Book Review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

4/5 Stars.

David Foster Wallace’s final, incomplete novel is literally a book about boredom, dullness and the IRS. Why would anyone ever bother reading about that? Well, partly because Wallace had an knack for making anything transcendent. But the main reason, perhaps, is one that Wallace presents as one of the books main theses: there’s virtue in enduring dullness.

“To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that’s always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.”

The Pale King is comprised of a series of anecdotes about employees at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. It’s disjointed and unfinished, with not a whole lot of narrative cohesion. In some ways, it’s an interesting companion piece to Infinite Jest: where Infinite Jest focuses on the problems of a modern American culture saturated in mind-numbing entertainment and distraction, The Pale King offers somewhat of a solution to living a meaningful life within this reality.

If you’ve ever read or listened to Wallace’s commencement speech, “This Is Water,” it’s sort of a hyper-condensed version of the solution offered in The Pale King. We’re each tasked with constructing meaning out of experience and choosing what and how we pay attention to the world around us. What Wallace seems to be suggesting is that we must have the self-discipline to deliberately endure the inevitable tedium and dullness of day-to-day adult life without succumbing to endless distraction.

“The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you can’t accomplish.”

Wallace loved playing around with form, and The Pale King is a testament to this. It’s a book about boredom and dullness, and so Wallace made it intentionally boring and dull. There are entire chapters dedicated to IRS codes. There’s 50+ pages of a man showing up for his first day of work. And yet there’s such brilliance within these pages. Take, for example, the beautiful phrase “every love story is a ghost story” sandwiched arbitrarily in between dozens of sentences about IRS agents turning pages. Or the chapter-long anecdote about a little boy whose goal “was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body”—a passage that will haunt me for the rest of my life. The novel itself proves Wallace’s point: that if you discipline yourself to pay attention and endure tedium, you will be deeply rewarded.

“Almost everything you pay close direct attention to becomes interesting,” says one character, Wallace’s equivalent of a modern-day hero, toward the end of the book. We live in an age where we’re constantly bombarded with information, entertainment and stimuli. If, as Wallace suggests, “almost everything” has the potential to be interesting, this is even further incentive to make smart, disciplined choices about where we direct our attention.

I highly recommend this book for fans of David Foster Wallace who want further insight into where his mind was at in the later part of his life.


Book Review: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

4/5 Stars.

Having seen and enjoyed both of the film versions of this book (the original Swedish version and the American remake) I had been meaning to read it quite some time. Let the Right One In is a vampire story done right.

Twelve-year-old Oskar is a bit of a social outcast at school, frequently targeted by a group of violent bullies. But then he meets Eli, the strange and mysterious girl who just moved into the apartment next door, and the two of them become friends—united by their loneliness. Eli isn’t like other kids though. In fact, Oskar begins to suspect that she may be responsible for a series of gruesome murders that have taken place in his small town.

The relationship between Oskar and Eli is incredibly compelling, but there are a lot of sub-plots and supplemental characters here that take up space and detract from the more interesting parts. Still, this is among the better vampire stories out there: it’s chilling, gory and deeply disturbing. Definitely not for the feint of heart.

Come for the vampires, stay for the complex and affecting coming-of-age story.

Book Review: Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht

2/5 Stars.

I think I can see what this novel was trying to be: a suspenseful coming-of-age story about small-town secrets; an understated novel that challenges the reader to contemplate complex moral gray areas.

Unfortunately, it just didn’t work. The story is shallow and amateur—the kind of writing that tells with barely an ounce of showing. There are a couple of major events that happen, but there’s such a lack of depth and insight into any of it. Rather than coming across as powerful and tense, these events are completely unbelievable and even borderline ridiculous. I didn’t buy anything I was reading.

It’s a debut novel, so part of me feels bad being so harsh. There’s the semblance of a good story here…somewhere…maybe? Fortunately it was a quick read.

Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

3.5/5 Stars.

Reading this book is like being immersed in a dark and sometimes magical fairytale. There’s such a striking balance of whimsy and depravity.

The story centers around Rose and Pierrot, both abandoned at birth at a Montreal orphanage shortly before the Great Depression. The two children are drawn to each other from a young age, linked by their complementary talents: guileless Pierrot is a piano prodigy and feisty Rose choreographs comedic dance routines.

Separated as teenagers, Rose and Pierrot are swallowed by the seedy underbelly of Montreal. Rose takes up with a dangerous and possessive gangster, while Pierrot becomes addicted to heroin. But neither can let go of the memory of the other, and their mutual dream of putting on a real show.

Going into this, I was pleasantly surprised by how dark and gritty and perverted it was; since “whimsy” and “magic” aren’t really my thing, the darkness keep me engaged. Though out of my usual comfort zone, I’m glad I gave it a chance. O’Neill writes with joy, sadness and conviction about the corrupting powers of the world and the yearning to retain innocence in spite of it all, concluding with a final page that really cements the tragedy of this dichotomy.

I suspect many readers will enjoy this book—so long as they’re prepared for the darker aspects of it.

Book Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

3/5 Stars.

“I was okay just a moment ago. I will learn to be okay again.”

This is a quick and easy read about grief and loneliness with some truly beautiful passages.

Marin abruptly left her old life in California following the death of her Gramps, her guardian since her mother’s passing. Now, it’s Christmas break and Marin is the only one left at her New York campus. Her old friend, Mabel, is on her way to visit for a few days, and it’ll be the first time they talk or see each other in months.

But being together again will force Marin to confront the secrets and regrets that have given rise to the deep loneliness inside her.

It’s a tender and touching story—but maybe just a little too tender and touching for my taste. I loved LaCour’s prose and even highlighted a few passages, but the carefully crafted sentimentality of the story felt too much like YA.

There’s definitely an audience for this book and many readers who will love it. It just wasn’t completely for me.

Book Review: Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki

4.5/5 Stars.

I had such a blast reading this book, with its smart, snarky tone and provocative characters.

After recently separating from her husband, Lady Daniels—a writer living in the Hollywood Hills—hires an alluring young woman named S to live in the guest house and care for her toddler while she pretends to work on her book.

S, having recently graduated from college and hoping to tap into her inner artist, decides to approach her nannying job as a performative art piece, doing her best to fully emulate her estranged mother.

Soon enough, Lady and S become tangled in each other’s lives in ways neither would have expected—like with S growing dangerously close to Lady’s 18-year-old son Seth, who has selective mutism.

If it sounds like the plot of a Lifetime movie, rest assured that in Edan Lepucki’s capable hands, it’s so much more.

She explores some really interesting questions about identity, art, motherhood and female friendship—but the best part is that it’s all wrapped up in a completely enthralling, darkly comic and highly entertaining narrative about women behaving badly.

What a fun read.

Book Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

4/5 Stars.

Salvage the Bones is a brutal and beautiful novel about a family living in rural Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina is about to strike.

Fifteen-year-old Esch is surrounded by boys. She lives with her father and three brothers, whose friends are always around. After sleeping with one of her brother’s friends, she finds out that she’s pregnant.

Meanwhile, her brother Skeetah’s prized pit bull, China, has just given birth, and the puppies are slowly dying. Esch—whose mother died in childbirth—has only ever known motherhood as something that is unmerciful and brutal and tragic.

This is a deeply visceral novel, written in the kind of prose that makes you feel like you can taste and smell and feel everything that Esch is experiencing. There’s violence and harshness within, but also beauty, loyalty and tenderness. Ward explores this juxtaposition in several ways, such as with Skeetah and China, whose bond transcends what you would expect from a boy and the pit bull he owns for dogfighting.

And all the while, the threat of Katrina looms. While Esch and her family doubt the severity of it at first, we readers know what’s coming. This palpable dread mounts to a terrifying and intense denouement that challenges each member of the family in a profound and devastating way.

Book Review: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

4/5 Stars.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” So begins Mother Night, the first person account of Howard J. Campbell, an American spy during World War II who inadvertently became one of Nazi Germany’s most famous propagandists.

Does it matter that Campbell’s radio shows relayed clandestine messages to the Allies if he also succeeded in converting thousands of listeners to Nazi sympathizers? Does his awareness that the rhetoric he spews is horrible absolve him of immorality or worsen it? Do the ends justify the means? What, if anything, is Campbell guilty of? Does any of it really mean anything?

These are some of the central questions at the heart of Mother Night, a postmodern morality tale. Campbell is an absurd (anti)-hero, struggling to reconcile his level of responsibility and, ultimately, his very sense of self. Who even is he?

His nonchalance and ambivalence throughout this journey are, to me, his most striking characteristics—no doubt deliberately crafted by Vonnegut to further emphasis the moral ambiguity of Campbell and his dubious life choices. Do we root for him or anticipate his demise?

I’m relatively new to Vonnegut (this is only the second one I’ve completed) and so far what I find is that I’m deeply fascinated and stimulated by so much of what he writes, yet there’s something that keeps me from being 100% engaged. I’m still trying to put my finger on it. Lines like this certainly do keep me reading more though:

“‘All people are insane,’ he said. ‘They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.'”

Book Review: Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

4.5/5 Stars.

“I wanted to talk to a person, and here you are a real person, you have no idea how hard it is—to find a real person,” remarks one of the characters in Strout’s latest release.

This is a book about real people. In a loose sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout returns to the familiar form of Olive Kitteridge: a series of loosely connected stories about a cast of characters from a small town.

Some writing just has this way of cutting to the core of your being, and Strout’s prose consistently does this for me. She reminds us that each person is his or her own universe, containing secret motivations and yearnings and sufferings that no one else can ever know.

In Anything Is Possible, threads from previous stories will pick up in another, providing a brand new layer of depth and meaning, reminding us that the assumptions we have about each other are often wrong.

We tend to think of ourselves as the center of the world—leads surrounded by supporting actors—and no one explores this fundamental aspect of human nature quite like Strout.

If you like reading about real people, you’ll find them in this book.

Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

3.5/5 Stars.

This dystopian novel imagines an America several decades in the future immersed in a second Civil War.

Sarat is six years old and living with her family in Louisiana when the war begins. Soon they get displaced from their home and wind up in a refugee camp, where Sarat is mentored by an older man who provides her with a unique perspective on the current state of affairs.

The book follows Sarat through to adulthood when, following decades of tragedy and suffering, she finds herself hellbent on revenge against those who have wronged her.

This is a story about the devastating effects of war—and one that doesn’t seem entirely improbable given our deeply polarized political climate.

As compelling as the world that the author creates may be, the real strength lies in Sarat’s character development. The details of the war and the various conflicts are muddy at times, but Sarat’s journey is what kept me engaged.

This isn’t quite on the same level as revered dystopian classics, but it’s a solid read for fans of the genre.