Gary Shteyngart’s satire in Super Sad True Love Story works best in small doses. The segment presented in the June 14, 2010, issue of The New Yorker “Lenny Hearts Eunice” is brilliant. However, the complete novel is a difficult read because the satire is the only redeeming feature; there aren’t intriguing characters or a plot worth mentioning. Once the setting is established, Shteyngart breaks no new ground and struggles to drive the story. In short: A low confidence “nice guy” channels his intense fear of death into a fixation on youthful Eunice Park. He convinces her to live with him in New York where she responds tepidly to his slavish devotion. If there is a love story here, you need to dig for it. These characters are shallow, narcissistic, and tedious. read more
I’ve gone through a half dozen copies of this book. I keep giving away my copy in a shameless bid to convince the recipient to read the opening story. If they’d like to read further, fine, but I’m not going to stamp my feet and insist. It’s potentially embarrassing to confess ambivalence towards most of a book when that book won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but I’m going to do it anyway. The first story of Interpreter of Maladies, “A Temporary Matter,” is why the collection won. The other stories are merely good enough. Lahiri floats on the brilliance of her first story but cannot recreate its magic in any of the others. read more
Don’t take Chad Harbach’s debut novel too seriously. It’s a traditional coming-of-age story against a baseball backdrop. (Basic baseball knowledge is enough to see you through: three strikes and you’re out, each team gets three outs an inning, etc.) The story is told from four perspectives, those of: Mike Schwartz, Henry Skrimshander, Guert Affenlight, and Pella Affenlight.
Mike Schwartz is an overly zealous baseball captain who takes the young and brilliant shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, under his wing at Westish College. The baseball scenes are written with reverence for the game, but the book is rife with odd spurts of humor to keep it loose. Obsessed with perfection, Henry Skrimshander plays one error free game after another. He follows fictional Aparicio Rodriguez’s zen-like approach to fielding as explained in The Art of Fielding, which he has memorized. Once he meets his goal of tying Aparicio’s record for error-free games, he begins to overthink his throws and no longer responds to the game reflexively. Without his reflexes, his uncanny ability to predict the flight of the ball becomes useless. As Henry’s descent into insecurity and inability deepens, he slides to the back of the story and other characters come to light. read more
The New York Times Bestseller List is not treating me well lately. While Téa Obreht’s debut novel is impressive for a young writer, it ultimately fails to create solid, interesting characters. The biggest stumbling block is that it lacks a definite plot; as a substitute, Obreht packs it with scenery, wandering, and contemplations on death. There are moments of brilliance, but as most of these occur in the beginning, the last fourth of the book is a tough slog. read more
Like everyone else, I read through the surge in articles after Kim Jong Il’s death to learn more about his cult of personality with morbid fascination. The North Korean propaganda machine perpetuates such myths as Kim Jong Il being a demi-god able to control the weather with his mood, or North Korea being the envy of the world for its prosperity and efficiency. It does not mention North Korea’s grotesque human rights violations or painfully tight media or how these deficiencies cast it in a terrible light to the rest of the world (naturally). What makes this novel difficult is that the reader cannot evaluate what is culturally accurate and what is creative license due to the dearth of information on daily life in North Korea. The best writers fit fictional events seamlessly into actual locations, but North Korea is not an unremarkable backdrop—it steals the scene as much as any character. Adam Johnson, an American associate professor at Stanford, visited North Korea in 2007 (an interview about this visit’s impact on the novel can be found here). read more