88. (The story also appears in her collection The Isle of Youth.) It was way too good; so when I saw that she had a novel coming out this winter, I jumped at the chance to review it.

Find Me is a little bit of a bait-and-switch. Promoted as a story about a devastating pandemic, it is, in fact, a very subtle exploration of a troubled woman’s inner turmoil. Van den Berg spends the first third of the book setting up a rather scary and ominous scenario in a remote quarantine hospital, with hints of menace that echo the unease and mystery that made “Antarctica” so engaging. But despite what seems like a long buildup toward a conflict between the stir-crazy patients and the controlling staff, this story line peters out, and the protagonist, Joy Jones, slips away to take up the book’s real main thread: the search for her long lost biological mother.

I’ll admit, this development bummed me out. I’d gotten really invested in the detailed world of the hospital van den Berg had created, and to see it dismissed so quickly seemed like a real shame. And that disappointment made it hard for me to really latch on to Joy’s cross-country travels, or her time spent in the kooky “Mansion.” But after a few days away from the book, I began to appreciate the whole of the story, and the connections between the disparate sections started to become more apparent.

Basically, once I got over that Find Me wasn’t what I thought it should be, I was able to appreciate it for what it actually was.


Books

Refund: Stories | Karen E. Bender

January 14, 2015

My review of Karen E. Bender’s short story collection, Refund ran today in the Boston Globe.

When I visited Milan and Venice last year, I noticed that both cities were rife with graffiti, most of it with a political bent. Milan’s graffiti was loopy, messy, and from what I could tell, it was mostly aimed at expressing displeasure with a planned high-speed train project in the region (“NO TAV“). In Venice, I saw more stenciling than tagging, and the political objectives were broader and more philosophical.

One of the spraypainted stencils read: PRECARIETA’ = SCHIAVITU.

When I got home and looked it up, I discovered it translated to “Insecurity = Slavery,” with “insecurity” more specifically denoting temporary worker status. The premise of the slogan is that those who toil in temporary jobs, with no benefits and no job protections or security, are slaves, beholden to the whims of their employers, who can threaten them into compliance with the prospect of unemployment and certain ruin. These workers are known among economists as the precariat, which is a portmanteau of “precarious” and “proletariat.”

precariat

There’s nothing explicitly political about Refund (aside from the fact that it’s being published by Counterpoint). But it concerns characters who clearly fit into the “precariat” class, who struggle to understand their value as people in a world that measures everything in money.

Bender’s prose is light and unassuming. Prosaic. At first, I found myself bored by the simplicity, and bored by the rather mundane happenings that her stories detailed. But by the end, I realized that the things that seemed so boring about the stories were, in fact, deeply tragic. It’s just that we’ve become inured to the indignities that people have had to endure during the latest recession: the layoffs, the loss of benefits, the underwater mortgages, and the predatory scammers who seek to take advantage of those who are at the end of their rope. Refund reflects our struggling world back at us, and dares us to take a step back and really consider that things haven’t always been this way. And that maybe they don’t have to be.


Books

Against the Country | Ben Metcalf

January 6, 2015

My review of Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country ran today in the Boston Globe.

In college, I once received a note from a professor: “Embrace the beauty of the simple sentence.” I laughed. I knew what he meant. I also had no intention of taking his note. I love rich, complex sentences that pack a lot of ideas into a single thought.

I like them in the literature I read, and, perhaps unwisely, I like to use them in the writing I do (though in recent years, I’ve tried to be more mindful of my professor’s words).

Ben Metcalf clearly loves thick, complex prose. And he’s pretty good at writing it, too. Looking back at his essays for Harpers, they’re full of the same kind of long, elaborate sentences and descriptions that make up the core of his first novel, Against the Country. But it’s one thing to make that style (and its accompanying cynical tone) work over the course of a 5,000 word essay. It’s quite another to keep it up for several hundred pages.

Against the Country is the story of an unnamed narrator’s difficult childhood in Goochland County, Virginia, a rural backwater depicted in the most hyperbolic manner imaginable, to better express the protagonist’s belief that it is hell on Earth. Metcalf’s prose is the star of the book. Far more so than the main character, who comes off as relentlessly grim and unlikeable, or the general thrust of the narrative, which is that rural communities are full of barely human idiots.

But after two-hundred pages or so, it becomes tiring to fight your way through his admittedly fascinating prose only to end up at some dismal dead end, rewarded only with another sullen conclusion that someone is a moron. At least in the beginning, the examination of Goochland’s strange folkways is interesting, in much the same way that gawking at a car crash has some macabre appeal. Once the book narrowed its focus, however, to the relationship between the narrator and his father, the stylized prose wasn’t enough to maintain my interest.

The book closes with a ponderous appendix that gives short biographies of all the dogs owned by the narrator’s family. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a parody of Faulkner’s appendix to The Sound and the Fury, but I figure it must be. It felt really superfluous, so I found myself reaching for some rationale for its inclusion. That’s the best I could come up with.


Fiction

“Here, Hereafter” in Smokelong Quarterly

September 15, 2014

I’m excited to announce that Smokelong Quarterly has selected my (very) short story, “Here, Hereafter” for publication.

It’s something of a ghost story. Something like that. And it’s only 318 words, so it won’t take you long to read. After wrestling with a few seven-to-ten thousand word stories for the last several months, it was refreshing to do something so short, and I’m glad it struck a nerve with the editors at Smokelong.

As an added bonus, the story is accompanied by an excellent illustration by my very own sister, Laura Lee Brady.


Books

No Future for You: Salvos from The Baffler

August 22, 2014

baffler

My review of No Future for You, the latest collection of essays from The Baffler ran today in the Boston Globe.

It’s nineteen essays of highly literate doom and gloom from some of the left’s heaviest hitters, like Rick Perlstein and Barbara Ehrenreich, representing the best of The Baffler‘s new era. Now, a lot of people were probably introduced to The Baffler via Steve Albini’s epic “The Problem With Music,” but the article that made me a believer was Joshua Glenn’s “I’d Like to Force the World to Sing,” a fanciful, paranoid examination of how OK Soda was a CIA plot to instill conservative values in ’90s youth.

In their impossible quest to conjure up a cadre of conservative youth who’d rebel against a Sixties they’d never known, [William] Kristol and Co., the theory maintains, conspired to dose Generation X with the concentrated essence of what they called “OK-ness.”

Now, as ridiculous as this may seem, I was actually somewhat receptive to this argument. In 1993, I was 10 years old and had just gone to my very first Red Sox game with my father. On the way home, we stopped in a convenience store. The old man behind the counter greeted us and mentioned in passing that he had recently received two new beverages from Coca Cola that were being tested in the Boston market: OK Soda and Fruitopia. He offered me one of each, for free. Only after reading the essay did I consider the sinister undertones of this “free” gift.

Frutopia was fine, but I really took to OK Soda (despite the playground rumor that it was simply a mixture of the runoff of every other Coca Cola drink). I was very taken with the can art, which I would later discover was designed by Ghost World‘s Daniel Clowes. The whole marketing campaign was expertly crafted to appeal to little kids like me, who had an interest in the underground but were far too young to participate or even know where to begin. Hidden in Glenn’s inventive theorizing is a thorough dismantling of that marketing campaign, a great example of how you can effectively merge creative non-fiction and serious criticism.

Now, there’s nothing nearly that entertaining in No Future for You. The tone and style of the contemporary Baffler is much harsher and more downcast. But, you know, so are the times we live in. And the criticism in the book, of our mercenary media, of the Silicon Valley charlatans, and other guardians of entrenched privilege, is as incisive as ever. You can’t blame the magazine for not having as much of a sense of humor about it anymore.


Music

Reissue: Cover Commentary

May 20, 2014

I’ve taken my old article about the comment stickers from WZBC’s vinyl archive (originally published in Stylus Magazine) and given it the Medium treatment.

Hard to believe it’s over 10 years old. I’ve enhanced the article with the actual scans of the comment stickers described throughout, and added several bonus covers, including scans of the comments for Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising and Daydream Nation.

Seemed like a nice way to breathe some new life into the piece and get familiar with the Medium platform.


BOSTON

Bridj to Nowhere

April 11, 2014

“Data driven bus service set to roll out,” writes today’s Globe. “Venture aims to predict rider’s needs.”

The story goes on to describe Bridj, a new private bus service that will ferry riders around Boston from point A to point B with no stops in between, for roughly $5 to $8 a trip. Its founder, Matthew George, says that he “considers Bridj a ‘relief valve’ for the MBTA, not a competitor,” but if that’s true, then I don’t think he’s considered the potential effects his project will have on the transit system and the people of this city.

The initial Bridj routes are planned to run express between the Hynes Convention Center and Harvard Square (the route of the MBTA’s #1 bus), and Coolidge Corner to Harvard Square (MBTA #66) or Kendall Square (Green “C” Line to the #1 @ Hynes or the Red Line @ Park).

I don’t know, that pretty much sounds like direct competition to me.

Let’s be honest about what Bridj is. It’s not a way to make transportation easier for Boston’s commutters. It’s a way to let a certain class of commutter, the kind who attend Harvard, or live in Coolidge Corner and the Back Bay, or who work for a tech company in Kendall Square, to get where they need to go without having to mix with the proles who live at all the stops in between. Because unless you’re one of those people, you’re going to have to take the T to get to a Bridj hub anyway.

And with Bridj’s initial plan taking a fairly big chunk out of some of the MBTA’s prime routes, that’s going to hurt the MBTA’s bottom line. Which means increased fares and cuts in service. If the MBTA begins to falter, is Bridj going to start picking up the slack? What happens to the people who pick up the #66 bus in Lower Allston? Will we ever get a direct Bridj route from Fields Corner to Kenmore Square, which might actually cover ground the MBTA doesn’t?

Honestly, I find the blithe way that the “no stops along the way” strategy is described in the article disturbing. “With no stops along the way, travel times would be faster on Bridj than on the T,” said George.

Yes, but for whom?

I’m reminded of a line from a Nick Kristoff op-ed in the New York Times about the money people are willing to spend on individual disaster preparedness, when they’d balk at supporting broader solutions through their taxes:

That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.

And to me, that’s Bridj in a nutshell. It creates a two-tiered system of transit and serves only the affluent, with no concern for the cascading consequences that will affect the people left waiting for a bus that’s never going to come. Or that they can’t afford to board.

The MBTA isn’t perfect, but it works in aggregate. It works for as many people as it can, and there’s some give and take in that. Some things suffer: some days you might wait too long for a bus, or the train breaks down, or you are victim of one of those “switch problems” that seem to crop up at the most inconvenient times. The MBTA could easily do what Bridj does; it would just have to stop serving the vast majority of Bostonians. If that were the case, the rides would be smooth, the seats could be comfy, and Wi-Fi would be plentiful. But it wouldn’t be right. And it wouldn’t be good for Boston.


Books

Bad Teeth | Dustin Long

March 25, 2014

badteeth

My review of Dustin Long’s Bad Teeth ran today in the Boston Globe.

Long’s second novel falls squarely into postmodern novel territory, with a distinct Crying of Lot 49 vibe. It’s not nearly as detailed or deep as Pynchon, but what is? Bad Teeth looks to emulate the style, but doesn’t overreach, and the result is a really fun, wide-ranging story whose ultimate point is how pointless everything seems nowadays.

What I liked most about the book was how Long depicted the relationship his cast of millennial characters have with social media. They blog, they tweet, and they use Facebook, and they do so in a way that’s completely unobtrusive and germane to their lifestyle. I feel like references to youth culture often seem shoehorned into narratives, or are shown in an odd light, as if the writer doesn’t really have any first-hand experience with it. Like they are writing about young people based on how they’re portrayed in David Brooks columns. Long, however, seems to get it, and it’s really refreshing to read a story that feels like it’s set in the world as I know it.

One thing of note: about halfway through the book, it’s revealed that the narrative we’re reading isn’t being told from a third-person omniscient perspective. Instead, it’s being told by one of the characters within it. So the main character’s name, Judas, is thrown into a different light when you discover that the narrator is someone who was betrayed by the main character.

I’m not a huge fan of these metafictional touches. Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow uses the exact same device (as does Roth’s American Pastoral, where the details of Swede Levov’s tragic life are entirely the creation of Nathan Zuckerman’s imagination). And I’m left wondering, does this approach add anything to these stories? In Roth’s case, maybe, but I think you could probably remove the unreliable narrators from all three books and just let the stories stand on their own with no ill effect. They might even be stronger for it.


Books

North of Boston | Elisabeth Elo

January 27, 2014

My review of North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo ran today in the Boston Globe.

I’ve never been a fan of James Bond movies. Apart from the cartoonish stories and retrograde sexism, I just never found James Bond very interesting as a character.

He’s pure wish fulfillment, a man who’s handsome, with intellectual and physical faculties that allow him to surmount any obstacle, is permitted to bend and break the law at his own discretion in the service of his goals, and can have any woman he wants.

He’s entirely characterized by superficialities, and utterly lacking in depth. It’s like a maladjusted 11-year-old boy’s fantasy.

I’ve also never been a fan of genre fiction, which I find to be plagued by the kind of writing I describe above. To make a big overgeneralization, it always strikes me as shallow archetypes moving through fairly banal plot loaded with “surprise” twists you can see coming well in advance. So maybe I wasn’t the target audience for “North of Boston.” In fact, I definitely wasn’t. So if you know you enjoy genre fiction, or thrillers in general, take my criticism with a grain of salt.

The book’s protagonist, Pirio Kasparaov, is, like James Bond, great at everything. She’s attractive, well read, and fairly affluent, the beneficiary of her family’s successful perfume company, where she works as an executive. But she’s also a down-to-earth gal who hangs out with fisherman and other blue collar types at seedy dives, and volunteers to bait fishing traps on a boat in Boston Harbor for her friend’s ex husband because hey, why not? What perfume company executive doesn’t like to moonlight as a chum jockey?

But Pirio’s all-around excellence doesn’t stop there. Elo also gives her superpowers, such as the ability to identify minute traces of obscure scents, and an imperviousness to hypothermia; naturally, she encounters situations in which the only clue is a faint aroma of cologne and in which she must swim across a freezing, arctic bay.

“North of Boston” might not have been so frustrating if Pirio didn’t enter every life-threatening situation seeming to know that she wasn’t in any real danger. More than once, she finds herself in circumstances that would terrify or frighten a normal human, and she never seems to process how serious they are. As a reader, this confused me, until I realized that the situations actually weren’t very serious. Because Pirio’s specialness pretty much ensured that she’d have no trouble getting out of it, and made it impossible to generate any real tension.


Books

Communion Town | Sam Thompson

December 17, 2013

My review of Sam Thompson’s Communion Town ran today in the Boston Globe.

Purportedly a novel, the book consists of 10 stories, each focused on a different protagonist, and all set in the same imaginary city. Though, the details and inner workings of the city are so slippery and malleable that it’s often difficult to see any cohesion from chapter to chapter.

Thompson is obviously a well-read writer, and Communion Town offers the highly literate reader a fun game of “spot the influence,” as it skips and jumps between genres, styles, and allusions. There are homages to Raymond Chandler and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and nods to Italo Calvino and China Miéville. Thompson tries his hand at serial-killer thrillers, romance, and surrealism. His strongest story is the one that seems most his own, “The Song of Serelight Fair.” In it, a down-on-his-luck songwriter strikes up a love affair with a well-to-do lady. The characters are brilliant, and the city begins to feel like a real, living, breathing place, albeit one with an air of mystery and magic about it. Thompson’s prose is smart and engaging, though he occasionally lets his words run away with his sentences.

Communion Town is evidence of deep talent, and when Thompson does finally write a novel and lets his own voice rise above the references, it’s sure to be worth reading.