Thursday, August 28, 2008

THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris

I don't think you have to have worked in a cube farm to enjoy Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, but it probably helps. On the other hand, if you've ever been the victim of a layoff, it may hit a little too close to home. Narrated in first person plural, an omniscient "we," this tragicomedy is not so much about downsizing as it about the quirks of the various members of a corporate office. The book is chock-full of stereotypes, including the diminutive female boss, Lynn, with a fabulous shoe collection, and her lieutenant, Joe, who fits in with neither management nor staff. The author succeeds in making the point that sometimes managers tend to view their staff as a collective entity rather than as individuals. By the same token, some employees fail to see their supervisors as having human characteristics. In fact, the heart of the book is the story of Lynn's struggle with her fear of breast cancer surgery. Lynn epitomizes how people allow their jobs to define who they are and how their jobs affect their standing within their various relationships—with their friends, their families, and their coworkers. Work can be stressful, but the routine of our jobs can be comforting also. One copywriter shows up for a meeting 2 hours after he's been let go, just because it's been on his calendar for months. There are lots of quotable quotes in this book, but one of my favorites is on page 53: "We liked wasting time, but almost nothing was more annoying than having our wasted time wasted on something not worth wasting it on." Dilbert, take note.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Junot Díaz's Pulitzer winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was a disappointment. This is a like-mother like-son story of foolish, obsessive, unrequited love. In both cases, the obsession is dangerous because the object of his/her affection has connections to Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic for thirty years. Single mother Beli, her daughter Lola, and son Oscar live in Paterson, New Jersey, but the real action takes place in the DR where their roots are. I found the voluminous footnotes and the slang, often in Spanish, particularly exasperating. Also, the not-always-identifiable narrator changes frequently and is sometimes first person, sometimes third, with lots of backtracking in time. This choppiness robbed the story of continuity, not to mention making it a bit challenging to follow. My favorite narrator, though, was Yunior, also a Dominican in New Jersey, who is Lola's occasional lover and Oscar's occasional college roommate. Yunior grows to genuinely care for Oscar, the bumbling obese nerd who pines for women he can't have. Oscar is too maladjusted and clueless with his Tolkien-inspired and Jedi-infused techno-speak to be a likeable character, but Yunior manages to tell the lovesick Oscar's story in a compassionate way.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


On the next to last page of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez, the Pakistani Princeton-educated narrator, says, "I have felt rather like a Kurtz waiting for his Marlowe." This allusion to Heart of Darkness is very illuminating, as Hamid's book bears several similarities to Conrad's novel. First, the narrator is telling his story to an unidentified stranger, although in this case the narrator is the Kurtz-like character. More telling, though, is the fact that Changez's story is that of a star team player run amok. The revelation at the end will tell you who is the Marlowe character and will make you want to reread the novel. The title is a little puzzling, since Changez is encouraged in his New York job to focus on fundamentals. He is, however, never reluctant in that regard. He is either totally gung-ho or totally apathetic. I think he is "reluctant" to abandon his American lifestyle to re-engage with his "fundamental" Pakistani roots, but 9/11 and the U.S. response to that tragedy have a sudden and jarring impact on his perspective. I'm not sure, either, what purpose his girlfriend Erica serves, as she loses her own way in her grief for a lost love. Perhaps she is a metaphor for the U.S. in its post-9/11 grief, but my biggest complaint about the book is that no clear explanation is given for Changez's obsession with her. I suppose that he just longs for something he can never have, just as he can never fully blend in with lighter-skinned Americans. All symbolism aside, the rhythm of the prose somehow evokes the narrator's heritage and builds suspense, right up until the last sentence. There is also some clever wordplay that made me smile, such as "Maximum return was the maxim to which we returned, time and again."

Thursday, August 7, 2008


The books in the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich are my favorite beach reads. They're also great for a break after reading something long, challenging, or depressing. Evanovich never fails to please with mystery, sex, and laugh-out-loud humor. Stephanie is a sometimes inept, sometimes lucky, sometimes wily bond enforcement agent in Trenton for her uncle Vinnie. She is divorced from Dickie, who cheated on her with Joyce, also a bounty hunter for Vinnie. Stephanie's main sidekick is another of Vinnie's employees, Lula, a large black ex-prostitute. Are you getting the picture here? The characters are wacky and hilarious, especially Stephanie's family, including her randy granny, whose favorite social activity is seeing who's laid out at Stiva's funeral home. Stephanie's love life always figures largely into the plot, as she's torn between two men. Joe Morelli, whom she's known since childhood, is a hunky cop who wants to marry her However, he doesn't relish the idea that the future mother of his children is being shot at on a regular basis. Ranger is another skip tracer for Vinnie who's sexy to the point of being scary. These books are as addictive as chocolate.