The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

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So I have a confession team. I’m seriously behind on my book reviews. Like ridiculously behind. Like my to-review pile has morphed from an achievable goal to a series of personal insults. Even the heading doesn’t respect me.

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Way harsh, Tai

All of this to say, when I realized my next book to review was this book I finished weeks ago, called The Teleportation Accident, I had one reaction.

wtf is that

A quick scramble to Wikipedia gave me this blurb.

 From the author of the acclaimed Boxer, Beetle comes a historical novel that doesn’t know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can’t remember what ‘isotope’ means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it.  LET’S HOPE THE PARTY WAS WORTH IT

And then I remembered: I did read this book and it was some hipster nonsense. And worst of all, it proved to be forgettable. Which seems like a difficult thing for a post-postmodern, noir-ish, science fiction comedy to be.

Egon Loeser is the unluckiest man in 1930s Berlin. Well…except for the Jews. And the gays. And the Romani. But he wants to have sex with this girl and she won’t let him! The set designer is too sex-starved, to hungover, and too self-pitying to notice the history unfolding around him. Right before he leaves Berlin to chase a girl named Adele Hitler (no relation) he sees a group of what he thinks are students holding a bonfire outside the library. Thinking it’s some performance art, he joins in burning the works of authors he envies. Loeser’s constant knack for missing the history unfolding in front of him is one of the novel’s bright spots.

In love with little lady Hitler, Loesser follows the woman (unbeknownst to her) to Paris and later Los Angeles. On his travels, he’s convinced to impersonate a “doctor” and pretends to stich monkey glands onto the necks of aging socialites.  He meets asexual avante-guard composers, paranoid scientists, and a tycoon-possibly in possession of a rare pornographic book- has a neurological disorder that renders him incapable of distinguishing things and pictures of things (As his butler calmly reminds him “That is not a pickle, sir, that is only a drawing of a pickle in black ink on a napkin.”).

I could tell that I was supposed to feel joyful abandon while reading The Teleportation Accident, that I was supposed to delight in the author’s clever writing, that I was supposed to embrace the intentional incoherence on the page. But instead I was exhausted. It felt like a poor imitation of Joseph Keller. A lot of people really liked this book, and I get why. But good for them, not for me. I wished I had let my conscience be my guide and bailed on this book early.

 

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The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

 

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Like Tyrion Lannister, I used to be a cynic. I thought it possible there were not truly original ideas left in fiction. I used to think, after so many years of reading like it was my job, there weren’t any books left that would knock me on my ass, keep me awake until 4 a.m. when I had to work in the morning, cause me to be so engrossed that I literally did not hear my friends trying to get my attention. I thought I knew things.

Dear Reader, if you feel the way I did, may I humbly direct you to The Library at Mount Char, one of the most bizarre, original and enthusiastically weird things I have ever read. If the thought that I knew what was going on ever entered into my smug little head, it’s almost as if the book sensed it and veered over the edge once again.

Carolyn is a librarian. Not one of these cute librarians:

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She’s not interested in the Dewey Decimal system, she is interested in Fucking. Shit. Up. And boy does she. When we first meet her, she’s walking down the highway, covered in someone else’s blood. She was one of a group of mysteriously orphaned children, adopted by a seemingly all-powerful, omnipotent being they call Father, who may be the Emperor of all of Time and Space. In the millennia he’s lived, Father has acquired a library of knowledge that holds the secrets to all of the universe and his terrible powers. The children live in the library, which is definitely bigger on the inside. Each child is assigned a catalogue to learn exhaustively and exclusively. As time passes (decades? Centuries?) the children toil away in their fields. Their knowledge comes with a price. Over the years, David becomes a killing machine; not that it matters because Jennifer can bring anyone back to life. Margaret can explore the underworld (after David kills her, of course), Rachel can look into the future, but only through the ghostly eyes of her dead children, who she must kill herself. Carolyn’s specialty is languages…but unbeknownst to the other orphans, she’s been doing some extracurricular reading.

When Father goes missing (and it’s not great for a god, even the malevolent kind to go missing) things somehow get even stranger. The Orphans are locked out of their home. Anyone who gets physically close enough to the library suffers strange injuries, often to the point of death. Vicious dogs roam the street. With Father’s absence, the ancient powers he defeated at the dawn of the Third Age of Earth are crowding in, fighting for supremacy and threatening the end of all of human life.  There’s Lovecraftian horrors, the death of the sun, and Steve, the Buddhist criminal-turned-plumber trying to earn an honest living. Also, there are lions. They’re pretty cool.

The last book I reviewed prioritized weirdness over quality, and it suffered greatly for it. The Library at Mount Char has both in abundance. It truly is a book to read over and over again until you’ve managed to glean every last bizarre detail. And yeah, some parts don’t work-there are some plot holes big enough to drive semis through, there’s some glib, caustic, trying-too-hard-to-be-cool dialogue that’s celebrates style to the detriment of story (bro, the sun is DEAD. Is this really the time for your snark?!). But you know what?  I didn’t care. This book is too much goddamn fun to care. It’s the sick guitar solo in a cheesy song. You know you roll your eyes when it comes on the radio. But then, you blast that shit in your car and head bang to your heart’s content.

So sit back. Relax. Bitch-slap a lion. And enjoy the wonderfully deranged world of The Library at Mount Char.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

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It’s a terrible feeling to hear praise heaped upon a new book, read it yourself and…not get it. Your mind starts playing games with itself: Everyone else liked this book, what’s wrong with you? Do you just not understand it? Is that it, you idiot?  You focus on the book a little harder, maybe if you squint at the freaking book, all of this praise will make sense. But still…it’s just not there for you. That was my experience with Kelly Link’s collection of short stories Get in Trouble. Ecstatically reviewed, roundly praised by authors I admire, I really thought I would like this one. But as I read, doubt crept in; I started assuring myself that the next story would be better, then the next one. By the time I got to the last story, I was repeatedly flipping to the last page of the book, counting how many more pages I would have to slog through before finally being free.

But according to the Internet, everyone loves this book? 

To me, it was a series of stories that almost worked. Most of her stories seemed to start with the same intriguing premise-that fantastical people, often in fantastical worlds, suffer the same mundane human problems as we do. There are women with superpowers…but they’re single moms making ends meet by waiting tables. Pocket universes are great, but they won’t solve your issues with your brother. Spectral boyfriends have nothing on teenage jealousy. And the telepathic elven creatures may seem cool, but soon enough (like any bad relationship) you realize you’ve given more than you meant to.

I really wanted to like this book. Any book that is this proudly, brazenly, indefinably weird should be celebrated, at least for being different. I loved that Link didn’t care what she was “supposed” to do; she just wrote and assumed her readers would follow her. And maybe some did. But for me, it just didn’t work. The writing is there, the ideas are there, but it rarely coalesced into a proper story. Most of her stories started with a great premise, but by the end, I had stopped caring. This isn’t the worst book I’ve read, but it is one of the most disappointing in recent memory.

 

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

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We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.

It was a crappy night, and I just wanted a book that would make me happy. I wanted something pleasant that I could knock out in one sitting, curled up in my bed and drinking tea. I thought The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry would be fine enough. I was wrong. It was exactly what I needed.

A.J. Fikry is the owner of an independent bookstore on the isolated Alice Island, but he wouldn’t consider himself a member of the community. After the sudden death of his beloved wife leaves him a widower at the age of 39, he retreats inward. Bitter and cynical, Fikry is also a literary snob, refusing to shelf just any old book. At Island Books, where “No Man is An Island; Every Book is a World” he will only stock books he wants to read:

“I do not like postmodernism, post­apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be — basically gimmicks of any kind. . . . I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and — I imagine this goes without saying — vampires.”

No shock but Fikry doesn’t have many customers or friends, and in the first chapter things go from bad to worse when he realizes his prize possession, a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane has disappeared. As one beloved possession disappears, something new appears, popping up in the sparsely-stocked children’s section of the bookstore and changing Fikry’s life forever. Like the characters in his beloved books, this unexpected package causes his life to twist in a strange, new direction. Soon, his lonely bookshop is packed with locals, kids and *gasp* a crime novel book club.

This is a short book, but brimming with heart and sugary sweetness.  Even when the plot is formulaic-Grumpy Widower finds love, the typical Stars Hollow-esqe cast of small town characters- the book skates by on its easy charm. Part of that charm is due to this book’s giddy love for the written word. Fikry doesn’t just sell books; he lives them. Every experience he has, everything he perceives, can be compared to a book he once read. And when he’s not selling books, he’s thinking of them. It’s no accident that one of the first major character’s we meet is a publisher’s rep.

Look this book isn’t a game-changer. You’re not scouring the book for clues. There are no twists that will blow you away. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is just a feel-good book, a sweet world to envelop yourself in for a few hours. And sometimes that’s all you need.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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I finished this book, exhaled, and flipped back to the beginning.

Reading the late Paul Kalanithi’s spectacular memoir When Breath Becomes Air, a meditation about love, literature and science in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis was a strange experience

“The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontes, Keats and Stephen Crane,” Kalanithi wrote to a friend. “The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” He was trying to be funny, using the kind of dark humor you get from people facing the unfaceable. But it also revealed Kalanithi’s tremendous ambition. He wasn’t content with only being a celebrated scientist and doctor. He wanted to leave a mark on the planet.

And in the short 22 months he had left, Kalanithi managed to produce a stunningly beautiful, heart-achingly unfinished, bittersweet record of his time on this planet. And lucky for us, we’re privileged enough to be allowed to read it.  It may sound stupid, but I felt like I owed it to Kalanithi to read his book slowly and savor every word. But I was too hungry for that, and kept flying through the pages. After catching myself for the third time, I devised a new solution-I would just read the book twice in a row. Seems reasonable enough. But I didn’t expect both reads to happen on the same day.

Kalanithi took a strange and winding road to become a surgeon. He never thought he would end up in medicine; after all, that was what kept his cardiologist father away from home. His first love was with the written word, and he devoured any book he could get his hands on. His mother, he wrote, worried about her child and drugs, “never suspecting that the most intoxicating thing I’d experienced by far, was the volume of romantic poetry she’d handed me the previous week.”

With the intellectual curiosity and restlessness that would define him, Kalanithi got a B.A. and a M.A. in literature at Stanford, followed by a Master of Philosophy at Cambridge. His love of words serves him well throughout this book. Even this title is paraphrased from a 17th century sonnet:

You that seek what life is in death, 

Now find it air that once was breath. 

New names unknown, old names gone: 

Till time end bodies, but souls none.

            Reader! then make time, while you be,

            But steps to your eternity.

Eventually, Kalanithi found his calling in neuroscience. His decision to go to medical school was an effort to “forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” Kalanithi would have been a great doctor. He was a great doctor, possessing a deep understanding and empathy for the patients he saw. But he soon found himself on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship.

At the age of 36, Kalanithi, about to complete his final year of residency, learned he had lung cancer. He knew what was happening even before he saw the CT scan revealing multiple tumors. In that instant “the future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.”

Kalanithi’s writing teems with urgency. He’d put so much of his life on hold in order to finish his residency. As he and his wife went through marital troubles, he even assured her that everything would be different once he was done with his residency. Now, as that time was upon them, he needed to learn how to die instead. He was frustrated by the fact that he didn’t know how long he had left. The day he learned his prognosis, both everything and nothing changed. “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would day, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when.”  He didn’t know what to do with the time he had left. Should he remain a surgeon? Write? He and his wife were planning on having children. Should he become a father?

In fact, Paul did become a father, and his dying message to his baby girl was the thing that turned me into a sniveling mess in a public place. When he writes about his daughter, it becomes apparent who this book is for. It’s a record for his daughter of the father she wouldn’t remember, and his final message to her has lingered with me ever since I closed this book.

“When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” 

Read this book. Recommend it to your friends. Spread the word. You won’t regret it.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister

25814394Despite all those engagement pictures you’re inundated with on Facebook are telling you, marriage rates in America are slowing down. According to the U.S. Census, the proportion of married adults is dropping and for the first time, single women outnumber their married counterparts.

Author Rebecca Traister argues that these unmarried women are a revolutionary force, changing our definitions of love and family, and pushing the political conversation to the left. “Women…perhaps especially those who have lived untethered from the energy-sucking and identity-sapping institution of marriage in its older forms, have helped driving the social progress of this country since its founding.” Her book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation explores the sexual, economic and emotional lives of this growing American demographic.

Unmarried women are not a new phenomenon. Traister explores the role of single women throughout modern history. They were crucial to the abolitionist and feminist movements. Some were activists, writers and thinkers. They were also ridiculed, ostracized and often pushed into unfulfilling marriages for security and social acceptance. Traiser quotes from some of Charlotte Bronte’s letters to a friend after getting married at 38, partially to provide financial security for her father. “It is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife.”

Now, largely in thanks to the women who came before us, the stakes aren’t as high. We’re able to work and own property and get bank loans without a husband signing off on it (hooray). Thanks to contraceptives and IVF, we’re more in control about if and when we start a family. According to Traister, the declining marriage rates are less about the institution of marriage and more about the choices available to women today.

Traister interviewed about 100 women to examine how delaying or abstaining from marriage could affect women’s lives. Crucially, she discusses race and class in addition to gender, and interviews women who are poor and/or nonwhite (she could have devoted more time to the experiences of LGBTQ women, though). She interviewed (a few) women with conservative leanings, including those who were abstaining from premarital sex. Some “single” women she spoke with had longtime partners and just chose not to marry. Some didn’t have any romantic relationships. Among other subjects, these women talk about loneliness, fears, independence, the value of female friendships, single motherhood, and careers, creating a diverse and nuanced look at single life in America.

I enjoyed this book, but it didn’t grip me-maybe because there was nothing in it that felt particularly groundbreaking to me. While Traister’s book about the 2008 election, the fantastic Big Girls Don’t Cry enraged and inspired the college-aged, baby feminist me, a lot of this book felt like old news. That’s not to say this book wasn’t good, but most of it felt anecdotally familiar. Most of my friends aren’t married. I’m not married. I probably could have gotten married by now, but I didn’t want to get hitched until I got certain shit done. Independence is important to me. Career is important to me. My close female relationships are important to me. Some of us are in serious relationships, some are on Tindr; some want kids, some want cats. Most of my female friends are not freaking out because they’re in their late twenties and unmarried. And yeah, most of us do get certain shit about that from older people (*actual things old people have said to me*: “Don’t you hear a clock ticking?” “No man is perfect” and my personal favorite “Don’t you think your standards are a little too high?”) but fuck them, their opinions have no value to me.

I would still recommend this book, especially to people who are just getting interested in women’s studies. Traister is a thought-provoking and informative writer, and her book is chock full of interesting interviews and anecdotes. But I found myself craving less choir-preaching and more analysis from this book. I think I’ll just reread her last book instead.

 

Perfect Days by Raphael Montes

We all know the story. Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl based on no discernible criteria, girl isn’t interested, boy knocks girl out, stuffs her in a suitcase and holds her captive on a deranged road trip.

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Teo Alevar lives in Rio de Janiero with his disabled mother and her dog. A med student, his best and only friend is a cadaver named Gertrude. He’s not interested in other people, and doesn’t think he’s capable of love until he meets Clarice. And thus begins a beautiful romance.

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Clarice is everything Teo isn’t. Where he’s withdrawn and taciturn, she’s bubbly and friendly. He’s straight-laced, she’s a charming boozer. He falls for her immediately and decides she must feel the same way too. Cue some light stalking. When Clarice figures out what’s going on, she tells him to get lost. Wounded, he does what all of us would do-he knocks her out.

Aware that Clarice was about to leave town to go work on her screenplay, he decides he’ll go along for the ride. Her screenplay was about three girlfriends on a road trip, and Teo decides the lovers will trace the same route as in the script.

Armed with handcuffs, his father’s gun and an assortment of other delightful methods for restraint, Teo shackles Clarice to a desk to complete her script. When she yells at him (bitches always be mad when they get folded into a suitcase amiright?) he sedates her and waits for her to understand that she’s in love with him.

This book came to me highly recommended by multiple people and while I get why they liked it, Perfect Days didn’t do it for me. Despite the absolutely bonkers premise, parts of the book are monotonous and repetitive: Teo thinks Clarice loves him, Clarice tries to escape, she somehow fucks that up and gets caught again, Teo treats us readers to the battlesong of the fedora-wearing shitlords entitled, “But I’m Such a Nice Guy” and punishes her for not loving him. Rinse and Repeat. Teo is clearly supposed to be the kind of anti-hero that you love to hate, but I just hated him. He’s evil and boring.

He nourished her, gave her love and attention. The least he could expect in return was a subtle form of affection, which would soon grow stronger – he was certain. At the end of the day, even hippie feminists succumbed to real men. Good sex was an exchange. Before having sex with Clarice (something he had imagined was unpleasant for any woman), he had gone to the trouble to satisfy her.

I felt like the book couldn’t decide how realistic it wanted to be. On one hand, the actual plot is too crazy to happen in the real world (at least Christ, I hope it is). But on the other hand, how many of us have stories about assholes like this who felt they were entitled to women because they did something nice once?  Obviously, we’re seeing the world through the perspective of this twatwaffle, but no one in the outside world seems to register his creepiness besides his captive. How can nobody notice something’s wrong?! Clarice’s own mother is willing to go for weeks without talking to her daughter because some SHADY STRANGER tells her Clarice is working on her art?!

And the ending! Ooooooooh the ending. I won’t say how it ended, but it really soured the book for me. It was just so unjust, and I know I’m meant to applaud its audaciousness, but I just couldn’t.  It felt like the author was impressed with himself-I know I’m projecting, but I couldn’t get that thought out of my head as I read. Look how twisted this bad guy is, I imagine him thinking smugly over his keyboard, he’s just soooooo evil.

Different strokes, guys. As I said before, I know a lot of people who really liked this book. And while I liked some of this book-it was very well-written and full of gleefully absurd twists and turns-I can’t recommend it.