Friday, March 1, 2013

Coming soon... @ your library

Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders

Kirkus Reviews –

A new story collection from the most playful postmodernist since Donald Barthelme, with narratives that can be enjoyed on a number of different levels. Literature that takes the sort of chances that Saunders does is rarely as much fun as his is. Even when he is subverting convention, letting the reader know throughout that there is an authorial presence pulling the strings, that these characters and their lives don't exist beyond words, he seduces the reader with his warmth, humor and storytelling command. And these are very much stories of these times, filled with economic struggles and class envy, with war and its effects, with drugs that serve as a substitute for deeper emotions (like love) and perhaps a cure (at least temporary) for what one of the stories calls "a sort of vast existential nausea." On the surface, many of these stories are genre exercises. "Escape from Spiderhead" has all the trappings of science fiction, yet culminates in a profound meditation on free will and personal responsibility. One story is cast as a manager's memo; another takes the form of a very strange diary. Perhaps the funniest and potentially the grimmest is "Home," which is sort of a Raymond Carver working-class gothic send-up. A veteran returns home from war, likely suffering from post-traumatic stress. His foulmouthed mother and her new boyfriend are on the verge of eviction. His wife and family are now shacking up with a new guy. His sister has crossed the class divide. Things aren't likely to end well. The opening story, "Victory Lap," conjures a provisional, conditional reality, based on choices of the author and his characters. "Is life fun or scary?" it asks. "Are people good or bad?" The closing title story, the most ambitious here, has already been anthologized in a couple of "best of" annuals: It moves between the consciousness of a young boy and an older man, who develop a lifesaving relationship. Nobody writes quite like Saunders.

The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman

Kirkus Reviews –

A rambling conversation on all things Zen between the mystic-minded movie star and his spiritual teacher. As the title suggests, this book targets (and might most please) the ardent cult attracted to The Big Lebowski, the movie that gave Bridges (Pictures, 2006) his iconic role. He explains of the book's genesis, "So…my friend Bernie Glassman says to me one day, ‘Did you know that the Dude in The Big Lebowski is considered by many Buddhists to be a Zen master?' " The two proceed to explore one of the movie's signature lines, "The Dude abides," from every possible perspective, punctuated by anecdotes from Bridges' film career and personal life and spiritual sagacity from Glassman (Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen, 2002, etc.). Perhaps the most revelatory is a close reading of "Row, Row, Row, Your Boat," where even readers who have heard it thousands of times before will understand "gently," "merrily" and "life is but a dream" with fresh ears. Some of the rest belabors the obvious, suffers from cliché and hippie vernacular, and even borders on self-parody. When Bridges talks about fan letters, most of which he doesn't answer and then occasionally feels guilty, Glassman advises, "You need to befriend Jeff. It's got nothing to do with the letters. You've got to befriend the fact that Jeff can only do so much….The Dude does not get angry with himself for all the things he's not doing. He befriends the self." Bridges makes it a point to distinguish himself from that role, though sometimes he wishes he could be more like the Dude. He writes things like, "Dig is beyondunderstand. I like digging where I am and what I'm doing, I like jamming with myself." May lead readers to plenty of better introductions to Zen. You dig?

A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time Series #14) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Kirkus Reviews –

"There are no endings, and never will be endings, to the turning of the Wheel of Time." Even so, with this volume, the late Jordan's hyperinflated Wheel of Time series grinds to a halt. Jordan (Eye of the World, 1990, etc.), here revived by way of the extensive notebooks, drafts and outlines he left behind by amanuensis Sanderson (creative writing/Brigham Young Univ.), was an ascended master of second-tier Tolkien-ism; the world he creates is as densely detailed as Middle-earth, and if the geography sounds similar, pocked with place names such as Far Madding and the Blasted Lands, that's no accident. Tolkien-esque, too, is the scenario for this saga-closer, namely a "last battle" in which the forces of good are arrayed against those of darkness. The careless reader might take this to be a battle of hairdressers in a West Indian neighborhood: "The Dreadlords came for him eventually, sending an explosion to finish the job. Deepe spent the last moments throwing weaves at them. He died well." That's not the case, of course: instead, saga heroes Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara range the lands beyond the Dark One's prison to do all manner of good and adventuresome things. It's a strange world, that: Perrin finds the pit to end all pits, "[a]n eternal expanse, like the blackness of the Ways, only this one seemed to be pulling him into it." But then, what kind of epic would it be if it weren't a strange place? Will wolves and orcs—or whatever they are—take over the world, or will the good guys prevail? Jordan's fans, who are legion, will most decidedly want to learn the answer to that question.

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