Saturday, January 02, 2010

Book Review: Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

I am a huge fan of Chuck Klosterman's non-fiction work, so I met the prospect of his fiction with a sort of hopeful apprehension. I wasn't necessarily expecting it to be as good as his other work simply because fiction was not his primary mode of writing up to this point. I am pleased to report that Klosterman met and then exceeded my expectations.

Downtown Owl is not the novel I expected it to be. I don't know what I expected it to be, but it wasn't what was delivered to me. I think I half expected a sort of pretentious love story wrought with allusions to some protagonist's vast musical knowledge and intense desire to get out of small town rural America. I love Chuck Klosterman, but any Chuck Klosterman fan would also know exactly why I might get this idea.

What I got instead was an illuminating investigation of small town life. Sure, there were allusions to pop culture artifacts of the time (it is set in 1983) and a few turns of phrase that sounded like the Klosterman I'm used to reading, but on the whole, the development of the three main characters' story archs not only helped to move the story along but helped to imbue the novel with an acute awareness of humanity and the human experience.

This is why, to me, the novel was so good. Any novel that can deftly handle the human experience will be good, but a novel that manages to handle three separate experiences in equally touching and sympathetic ways shows an advanced understanding of what makes people tick, what makes them get up in the morning and feel that they have some degree of purpose, even if to the outside eye, they may be floundering.

Some might argue that the story doesn't necessarily "go" anywhere for much of the novel, and this is true, to a degree. It isn't evident precisely what the novel is leading up to, what sort of climactic moment will emerge. And when this moment does emerge, it's with a deftly handled mix of clarity and confusion that is incredibly compelling. But the development of these characters, the slow realizations about their motives and their pasts (particularly in the case of the character Horace, I found) is reason enough to propel the story forward.

As a reader, I felt privileged to crawl inside the minds of these characters, and the outside elements of plot and location only helped to inform this experience. For that I must give Klosterman my highest accolades, and site this novel as one of the many reasons I have believed in his capabilities as an author since I first read him a few years ago. Highly recommended.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!

Friday, January 01, 2010

Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This book so could have garnered my highest praises had it stuck to the intentions of its core story. The plot at the center of this book is a moving story that illuminates the grief and sorrow of the American experience following the 9/11 attacks by telling the story of young Oskar Schell, an eccentric young boy whose attempts to remain close to his father (who died in one of the towers) take him on a mission to uncover his fathers secrets.

Oskar is incredibly endearing, if not always entirely believable as a character. It's not so much that Foer does not succeed in making Oskar seem true to age so much as the fact that very few kids, no matter how weird, would possess so great a multitude of eccentricities as Oskar does. I loved his eccentricities, and accepted them without regard for realism, but it's been my experience that most kids are not so overwrought by weirdness that they can barely function, and even the ones who are that weird stick to one or two types of weirdness and not all of them at once.

But as I said, this was of little issue to me because Oskar was so delighful, and the process of his story and journey to discover what he was searching for to fill the void left by the loss of his father is moving and revealing. Had the book focused almost entirely on this story, I likely would have given it my highest rating and recommended it to everyone I know.

But the book did not focus on just this story. Instead, Foer engages in the highest form of artistic self-service and pretentiousness in the form of meandering stream of consciousness style diary entries and letters focusing on Oskar's grandparents. The grandmother spends years typing nothing onto a typewriter, the grandfather never speaks but instead tattoos "yes" and "no" on his fingers. It's all a little ridiculous, and I even have a high tolerance for artistic pretentiousness.

Trust me, these are not spoilers, just the most basic explanations of a multitude of pompous characteristics Foer imbues these side characters with in an attempt to be artistic and abstract. And for many books, it might work, I might have liked it even. But I just didn't with this one. I found that when those chapters stepped in to interrupt Oskar's story, that I didn't want to read them, or that I wanted to get through them as quickly as possible so I could get back to Oskar. I don't think any author wants to write something where people feel the urge to skip half of your chapters.

These side stories aren't 100% faulty. I do enjoy the parallels made between the experience of the bombing of Dresden with the 9/11 attacks, and the few places where this side story overlaps with Oskar's own are interesting. I suppose, in summation, that I wanted to like this book more because it had so much potential to be great. I just wish that all of the pretentious additions had been toned down, edited only for the most vital information, and that Oskar Schell's story would have had the book it deserves.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!