Lit up

Dec 10, 2008 at 12:00 am

by Graham Swift
Knopf; $23.95, 255 pp.

If you enjoy rambling, outsized ruminations of a self-centered, somewhat paranoid, middle-aged woman, then seek out Brit author Graham Swift's Tomorrow.

The novel revolves around the early morning hours of "tomorrow," in which the main character, Paula Hook, is lying in bed over-thinking the seemingly life-shattering revelation she and her beloved husband have looming over the coming day: They must tell their children, boy and girl fraternal twins, a "terrible" family secret that's sure to destroy their perfect, loving family. As morning draws near, Paula mentally addresses her children, reminiscing about the past, revealing the "scandals" of her life and smugly reveling in "sharing" details of her fabulously successful life, all the while working herself into an illogical frenzy as to what tomorrow will bring.

If the secret, which, you'll note, isn't so terrible — it's actually ordinary — weren't so easy to guess nary halfway through, then Paula's self-absorbed monologue wouldn't have been so damn trying. When Paula's mental prattling finally settles, there's not a single frisson of anything: no passion, no terror, no murder or mystery; there is sex, but nothing too shocking or scandalous, other than that Paula is imagining telling her children, in full detail, about her fantastically good sex life.

The book's saving grace is that Graham Swift is a really good writer, infusing energetic and clever wordplay and great bits of imagery ("... the most libidinous landscape he knew. All those curves and dips, those little pubic clumps of trees.")

Thing is, Tomorrow's supposed to be suspenseful, and it isn't: The novel ends, the secret's left untold, and the reader's left sadly disappointed in the tomorrow that never came. —Christa Buchanan

The Book of Geek
by Brian Briggs
Citadel; $14.95, 272 pp.

As Geek chic has climbed from shadowy corners of mom's basement into the light of respectability, so too has the arcane craft of geek humor, a science that's still growing through its pimply awkward phase. is one of the genre's pioneers, providing zippy satire and faux tech news to the pocket-protector set since '00, often at the expense of mainstream news outlets who've been fooled by phony headlines such as "Microsoft's AntiSpyware Tool Removes Internet Explorer."

Now, webmaster Brian Briggs has married that wiseass sensibility with every geek's real kryptonite, factoids, and cleverly condensed it all into a convenient analog format. The result is a book of lists, highlighting all manner of dork sacred cows such as Steve Jobs, Lord of the Rings, robots, Tron, Linux and the Rubik's Cube. Chapter headings range from literature to gaming, science, etc., with each entry including a blurb and a goofy little photo of Briggs dressed up as the subject, be it Doctor Who or Stan Lee. The real red meat are the random "geek facts," about a third of which are real, while the others consist of made-up rubbish: "So many different cuts were made of Blade Runner that director Ridley Scott called in DJ Jazzy Jeff for help." Huh?

Most gags here are easy to spot, say, Spider-Man's web-shooters originally being in his anus, but other bits are plausible until you notice the rigid ratio of real-to-fake info, though, in true nerd-head speak, you might clamor for more data and less lame jokes. There are plenty of top-ten lists too, pie charts and Onion-style goof news pieces that are mildly amusing if a bit formulaic. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you care about stuff like Arpanet, Nikola Tesla, Babylon 5 or if you know why the Hitchhiker's Guide listing is on page 42. If you do, let your, um, geek flag fly. —Corey Hall

Esther's Inheritance
by Sándor Márai
Knopf; $24, 148 pp.

At first, Esther's Inheritance by Sándor Márai (1900-1989) — originally published in Hungary in 1939 when Márai was at the height of his career — is a straightforward, melancholic account of the complexity of relationships.

Parallels can be drawn between Márai's and the eponymous Esther's at once sad, beautiful and frustratingly futile lives, as if the writer foreshadowed his struggle with power (fascists) with his Esther (an anti-fascist).

The Communist regime banned and destroyed all copies of Márai's books in 1945 — three copies resurfaced in France in the '90s — and Márai was forced to flee the country and live in anonymity. He eventually landed in San Diego, where he committed suicide in 1989.

Narrated by Esther, Inheritance chronicles the return of her long-lost love, the enigmatic fascist Lajos. It's a day that plays out like a theatrical dinner party, a comic tragedy in which those deceived by Lajos buzz with the misplaced merriment of a brush with infamy of sorts.

Esther, who was defeated in youth by lost love, is now a humble, middle-aged woman resigned to a simple, unfulfilling life with her elderly cousin, Nunu, living in the modest family estate she inherited after Lajos all but destroyed her family.

Lajos swept into Esther's life 20 years earlier, charming her and her family with an effervescent personality and elegant prose. Though he begged, borrowed and stole their valuables, seduced Esther and married her sister, everyone, including the "all-knowing Nunu," was still somewhat smitten with Lajos.

Through Esther and Lajos, Márai explores the juxtaposition of human virtues and vices to the extreme: Esther bound by "duty," and Lajos by lies.

While Lajos' deceptions imply that he's the one who's dangerous here, the real danger's of Esther's making: She thinks she's the weak one among her sister, Nunu, her niece and Lajos.

Offset by subtle humor, Esther's Inheritance takes an unflinching look at how, in the end, people really don't change: The spirit stays, weak or strong. —Christa Buchanan