Staff Favorites

Gary Shteyngart
Reviewed by Eric
Super Sad True Love Story

Essentially, this novel is comprised of a mixture of two elements: 1) a near-future dystopian setting and, 2) a cheesy love story. I picked up this book mostly because I was interested in the crazy sci-fi elements, but it was the two main characters and their relationship that actually won me over.

Shteyngart throws us into a world where all the most absurd elements of our culture are amplified to a piercing howl – China basically owns the US and everyone shares every single last thing about their superficial, youth-obsessed selves using various facebook-esque technologies. All of this is, I suppose, intended to be intensely humorous. But it all falls totally flat.

However, at the center of the novel is Lenny Abramov, an ugly, book-loving schlub in his late-30s who can’t for the life of him fit into this ludicrous, ludicrous world. He meets Eunice Park, the damaged daughter of Korean immigrants, who is much, much younger and much, much better looking than he is. He falls for her immediately and, though it takes a while, she somehow eventually falls for him too.

And it all ends horribly, and absurdly, and it turns out that Schteyngart is pretty good at breaking your heart. I came to really care about these characters, but I could never bring myself to become interested in the world in which they live.

Christopher Hitchens
Reviewed by Megan
Hitch-22: A Memoir

Christopher “Don’t Call Me Chris” Hitchens is a lover and a fighter, and the two sides hash it out in this superb memoir. We get deeply felt cheers for Auden, scotch, Marx, civil disobedience, Paul Wolfowitz, and the United States alongside scalding jeers for totalitarianism, organized religion, bullies, Michael Moore, narcotics, and the Clintons. With this in mind, I really don’t think there’s anybody out there who agrees with Hitch (yes, that’s what I call him) about everything, but his arguments always prompt deeper, revelatory thinking. The book also has plenty of vignettes both joyous and tragic, intellectual history (personal and otherwise), and--of course--fond reminiscences of famously brilliant friends.

Though Hitch states that he doesn’t have a gift for fiction, I can’t help but think that his facility with language and instinct for the subterranean would make for some thrillingly good novels. Then again, maybe he realized he doesn’t have to stoop to mere invention when he can instead regale us with turbo-literate remembrances of a big life saturated with wit, courage, absurdity, regret, and a profound sense of gratitude. Carry on then, Hitch; carry on.

Jonathan Franzen
Reviewed by Megan
Freedom

Please note: This review contains spoilers.

The most hyped novel in recent memory picks up where Jonathan Franzen always leaves off: with the souring of an upper-middle class Midwestern family. This time we get a guided tour of the last decade per Franzen’s priggish Liberalism, where complacent self-satisfaction turns to bereavement, rage, suffocation, near-constant betrayal, and the faintest glimmer of relief. 

Our story unfolds on the backs of the Berglunds of St. Paul. We have the recklessly bored Patty, the resolutely virtuous Walter, and their morally divergent children. Lest you worry that the Berglunds perish in a snowbank, there is one Richard Katz to heat things up. Richard is a college friend of Walter’s and a rocker of the old school. That is to say, he is cliché of womanizing, self-loathing, coke benders, and smirky philosophizing. He’s also a dead-ringer for Muammar el-Qadaffi, so ladies should consider themselves warned. Of course, Katz and Patty succumb to their insistent loins, which leaves Walter free to obsess over corporate and governmental malfeasance, another Franzen motif. 

The equally familiar Franzen narration is assisted by Patty, who chimes in as part of her therapy. This does little to establish a character that is, quite frankly, both unconvincing and a bore. It’s hard to believe that the charmingly diffident Patty is a college basketball star, let alone a smug stay-at-home mom who turns into a drunken harridan when she discovers that her son has taken up with the poor girl next door. Part of the problem lies in Franzen’s contempt for Patty. See, she’s a dumb jock without discipline, gratitude, or empathy. It’s difficult to understand why we have to spend so much time with her; though Franzen does indicate that she’s quite pretty. 

Part of the problem lies in Franzen himself. There is an inarticulate bitterness that permeates all of his writing. I’m fine with caustic, nihilistic, etc., but peevish didacticism without fresh insight quickly becomes draining and ultimately repellent. He is unsubtle, often crude to the point of puerility, and lacking in both the acuity and generosity needed for rewarding reading. In my humble opinion, of course.

It’s the book of the season (if not the next three years), so go on and read it. I hope you find a place in your heart for Franzen that I lack.

Emmanuel Mouret
Reviewed by Megan
Shall We Kiss?

Like romantic comedies, but find most recent offerings neither romantic nor comedic? Then say chin-chin to this bonbon!

I don’t want to give too much away, but the movie explores love as it pertains to the tyrannical triumvirate that is timing, chemistry, and morality. Lest this sound a bit severe, the film's offbeat humor and gaggle of elegant Gauls make it go down nice and easy.

So don’t give up yet; the delectable Shall We Kiss? might be just the movie you were looking for.

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