Staff Favorites

Jonathan Franzen
Reviewed by Megan

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.

China Miéville
Reviewed by Eric
The City & The City By China Miéville

Miéville is one of the most highly-acclaimed fantasy writers working today, and, in fact, this novel was nominated for several prestigious fantasy/science fiction awards. And yet this is, ostensibly, a police procedural, and Miéville has stated that he was consciously working within the hard-boiled tradition typified by writers like Raymond Chandler. So has he totally abandoned fantasy or what?

Well, not entirely. Miéville has written a real crime novel, but he’s also mixed in some pretty weird stuff. The two titular cities are located in some vaguely-defined space on Europe’s Southeastern edge – somewhere near the Black Sea or the Balkans, perhaps. They are fictional cities, but, in most ways, they are not fantastic ones – they are, in fact, firmly grounded in the realities of crime and dirt and cell phones. However, these cities are neighbors – but not neighbors in any way that could ever really exist. The two cities, Beszel and Ul Qomo, are conjoined twins, occupying much of the same physical space. This block could be in Beszel, but the next block down might be in Ul Qomo. Some blocks might even be in both – which one you’re standing in depends on your perceptions, your ways of thinking. The separation between the cities is enforced by a mysterious, brutal organization known as Breach.

And, of course, the murder investigation at the center of this book spans both cities.

The concept behind this book would probably have been enough to keep me satisfied, but the writing’s also great, and Miéville throws in enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. Not quite a masterpiece, but almost.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Reviewed by Megan
China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know

Wasserstrom has a difficult task, but he mostly succeeds in providing a solid overview of looming, booming China. The first two-thirds are admirably focused and succinct, guiding the reader from Confucius to the Cultural Revolution. He meanders during the latter part of the book, condensing complicated events into overly long sentences, then adding clumsy parentheses to boot. I suppose such problems are only inevitable when using fewer than 200 pages to cover an incredibly vast subject.

This book won’t help you differentiate the periods of the Jin Dynasty, but it will probably provide you with some needed answers on a rather daunting topic.