Catching Up and Tuning In

17 May

I don’t know about you guys, but I had a pretty great weekend. Full of books, quite a bit of homework, and some day drinking at a winery in the sun. I really needed this weekend to be chill and refreshing and also productive since I leave this Friday for New York City fo Book Expo America and Book Blogger Con. I know you’re probably wondering why I’m leaving on Friday when everything doesn’t even kick off until Tuesday, right? Well, my cousin Beck lives in the city (though not for much longer) and my mom is also a NYC fanatic and takes every opportunity she can to visit the city that never sleeps, so we’re going up way early to see some shows, eat some great meals, and generally be tourists without feeling rushed by BEA. My mom is coming back home on Tuesday, when BEA really gets going, and I’ll be staying with Beck for the rest of the week. I’m in the process of making my plans for the days and nights of BEA, but before then, I’m trying to finish as much schoolwork as I can. Classes for the summer semester started last Wednesday, which is why you haven’t seen me in a little while, and the last thing I want to think about in New York is school. That means lots of reading this week.

However, I did manage to finish a couple books this weekend, and figured out how to approach my review of another. Let’s get started shall we?


I picked up Jonathan Lethem’s NBCC winning Motherless Brooklyn from the used book section of one of my favorite bookstores in the world, Brookline Booksmith, in the lovely Brookline suburb of Boston where two of my best friends live. I make it a point to visit the Booksmith every visit I make because I often find treasures there, plus they’re just so friendly 🙂 Anyway, I’ve had Motherless Brooklyn since New Year’s but I decided to read it because it appeared on The Reading Ape’s Swiss Army 10. It didn’t disappoint inthe least. It was a mystery, tied up with a psychological study, tied up with a literary thinker. I was thoroughly impressed, and I can see why the Ape included it on his list. Publisher’s Weekly gave it this review in 1999 when the book was first released:

Hard-boiled crime fiction has never seen the likes of Lionel Essrog, the barking, grunting, spasmodically twitching hero of Lethem’s gonzo detective novel that unfolds amidst the detritus of contemporary Brooklyn. As he did in his convention-smashing last novel, Girl in Landscape, Lethem uses a blueprint from genre fiction as a springboard for something entirely different, a story of betrayal and lost innocence that in both novels centers on an orphan struggling to make sense of an alien world. Raised in a boys home that straddles an off-ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, Lionel is a misfit among misfits: an intellectually sensitive loner with a bad case of Tourette’s syndrome, bristling with odd habits and compulsions, his mind continuously revolting against him in lurid outbursts of strange verbiage. When the novel opens, Lionel has long since been rescued from the orphanage by a small-time wiseguy, Frank Minna, who hired Lionel and three other maladjusted boys to do odd jobs and to staff a dubious limo service/detective agency on a Brooklyn main drag, creating a ragtag surrogate family for the four outcasts, each fiercely loyal to Minna. When Minna is abducted during a stakeout in uptown Manhattan and turns up stabbed to death in a dumpster, Lionel resolves to find his killer. It’s a quest that leads him from a meditation center in Manhattan to a dusty Brooklyn townhouse owned by a couple of aging mobsters who just might be gay, to a zen retreat and sea urchin harvesting operation in Maine run by a nefarious Japanese corporation, and into the clutches of a Polish giant with a fondness for kumquats. In the process, Lionel finds that his compulsions actually make him a better detective, as he obsessively teases out plots within plots and clues within clues. Lethem’s title suggests a dense urban panorama, but this novel is more cartoonish and less startlingly original than his last. Lethem’s sixth sense for the secret enchantments of language and the psyche nevertheless make this heady adventure well worth the ride.

I was completely sucked into the story and wasn’t at all distracted by the seemingly genre-busting plot. I hadn’t really been expecting a crime novel, so when that turned out to be the major plot driver, it was a pleasant surprise. I’d been nervous that it would be all a Tourettic-filled narrative without a lot of action, but Lethem  didn’t at all fall into the trap of becoming muddled in the world of a really intriguing narrator and thereby ignoring the basic plot. Brooklyn was an excellent combination of character and plot, and I give it two hardy thumbs up. Has anyone else read Motherless Brooklyn? What did you think?

Next: my reviews of Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann and Stitches by David Small


4 Responses to “Catching Up and Tuning In”

  1. Skip May 17, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    Glad it turned out to be a winner! Breathing a sigh of relief here.

    I’m reaaaaaly interested in Stitches, so looking foward to seeing your thoughts on that.

  2. Kathy May 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    You have convinced me to add this to my TBR list! I just ordered a copy from Have you ever heard of the book Dope by Sara Gran? It came up when I was searching for the Lethem book, and the two books are supposed to be comparable. I’ll probably wait and read Brooklyn before I look into Dope, though.

    • Rachel May 17, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

      I haven’t but I’ll check it out. I hope you enjoy Brooklyn as much as I did. It sucks you in so fast 🙂 You’ll have to keep me updated!

  3. lori (TNBBC) May 28, 2010 at 9:22 pm #

    Hi Rachel!

    I adored Motherless Brooklyn. It was my first Lethem novel, and I found it accidently at the salvation army. I love when I stumble across great books that someone else decided to set free….

    It was great meeting you this week at the BEA/BBC. Thanks for letting me tag along with ya at the convention. Be sure to keep in touch.

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