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TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR by Joshua Ferris

I’ve given Joshua Ferris three chances. The first was Then We Came To The End, the book about the effect of the dotcom bust on a downsizing ad agency and its Greek chorus of employees, which I didn’t really like despite its rave reviews. The second was The Unnamed, about a lawyer afflicted with an illness that forces him to keep walking for months at a time, which I liked better than TWCTTE but still found to be inconsistent. And finally, I just finished To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, another Ferris novel that wasn’t what I expected and ultimately disappointed.


To Rise Again At A Decent Hour is about Paul O’Rourke, a neurotic, misanthropic atheist dentist living in Brooklyn who is obsessed with the Red Sox. (Yes, that’s all relevant.) When the book opens, Paul, who is very private and controlled in what he shares with the world, finds websites and social media accounts popping up in his name. Even more troubling,the content of the accounts is vaguely anti-Semitic (Paul is not Jewish, but he’s kind of obsessed with being Jewish) and go on and on about ancient peoples who allegedly faced persecution and prejudice worse than the Jews ever did.

Much of To Rise Again At A Decent Hour focuses on religious musings about the existence of God, using a somewhat confusing storyline of a man who has traced his roots back to one of these persecuted groups and is trying to recruit others who share the bloodline. Paul is one of those recruits, along with a multibillionaire hedge fund manager whom Paul befriends when they are both drawn in to this strange netherworld, which (sort of) explains the impersonations of Paul appearing on the Internet.

Sounds weird, right?

I had expected this book to be about modern technology and its negative impact on our lives and relationships, and there is some of that in here. But not much. The book meanders around through Biblical stories, anecdotes about Paul’s patients, explanations about why his prior relationships failed, and Paul’s inner dialogues about God. To be honest, most of this book was incredibly boring. There were flashes of brilliance here and there – and those flashes were bright. Like, laugh out loud, nod-in-the-car type of brilliance. But they were so few and far between that I had to ask myself over and over whether they were worth it for the narrative tedium that extended between them. The answer is no.

By the end of To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, I was quite angry at the book. I found it pretty unpleasant to read. I liked the passages about Paul’s superstition about the Red Sox, and his skewering of random people walking along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade on summer night was hilarious. But the rest – my god, I want those hours back.

I listened to To Rise Again At A Decent Hour on audio. It was narrated by one of my favorite narrators of all time – the sublime Campbell Scott – and I bet that if he hadn’t been narrating, I would have given up on the book. He’s got this gorgeous, deep, perfect voice which I adore, and I’ve loved some of his other audiobooks. But even he couldn’t save this book for me. I kept wondering what HE thought of the book as he was narrating. Was his mind wandering too?

Sorry – can’t recommend this one.

Top 10 Favorite Audiobooks

JuneHeaderIn honor of June is Audiobook Month (JIAM), I’ve decided to share a list of my favorite audiobooks. This was hard! There are a lot of good ones out there. If you haven’t tried an audiobook before, here are a few you might want to try.

1. Three Junes by Julia Glass. What I said: “The narrator, John Keating, was nearly perfect. I loved his brogue and his Fenno was wonderful.”

2. A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. What I said: “The three performers -Nick Sullivan, Lorna Raver, and Mark Bramhall – were absolutely perfect; I felt like I was listening to a script reading. The voice of Clem, in particular, was superb. This may be the best audio production I’ve ever listened to.”

3. Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout. What I said: “The performer, Bernadette Dunne, had the accents down perfectly and really imbued the voices with personality and character. She brought Strout’s words to life so convincingly that at times I felt as though the characters were in the room with me. This is one of the best audiobook narrations I’ve listened to, ever.”

4. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. What I said: “[T]he narration by Peter Altschuler is one of the best I’ve ever experienced. Great delivery and perfect accents. Mrs. Ali was the weak link, the errant thread of the Turkish rug. But the others were great.”

5. A Good American by Alex George. What I said: “The audio is terrific. Great narrator – Gibson Frazier. In fact, I think it was the audio version that kept me interested – I am not sure I would have stuck with this book if I hadn’t been listening to it.”

6. Faith by Jennifer Haigh. What I said: “The narrator, Therese Plummer, has a perfect Boston accent, and she vividly brought Faith‘s characters, male and female, to life. The audiobook forced me to ingest this novel more slowly than if I had read it, prolonging the pleasure of experiencing the book.”

7. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: What I said: “Hope Davis is an excellent narrator. She conveys a range of voices perfectly – from Marina’s terror brought on by drug-induced nightmares to the infallible tone of Dr. Swenson.”

8. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. What I said: “I highly recommend the audio. It was narrated by Ferris, and he’s a great reader. I love listening to authors read their own works – who understands the words better than they do? Who else knows exactly where the emphasis lands in a sentence, and the tone of voice a character should take when talking to someone else?”

9. The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. What I said: “It didn’t hurt that I listened to this book on audio narrated by the sublime Campbell Scott. I wouldn’t complain if he narrated every single audiobook in the library. His deep voice, which verges on (but never reaches) flatness, was the perfect vehicle for Perrotta’s understated sarcasm and jabs. I especially enjoyed Scott’s narration of Pastor Dennis – just perfect.”

And finally, the audiobook that got me into audiobooks…

10. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. What I said: “This book is narrated by Kristoffer Tabori, an accomplished actor, and I give him credit for embodying so many diverse voices throughout the 21 hours of Middlesex. His narration is fluid and vibrant, his voice highly capable of conveying the range from humor to desperation. To me, the weak link was his female voices, especially that of Cal’s grandmother Desdemona, who bordered on caricature. But this is a minor complaint. There were times when I was tempted to read ahead in my print copy of Middlesex, but I developed a strong appreciation for and loyalty to Tabori as I was reading, and felt that it would be betraying him NOT to experience every word through his narration.”

What are your favorite audiobooks? Please share them!

THE UNNAMED by Joshua Ferris

Ferris Reading The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris' second novel, is an intense, exhausting experience, just as living is for Tim Farnsworth, Ferris' main character. When the novel opens, Tim is a partner in a prestigious New York law firm who has just suffered a third recurrence of a strange affliction: periodically, he starts walking and cannot stop. The prior bouts of his disease – one that myriad specialists and scientists were unable to diagnose – wreaked havoc on his life for long periods at a time, but he eventually recovered and was able to resume his professional and personal lives.

The third recurrence of Tim's compulsion to walk is even more disruptive and debilitating than the others, and Ferris sets his novel at the start of the downward spiral that Tim follows when the walking comes back. Ferris shows how Tim loses his ability to work and how his relationship with his wife Jane and teenage daughter Becka are tested – to an extreme – by his erratic behavior and tendency to go missing for days – and eventually months - at a time.

The Unnamed explores the nature of mental illness (and in this case, its relationship with the physical body), as well as the limits of marital love and commitment. As Tim's condition gets more severe, he ultimately leaves Jane and Becka and just sets off walking, literally across the country, unable to stop or control his direction. Needless to say, exposure to extreme elements takes a serious toll on his body over the course of months and years, and he is periodically hospitalized for a range of organ failures, infections, and pscyhoses. His grasp on reality comes and goes, and he stays in intermittent touch with his wife and daughter, which tethers him tenuously to reality and his former life.

The Unnamed is a gripping read. It's not a consistent read, though. The first part of the book is almost like a thriller, while the middle gets repetitive with details of Tim's arduous journeys through physical and mental hell. The final third, where Tim tries to reconcile at last his condition with the life he left, is slightly easier to experience but no less sad.

I was one of the few who didn't like Ferris' first novel, Then We Came To The End. I liked The Unnamed better. I found Ferris' statements about modern work and family life more compelling this time around, and I do love his writing. I think I am still digesting The Unnamed. It's unrealistic in many ways (how could Tim walk that many miles and sleep in so many public places without being killed, attacked, mugged, etc.? for starters…), but I don't think Ferris was shooting for realism here. Here's a passage I liked about the mind-body tension:

At first his body was subject only to little local breakdowns, to infections and inflammations, to aches, cricks, tweaks, cramps, contusions, retentions, swellings, fevers, tinglings, hackings, spasms, limps, displacements, dizziness, stiffness, chafing, agitations, confusions, staggerings, spells of low blood sugar, and the normal wear and tear of age.  Yet it persisted to function more or less with an all-hands-on-deck discipline. He was certain that it had a mind of its own, an unassailable cellular will.  If it were not him that needed sleep, and a bit of food, it would not need him. It would walk without him, after his mind had dimmed and died. It would walk until it collapsed into a pile of whitened and terrigeneous bones.

I mostly listened to The Unnamed on audio, which I highly recommend. It was narrated by Ferris, and he's a great reader. I love listening to authors read their own works – who understands the words better than they do? Who else knows exactly where the emphasis lands in a sentence, and the tone of voice a character should take when talking to someone else?

So The Unnamed was kind of a mixed bag for me, but I am definitely glad I read it. (Oh hi, FTC! I guess that since the budget was sort-of-approved, your guidelines are still in effect. Since you asked… both the hard copy and the audiobook were courtesy of the DC Public Library).

Miscellany

Some random book-related tidbits to share:

  • Check out this Tournament of Books. If you like the bracket format but don’t really care about the NCAA, then this may be the tourney for you. Each matchup was judged by a different critic, and you can click on the right hand column to read the full analysis of each matchup. [Bonus points to anyone who can explain to me how one of the final two books – Remainder – seems to have been eliminated a few times throughout the tourney but still made it to the final two.]
  • Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris, just won the 2008 Hemingway/PEN Award. I still don’t understand the hype about this book. I really didn’t like it all that much.
  • Min Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires is now out in paperback. I reviewed it here and posted a Q&A with Min Jin Lee here. Also, it has a new cover that looks like this:
  • Lee_2

THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris


Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, was not what I expected. I knew it had been nominated for the National Book Award. I knew that it was about a Chicago ad agency during the dotcom bust of 2001. I expected a wry, cynical view of white-collar office life and the folly and self-importance of the high-flying late 90s. I thought it would be funny and dark and satiric and a relatively light read.

Nope.

First of all, I didn’t really like it.

I seem to be in the tiniest of minorities here – every time I turn around, I see it on someone’s top 5 or top 10 books of 2007 list – The New York Times, EW, Slate.  Critics have called it “hilarious,” “totally off-the-wall”, “acidly funny”, and “entertaining.” I will grant that the book is original. It is divided into roughly three sections, two of which are told in the first person plural in a Greek-chorus, Everyman-esque format.  The narrators are the collective employees of a continuously downsizing ad agency. Ferris’ book is unique – his storytelling is almost frustratingly methodical, while also omniscient and universal. His doomed copwriters and art directors experience the challenges of the workplace that many of us have shared: office gossip, petty arguments, romances, unrequited crushes, paranoia and backstabbing. The art of wasting time. The satisfaction of being busy and meeting deadlines. The book even explores the pall that cancer casts on the co-workers when one of their supervisors is rumored to be afflicted.

However, I just couldn’t get into it. I found that I didn’t really care about any of the characters – perhaps this is a casualty of the faceless narration. The book became a chore to read. There were moments of brilliance, and I laughed out loud at times in recognition of one observation or another, but I just didn’t love the book. I can’t quite figure out what all the hoopla is about. Again, Ferris’ approach was very creative, and a writer I met recently commented that this seems to be the first book about the contemporary workplace that has broken through. Both may be true, but that didn’t make it a great read, in my opinion.

I know I am an army of one here, but I just can’t recommend the book.

Ok, bring it on – tell me why you liked it.