Purity by Jonathan Franzen

purity

Title: Purity
Author:  Jonathan Franzen
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Release Date: 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

With reading slumps come reviewing slumps, but here it is – finally. I’m sure you’ve been waiting anxiously.

It doesn’t happen very often that I await new releases with this much anticipation. I’m very bad at keeping up with upcoming books as I don’t read a lot of brandnew literature. But I was a huge fan of Freedom, a lesser fan of The Corrections and an overall lover of Franzen’s style of writing, so I couldn’t wait for it to be September 1st. (Ok, the local book pusher didn’t get it until the 2nd). I was all but jumping up and down at the store, wondering why no one else was standing there as giddy as I was. All the while the 4th book about Lisbeth Salander had a whole damn window display all to itself. I pointed this out to the lady behind the counter and she agreed with me that Franzen should have been more prominently displayed. Maybe he was later, I don’t know. But I digress. I’m just trying to make you understand how excited I was, to better understand how bitterly disappointed I was. At least initially.

“No phone call was complete before each had made the other wretched. The problem, as Pip saw it—the essence of the handicap she lived with; the presumable cause of her inability to be effective at anything—was that she loved her mother.”

The first 100 pages took me about two weeks to get through. While the first few pages were so Franzen-esque that I was sure I was in for something wonderful, the following 95 were incredibly uninteresting. The main character Pip (real name Purity) was such a boring cliché at first; recently out of college, crippled by student debt, living in a squalid squatter house, failing at a deadend job, fatherless and with an obviously unhealthy relationship with her crazy vegetarian mother (and you know what those are like). And when finally the story jumped to another main-ish character, womanizing East German tech-rebel (Assange-type) Andreas Wolf, it went further downhill fast. Distant father, unhealthy relationship with his crazy mother. You get the point; crazy mothers all around.

But then! Yes, of course there’s a “but then”, look at the rating. But then the story jumps again, this time to a pair of journalists with different connections to Pip and Andreas (go read it for yourself). I’ve always admired Franzen’s ability to create life-like and relatable characters, so it was about time he started doing that again. This chapter/part is what begun Purity’s redemption. The characters (a couple of journalists and a college professor) and story are interesting – particularly because their appearance was sort of unexpected and it took me a while to figure out how they fit into everything. They fit pretty damn well, though.

And so it continues, the story unfolds as the focus shifts from one character to the other at different points in their lives. Just like we’ve come to expect from Franzen. Particularly the Andreas character, previously so incredibly dull, comes to life and turns out not to be so two dimensional after all (maybe…). Andreas is a very new type of character for Franzen, at least as far as I can tell. His sociopathic, megalomanical tendencies go far beyond the “normal” issues of the characters in Freedom and The Corrections, and my first impression of him was definitely way off. He’s a fairly interesting character, it turns out. Unfortunately, no such u-turn happens for the main character Pip. She remains a pathetic charicature and if that’s how Franzen sees Generation Y (I think I’m one of them) – ouch! The sense of entitlement in Pip and her contemporaries is shot down again and again. I think you can guess which job Franzen has her end up with if you think “cliché, arts/communication major”. I’ll tell you if you want me to.

“He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self […] Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable, and readable way that data did. And since a person couldn’t exist in two places at once, the more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person.”

Sure, at the core of everything is the dysfunctional family – several of them – but only because it is in these relations that a lot of the important events (and dramas) of life occur.  So there are a few similarities between Purity and Franzen’s previous novels, and some of the themes are the same, because they’re issues important to Franzen. The invironment, for instance. And mother-child relationships. But the main evil this time is the Internet. Franzen may be turning into a bit of an old curmudgeon, but for someone who hates Twitter and the like, he does a pretty spot-on description of the use of social media. The characters’ lives and selves are continually created and undone by technology. The WikiLeaks-type organization that Wolf runs paints a pretty bleak picture of the modern day “trust in technology” with their tracking, spyware and so on. The theme isn’t really a new one, but it’s still relevant.

As another reviewer pointed out, it’s funny how Franzen manages to make the Internet come more alive in this novel than character it’s named after. Oh well, it’s still a great book, while not quite reaching the level of Freedom.

It all goes slightly meta when someone claims that there are too many Jonathans in contemporary American literature. And maybe there are, but this one I wouldn’t want to go without.

The Stand by Stephen King (audiobook)

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Title: The Stand
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK
Read by: Grover Gardner
Release Date: 2012
Rating: 5/5

47 hours and 47 minutes. That’s how long it takes to hear Grover Gardner read The Stand. It’s several times longer than any other audiobook I’ve listened to and I never once got bored with it. I kept anxiously looking at the remaining time, wishing that number would decrease just a little slower. It didn’t and here we are. The Stand is one of Mr King’s most epic and iconic novels, but an older cover had me thinking it was about a good jester fighting an evil jester in the desert for 1100 pages. So I steered clear (liked I did with most King novels until recently). That’s what you get for not listening to that old idiom; you miss out on amazing things! Because The Stand is nothing short of amazing.

“That wasn’t any act of God. That was an act of pure human fuckery.”

A deadly virus developed by the US military wipes out more than 99% of the human race, and a lot of the animals too. Left behind is a group of people seemingly immune to that particular strand of flu, called Captain Trips. Or more precisely, two groups of people. One group finds themselves drawn to Boulder with dreams of an old black lady, the other to Las Vegas and a dark figure. It’s straight up good vs evil, God vs whatever Randall Flagg is supposed to be. And some people may dislike the heavy religious theme and how religion and the “deities” seem to control the flow of events. And I’m sure King could have easily told as story just as great with maybe an even better ending, if he had left out the faith aspect. But he does like to include that, and for me it didn’t take away from the story at all. Because creating complicated characters and portraying the relationships between them is what King, in my opinion, does best, and he is pulling out all the stops with this one. The character gallery is impressive to say the least. One interesting and incredibly nuanced person after another populate the book. We follow people from both sides and sometimes the ones from the “bad” is are just as sympathetic as the good ones, which just makes for even more heart-breaking stories. Not only that, but the character development and the portrayal of human emotion and reaction in the face of uimaginable hardship, catastrophe and evil… well, I was blown away. I think King may be, no matter how crazy it sounds, underrated when it comes to his characters. Sure, he’s the king of horror and all that, movies are made, books are sold by the million. But I have a strange feeling that people don’t fully appreciate just how masterfully he developes characters. Or maybe I’m just being arrogant. Either way, it’s astounding.

“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side.

Or you don’t.”

In the foreword to this uncut version, King himself mentions how he’s been criticized for suffering from “diarrhea of the word processor”, and I have noticed in other works of his how he tends to go on and on. But even though this book is as long as it is, I definitely do not agree that it’s too long, and I’m glad I didn’t have to settle for the original cut version. The long passages describing this new world and the long travels of its remaining inhabitants are breath-taking. He manages to create a setting that’s simultaneous unnerving, maybe downright scary, but beautiful and drawing at the same time. I almost feel like strapping on my backpack and heading to Boulder, Colorado myself. If I’m perfectly honest, I could have waited forever for the end of the book. The different journeys the characters set out on are so enthralling, I wouldn’t have minded if it had gone on for ages. There’s a final showdown, of course, but that’s not the end and the story could have gone on ad infinitum, as far as I’m concerned.

Mr. King doesn’t get all the credit for this production, however. The narrator, Grover Gardner, does a tremendous job. His voice acting is great and it doesn’t take long to learn how to tell the many different characters apart. Quite a feat if you ask me. I’ll definitely be looking for other books narrated by Gardner.

All in all a fantastic postapocalyptic novel that’s well worth the time and effort. So don’t let the jesters or the length of the thing scare you off; this is a read that’ll stay with you for a long time afterwards.

 

 

 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publisher: Scribner
Release Date: 2014
Rating: 4/5

I have to admit that the title of this book almost put me off reading it. I don’t like mushy tear-jerky books and this sounded exactly like that to me. Add to this the fact that it’s about a German orphan boy who loves radios and a blind French girl who loves Jules Verne, well, I was prepared to be queasy and rolling my eyes. But I’m happy to announce that I was wrong. All the Light We Cannot See is a beautiful and poetic story. It’s set during World War II, which is always a great setting if you ask me, and it follows the lives of the blind Marie-Laure whose father is a museum locksmith and inventor of intricate puzzle boxes, and Werner who lives with his sister in an orphanage and has an amazing talent for circuitry. The story jumps in time and changes protagonist for every chapter (more or less). We get their life stories, childhoods interrupted by war, but bits at a time and in a non-linear fashion. It’s like our own little puzzle box to figure out to find the treasure hidden inside, and it works great most of the time. It’s almost like a fairy tale, but a tragic one full of bombs and death.

To make it even more fairy tale-like there’s a diamond involved. A blue and red diamond with a mysterious past. Some say the holder of the diamond lives forever while everyone around them suffers greatly. This diamond is said to be in storage at the museum where Marie-Laure’s dad works and some people will go to great lengths to get it. If it exists at all. It’s not as Indiana Jones as it may sound, but I’ll let you find that out for yourself.

“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

You would think this is a story about love, right? It definitely sounds like that’s what it’s going to be. And in some ways it is, I guess. The love of a father or sister, or of the ways people’s lives touch. The connection you can make with strangers in dire situations. But most of all it’s a story about bravery and strength. About facing a world and a life that didn’t at all turn out the way you would have hoped. It’s about trying to do the right thing, no matter how hard that is, and paying your dues.

“The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

The book brims with gorgeous imagery, beautiful metaphors and language that floats from the pages and right into your heart. The towns and events are described in such fascinating detail and evocative manner that it’ll leave the images printed into your brain long after you’ve read the last page. At least that’s what it did for me. The characters are incredibly compelling, and both main and side characters are fully fleshed out and the development is great. Both sides of the war are portrayed in a nuanced manner that makes you feel for the German soldiers and the French citizens alike. Doerr’s writing is simply aweinspiring and his story devastating, almost nihilistic.

My only small complaint would be the pacing. In places it’s a bit slow for my taste and the jumping from one character to the other can get frustrating in the middle of something exciting. This is a good way to build up suspense, I suppose. Maybe I just don’t have the patience for it. Overall the form works and the length of the chapters (some are less than a page) ensure that you’re never bored enough to put the book down.

Simply put this is a beautiful piece of writing, though it’s very different from the starkness I usually prefer. But I’m sure that means it’ll appeal to way more people, and I hope it does because it deserves it, as its awards suggests too. So really, who needs my review?

(I do still wish Mr Doerr would have given this a less syrup-y title.)