By Jonathan Franzen
Mike Cleland, Contributor
Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 sprawling family drama tells the story of the hopelessly flawed Lambert family merely existing in contemporary America. The book was immediately heralded upon publication, winning a slew of awards including the National Book Award.
Written in seven sections, the first section tells the story of Alfred and Edith, living out the rest of their old age relatively estranged from their three grown children: Chip, Gary, and Denise. While Alfred’s Parkinson’s disease worsens, Edith fears the coming Christmas will be one of their last, and she sets out to bring the family back to St. Jude for one last Christmas. Each individual section focuses on one family member, their problems, and most importantly, how a technologically changing, consumer hungry society depreciates human value. Chip, a college professor, has an affair with his student, gets caught and is fired. Jobless, he aims to write a screenplay that will bring him fame and fortune. Unfortunately, his story is too wrapped up in his affair (an entire page describes her breasts) and needs many corrections.
Gary, a successful bank manager and family man, denies his own depression, assuages with alcohol, and obsesses over having to take care of his parents fearing they will soon become too incompetent to do it themselves. He alienates his wife (who can’t stand Edith), and forcefully tries to obtain proper reimbursement for Alfred’s new ground-breaking invention, who insists a small sum of money is enough, and that further investigation is “not open for discussion.”
Denise, a successful chef and restaurant owner, has by far the worst personal problems. Incredibly driven, but inwardly lost, she embarks on affairs with married men (starting at eighteen with a much older man) and even a married woman. In one hilarious sequence, she secretly has an affair with both the husband and the wife. The discovery leads to disastrous consequences.
The story, told in many flashbacks, follows a young Lambert family when the adults were children, takes you on a cruise ship, drops you in war torn Lithuania, and never ceases to entertain. Franzen is hilarious, yet heartwarming. There’s plenty of sex, a riveting suspense sequence at the end, and intelligence on every page. We are never sure the family will get that last Christmas together. The 565 page novel might require some patience, but it’s definitely worth your time.
Down & Delirious in Mexico City
By Daniel Hernandez
Nathan Cruz, Union Staffer
In 2002, Berkeley graduate Daniel Hernandez graduated from Berkeley and spent the following summer getting in touch with his roots. Down and Delirious in Mexico City is a written collection of Hernandez’s travels within Mexico City where he spent two years getting in touch with the inner youth subcultures of Mexico City.
Mexico City is a dangerous city. Mexico City is a heavily populated city. However, Mexico City is also a young city. Hernandez spends a majority of his time in Mexico located in the Federal District (also known as D.F.) within Mexico City, where one in three residents is between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. The average overall age is 27. Hernandez retells his stories from the D.F. from parties, rallies, marches, meetings, sporting events, and spiritual rites. He visits slums populated by punks and emos and experiences life along-side Mexico’s youth and drug-fueled parties.
Several years pass between his travels to and from Mexico City. After spending just 10 weeks in Mexico City during the summer of 2002, the experience recalibrates his life. In 2007, after quitting a job in Los Angeles, he moved back to Mexico City, continuing his journey to discover the bowels of the city. The novel begins with Hernandez’s trek to La Villa, the equivalent to the journey to Mecca in the Western Hemisphere. The trek is just one example of a situation where Hernandez finds himself in one of his various journeys to continue his personal desire to become a true “Mexican.”
The novel serves as a honest guide to a Mexican- American’s portrayal of himself: “I had always been under the impression that the world perceived me as Mexican, like it or not. I felt Mexican—stuck between a dominant American culture that shunned the ‘Mexican’ within its society, and contemporary Mexicans back in Mexico who found it so easy to dismiss out mixed heritage as somehow unrelated to theirs. Would we forever be banished to a state of ambivalence, or could we be two things at once? To answer this question, I knew I had to go to Mexico and find out for myself. One summer there, I thought naively, is all I need.”
Down and Delirious in Mexico City is written as Hernandez lived it, and it serves as a 21st century urban survival guide. It is for anyone young, young-minded, or curious about Mexico.
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table
By Roger Lancelyn Green
Wes Verner, Union Staffer
What you should know about the Arthurian Legend is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of adaptations and versions. It seems that everyone has their own way of telling how King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table quested across Albion, setting the example of Chivalry and Strength. Obviously, I am not going to attempt to review all of these, or even more than one. That would be silly. The version I shall be remarking upon is the Puffin Classics version, written by Roger Lancelyn Green. It is most likely available anywhere they sell Puffin Books, i.e. anywhere they sell books.
Anyway, on to bigger, better things, by which I mean me forcibly giving my opinions as a literature connoisseur.
King Arthur is great. I mean it is fan-freakin-tastic. It’s chock-full of fighting and questing and all sorts of Medieval shit.
The story begins by describing the birth of Arthur. He was smuggled out of his father’s castle by the wizard Merlin. Merlin then took a sword and shoved it down into an anvil and decreed, “Whosoever shalt pulleth out this sword shalt be Crowneth King of Albion, amigos,” which is really amazing when you think about it because Spanish hadn’t been invented yet. Little Arthur then goes about his business being a baby and stuff. But one day, when he was about seven, he grew a full beard and pulled the sword out of the Anvil! And all the Amigos (for that is how one refers to the citizens of the town of Amig) cheered and shouted “ARTHUR KING!” a whole hell of a lot. And then he rode around Albion (if you haven’t caught on yet, Albion is the old English name for England) looking for Knights to join him in his court at Camelot.
One thing that did always irritate me about King Arthur is how flat most of the characters are. Don’t get me wrong, I love the stories and what not and they can really force you to ride your imagination as far as it will go, but I do NOT read it for the character development.
If you are ever looking for a book that will take your mind off of things for a while, this is absolutely the book for you. I will often read a story or two just to get so far out of my normal life that it’s almost like taking a nap. The tales of Chivalry and Knightly Honor will really let you get immersed in the World of Arthur.
And if you start reading it in a Monty Python-esque accent, who can blame you?