“All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by a mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the philosophers,“All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by a mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the philosophers, the religious leaders – all maniacs. What else but a blind singleness of purpose could have given focus to their genius, would have kept them in the groove of purpose. Mania … is as priceless as genius.”
We last saw James Bond, agent 007, collapsing in a heap after SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb kicked him in the calf with a poison-tipped knife secreted in the tip of her shoe in From Russia, With Love. Despite the heavy cliffhanger, it should come as no surprise that Bond survived that incident and, after a brief spell in the hospital, has been deemed fit for duty at MI6. Bond’s pride, however, is still wounded. He knows he got carried away with his last assignment and made some amateurish mistakes that landed him in the hospital. He blames himself and is eager to prove his worth to his boss, M. So when M hands Bond a routine assignment and refers to it as a ‘personnel issue’ that needs rectifying, Bond’s shame only burns brighter. We of course know that this ‘routine’ assignment will turn out to be anything but a simple beach vacation, but to Bond it’s another mark of shame.
You may remember Strangways, MI6’s man in the Caribbean from Live and Let Die, where he made an appearance to help set Bond on his way. Well, now Strangways and his secretary have gone missing altogether. It is believed that they ran off together, but the details of their last radio broadcast are troubling enough that MI6 wants to send it’s own man out to determine what happened. After arriving in Jamaica, Bond hooks up with his buddy Quarrel (also from Live and Let Die) and quickly ascertains that all is not as it seems in this tropical paradise. All roads seem to lead back to Strangways’ last investigation into the activities of the mysterious Doctor No out on Crab Key Island. When 007 sneaks onto the island to investigate, the situation escalates into a deadly game of survival against one of the world’s most diabolical minds.
Just like Live and Let Die, Doctor No is accidentally wildly racist, but this time it’s against Chinese people. Doctor No himself is half Chinese and half German, and he employs nothing but people who are half Chinese and half Jamaican–which means it is assumed any time a Chinese person shows up that they are a bad guy. Even worse, Fleming makes it true. There’s not much here for feminists either since 007 sees Honeychile Rider as a sex object he basically wants to treat roughly. Plus she gets naked. A lot.
Some of the Bond books thus far have been disappointingly lacking in the villain department (here’s looking at you, Diamonds Are Forever). It’s like the modern complaint that all the Marvel superhero movies never actually have a memorable villain other than Loki. The reason they work, and the reason the Bond books work, is that the hero carries the weight. Doctor No doesn’t actually show up until late in the book but you begin feeling his menace early on. Suspense builds around what he is up to. He’s a Bond villain that comes to life on the page–mechanical claw-hands and all. So it’s unfortunate that the climax of the novel essentially takes place without him. He tosses Bond into a deadly obstacle course to see how far he makes it, then disappears to check on a shipment at the dock. That’s it. The emotional climax of the story is more about James Bond fighting his own body (his tiredness, his injuries) to survive. It’s not about a showdown with a diabolical madman. Once Bond escapes he dispatches Doctor No practically without ceremony (he and the Doctor don’t even exchange any words). That’s a bit disappointing considering how good the rest of the book is.
Still, there have been worse books in the series. This one is fun (if you can get past the racism and misogyny), it just loses a lot of steam in the end. Without that hiccup it’s a great installment. I particularly like that Ian Fleming’s Bond has a trajectory through the novels. Tiffany Case moves in with him at the end of Diamonds Are Forever but by From Russia With Love she’s dumped him to run off with another man. The hurt he feels there leads him to be a little too reckless and susceptible to Tatiana Romanova, so when we meet him again here he’s desperate to prove himself as an agent all over again. The movies frequently try as hard as possible to avoid continuity, so it makes the Bond on the page that much more interesting.
“Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make bored.”
Following the somewhat lackluster novel Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia, With Love nice“Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make bored.”
Following the somewhat lackluster novel Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia, With Love nicely sets everything right in the world of James Bond. Following the events of that diamond-smuggling adventure, James Bond has found himself living 'the soft life.' Work has been slow and he's been keeping time with desk work as he waits for his next assignment. Tiffany Case has dumped him, gotten engaged to an American military man, and is returning to the USA to live a life of marital bliss. Licking his wounds, 007 is itchy to get back in the saddle. “In his particular line of business, peace had reigned for nearly a year. And peace was killing him.” Well, one should be careful what one wishes for.
For the first 90 pages of From Russia, With Love James Bond isn't even present. Instead, we are introduced to the characters who will be attempting to bring about his demise in this novel. First we meet Red Grant, a psychotic man who is tempted to kill by the full moon, and who has found gainful employment as the top assassin of the Soviet Union's deadly secret service: SMERSH. We go to meeting of 'the moguls of death,' who decide that in order to dismantle MI6 (Britain's secret services division) they must target its most prized officer, James Bond, in order to defame him and then kill him. The fact that Bond, agent 007, has caused them trouble before (in Casino Royale and then again in Live and Let Die) only makes the operation seem that much sweeter to them. Then we meet Rosa Klebb, SMERSH's head of Operations and Executions, who devises the plan that will follow. They must trick 007 into going to a neutral territory where they can get at him easier, and get him to fall for a beautiful Russian girl who will bring about his downfall. Enter Tatiana Romanova, an MGB agent recruited by Klebb to be the pawn in a scheme that will destroy James Bond and British Intelligence once and for all.
On the one hand, it seems curious that we spend so much time setting groundwork for the novel before James Bond himself appears. Truth be told, Ian Fleming could have easily edited the Soviet chapters out completely and From Russia, With Love would work just as well. It would change the tone completely, but it would still work. But I actually like the addition of the Soviet chapters. Without them you'd be in Bond's shoes, wondering if the mission he's going on to Istanbul is a trap or not. The suspense would come from that mystery. Instead, you know full well that 007 is walking into a trap. The suspense is in watching him get tangled in the web and wondering how he'll ever manage to free himself of it.
The scheme is that Romanova contacts the Istanbul branch of MI6 to profess her love for James Bond, whom she 'got to know' from transcribing reports about him. She claims to want to defect to Britain to be with him, and promises to have a code machine called a Spektor as a sign of good faith. MI6 willingly takes the bait for the Spektor's value, but the rest depends on your ability to check your brain at the door a bit. You see, Bond naturally falls for Romanova pretty hard. You're meant to wonder where Romanova's allegiance truly lies, but the reality is that she falls for Bond just as hard. It doesn't really make sense for them to fall in love so quickly and so effortlessly--with such high stakes, no less. But the good thing about From Russia, With Love is that it's so much fun you don't really care all that much. I guess it also helps that Fleming makes sure you know that Bond is reeling from his breakup with Tiffany Case and a deadly case of boredom when this mission comes along. Both of those features would make him more reckless than usual, I suppose.
The novel is full of smart little twists and turns. I complained in Diamonds Are Forever that the villains weren't central enough to the story, and oddly enough this novel turned that complaint on its head--because Red Grant and Rosa Klebb disappear completely for a large swath of the plot, but you hardly mind. Knowing their scheme is at work adds sufficient menace to propel the story even without their physical presence. You may remember that in my review of Moonraker I noted that it was my favorite novel in the series so far. Well, From Russia, With Love just stole the title. This Soviet tale of espionage even had a stamp of approval from no less that President Kennedy (who listed it among his ten favorite books, and screened the film adaptation at The White House just before his assassination), and it's easy to see why he would be taken with it.
For more, check out the Bond page on my blog–which has movie recaps and best-ofs. Up next, we’ll compare the film and book of Doctor No. ...more
You may recall from my last review that Moonraker turned out to be a terrific little book that was adapted int"Death is forever. But so are diamonds."
You may recall from my last review that Moonraker turned out to be a terrific little book that was adapted into a seriously terrible movie. As fate would have it, I also despised the movie version of Diamonds Are Forever, but while Moonraker became my favorite book in the series so far, Diamonds became my least favorite in the series (so far).
A large part of that is due to the fact that nothing much happens on Bond's assignment in Diamonds. There isn't even really a villain of any consequence to be found. Moonraker was all the better for Hugo Drax's larger than life presence. Ostensibly, the Spang brothers are the head bad guys in Diamonds, but you barely even get to know either one of them. They only really turn up at the very end, just in time for 007 to dispatch them to save the day. There are some henchmen, but they also lurk on the periphery--only turning up roughly three times during the entire book. Without a villainous presence, the only thread for the plot to grasp at is Bond's mission--and even that is mostly boring.
M sends 007 to take the place of a diamond smuggler in order to figure out who is behind a large diamond-smuggling operation that is undermining the British economy. Bond meets up with Tiffany Case, the mob operative who is going to oversee his transport to the United States, and immediately drops the fake identity. He gets to the U.S. and basically meanders his way through the plot. He doesn't get any dangerous assignments from the mob, he spends more than half the book just trying to collect payment from them for his smuggling trip. That takes him on a detour to Saratoga, where he inexplicably helps his former CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (now a detective with the Pinkertons), cause trouble with the very mob he's trying to trick into drawing him close. Yes, Leiter is his friend, but the reckless hit to Bond's cover doesn't quite make sense.
Once the horse race payment method goes south, the mob sends Bond to Las Vegas to pay him out in one of their casinos. Bond decides to apply some pressure to the mob bosses to find out who's heading up the pipeline, but the action is still painfully slow compared to the other books--and once again, 007's movements seem unnecessarily reckless. His rather sudden infatuation with Tiffany Case doesn't improve things. It's one thing for 007 to feel attracted to a Bond Girl like Moonraker's Gala Brand, but he inexplicably falls directly into full-on Vesper-Lynd-style love with Tiffany. They barely even know each other, and nothing about their interactions seems worthy of the marked fixation they have for each other.
So you see, Diamonds is the most problematic of Ian Fleming's Bond books (so far) by a long shot. It's also the most dull. It's not a terrible read but given how enjoyable the rest of the books have been it is definitely a disappointment.
“'They want us dead,' said Bond calmly. 'So we have to stay alive.'”
The film adaptation of Moonraker is legendary for being awful. I called it the wor“'They want us dead,' said Bond calmly. 'So we have to stay alive.'”
The film adaptation of Moonraker is legendary for being awful. I called it the worst Bond movie ever, so you can understand that I was very curious to see how the book would fare. Thankfully, aside from the title and the villain's name there are precious few similarities (for more on that, check out my full comparison of the book and movie here).
Moonraker the novel is essentially a mystery--moreso than the first two books in the series at least, which played with noir but focused primarily on the action side of things. In the opening James Bond is enjoying a stretch of desk work as he finishes recovering from the events of Live and Let Die. That all ends when M asks him a favor: he suspects that a man at his club has been cheating at cards. Not just anyone, mind you, but Sir Hugo Drax, a wildly popular millionaire building a weapon system called Moonraker that is supposed to keep England safe from nuclear threats. It's a delicate matter that the club needs handled with discretion, so Bond goes in to check out the situation to see if he can figure out what Drax is up to.
That simple little excursion snowballs when the chief of security on the Moonraker project is murdered days before a crucial test launch of Moonraker's rocket. With all the money and time the government is spending to build Moonraker they can't afford a scandal or a delay, so MI6 is brought in and James Bond is sent to work with Gala Brand, a mole from Scotland Yard who has been undercover as Drax's secretary for a year. Their investigation into whether or not there is a plot to sabotage Moonraker eventually uncovers a much wider conspiracy--and a much more fiendish scheme that would devastate England if they can't stop it from happening.
As fate would have it, the book that gave us the worst movie in the film series is actually one of the best books in Ian Fleming's series. You could argue that this book's incorporation of a doomsday device raised the stakes to an impossibly high level, setting off the unfortunate obsession the film series has with putting the fate of the world on the line, but the novel's tight focus on the mystery aspects of the plot keep it from veering into the outrageous. So yes, it's up to James to save the fate of his country, but Fleming made sure the story came first, not the stakes.
Gala Brand (rechristened Holly Goodhead in the film) is a tad wasted in that she never has the opportunity to do much of consequence. She's basically constantly being saved by James despite the constant assertion that she's a very capable police officer. Still, she's never treated like a silly girl the way Vesper Lynd was and she narrowly avoids becoming the sex object Solitaire was. That definitely represents progress, and it makes her different from the other Bond Girls in the books. Interestingly enough, the James Bond of the novels seems to be a hopeless romantic despite himself in the books. He fell hard for Vesper, he seemed to have feelings for Solitaire, and his heart aches for something more with Gala. Bond is not quite the stone-hearted cad Fleming makes him out to be.
It's a deep shame the film adaptation was so disappointing, because I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
For more on 007’s adventures, or for more reviews, check out my blog's James Bond page. Up next: Diamonds Are Forever. ...more
“In my job ... when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s 'live and let die.'”
Now that we've been introduced to the world“In my job ... when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s 'live and let die.'”
Now that we've been introduced to the world of James Bond, 007, Ian Fleming gets right to the point in the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die. The events of Casino Royale don't seem to have had much of an impact on Bond aside from having a skin graft on his hand to cover the scar a SMERSH agent deliberately carved into place. He's all healed up from his wounds and ready to go and fulfill his new goal of beating down SMERSH wherever possible.
Good thing, because M has a new mission for him and it indirectly involves SMERSH. Mr. Big, head of a vast underground criminal empire based in Harlem, New York City, has been laundering gold coins from a pirate treasure in Jamaica to help finance Soviet espionage (which means SMERSH). If Bond can find out what Mr. Big is up to and put an end to his money laundering, it will kill off one of SMERSH's main sources of funding.
Bond eagerly heads to NYC, where he's greeted with the royal treatment thanks to his CIA buddy Felix Leiter. But while investigating Mr. Big in Harlem, it becomes very clear that Bond and Leiter got more than they bargained for---even with an assist from Mr. Big's gorgeous psychic Solitaire, who turns to them for protection. They end up hightailing it for Florida to check out Mr. Big's distribution center. Except things don't go much better in the Sunshine state: Solitaire is kidnapped and Leiter is brutally maimed and left clinging to life after Mr. Big's goons try to feed him to sharks. So it's up to Bond himself to get to Mr. Big's base of operations in Jamaica, stop his fiendish plot, and rescue the girl.
Live and Let Die is essentially just as fun as Casino Royale, but it definitely feels more dated from a cultural perspective. Ian Fleming makes some positive, forward thinking comments about black people in the course of the book but damn if most of the book isn't accidentally terribly racist. Mr. Big is African American and all of his agents are as well, but Fleming makes a curious assumption that all black people are impressionable enough to fall under Mr. Big's spell because they all must believe in voodoo. According to this book literally every black person must be treated with suspicion because they could become an agent of Mr. Big at the drop of a hat. Fleming is trying to let you know that Mr. Big is scary and powerful enough to force people to bend to his will just by dropping his name, but the implications are troubling.
Solitaire is spared the indignity of Bond's misogynist belief that women are useless in the field from Casino Royale, but she's essentially reduced to a sex object at every turn.
If you can get passed those aspects, Live and Let Die is a fun ride, particularly as an espionage/noir action adventure. In that regard it has a lot to offer: an all-seeing, all-knowing bad guy; exotic locations; dangerous stakes; pirate treasure; and a dash of sex. It's just a little harder to swallow than the first outing.
“History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
Although it was the 21st movie in the series of Bond“History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
Although it was the 21st movie in the series of Bond films, Casino Royale was the very first Bond novel written by Ian Fleming. Appropriately enough, its film adaptation was essentially a reboot of the Bond series with Daniel Craig (you can find a full comparison of the book and movie here), so both versions serve as a sort of introduction to Britain's suavest, deadliest superspy.
007 is sent to bankrupt Le Chiffre, a criminal money man who is on the brink of disaster. You see, he played fast and loose with funds from SMERSH (a Russian criminal organization whose name is a short version of the Russian words for "death to spies") in a scheme to make more money for himself. When the scheme went south, Le Chiffre found himself broke and in debt to an organization you do not want to piss off. Now Le Chiffre has hightailed it to a casino in Royale-les-Eaux to earn SMERSH's money back in a high-stakes baccarat game. If Bond can bankrupt Le Chiffre at the casino, it could force Le Chiffre to help them out as an informant in exchange for protection. 007 is assisted in this mission by Rene Mathis, Felix Leiter, and the devastatingly beautiful Vesper Lynd, who manages to get underneath 007's armor and worm her way into his heart. The stakes only get higher after the dust settles on their high-stakes game as Bond is drawn into a showdown with Le Chiffre and a betrayal from one of his allies comes to light.
Although a card game is the central set piece of Casino Royale, the game itself takes up less than thirty pages of the novel (including 007's helpful explanation of how baccarat works). The rest is jam-packed with action. Leading up to the big game, 007 has to elude the thugs and goons who have marked him as an MI6 agent and want to kill him before he can meet Le Chiffre at the baccarat table. There's even an attempt on his life during the game itself. And while the schemes are a touch overly elaborate, the result is that Casino Royale is a thrilling read. It's a surprisingly solid, suspenseful introduction to James Bond and his world.
On paper Bond is a cold, calculating man whose life is defined by his job. You get to know him far better than any of the other characters in the novel, but even he remains an enigma. You never really get into his head, but in the end it doesn't matter. Sean Connery and Daniel Craig play the character the closest to how he actually appears on the page: a cold-hearted loner who is deadly efficient and ruthlessly pragmatic. He is not very friendly to women, so be prepared for some seriously dated attitudes there. There is, however, an interesting debate on the nature of good and evil and whether or not it is possible to fight evil.
You might think it would be dated, but outside of the technology at his disposal and some deeply misogynist comments (at one point 007 excitedly thinks that sex with Vesper would carry "the tang of rape," which is unsettling to say the least). The characters are paper thin but the action and the detailed descriptions of food, clothing, and cars make Casino Royale a thrilling read. It helps that it's also short enough to read in one sitting if you were so inclined.
"...things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to com"...things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully."
A Little Life is the story of four friends who meet in college. Ostensibly, it follows their friendship throughout the decades that follow, but the truth is two of those friends are peripheral for large swaths of the book. This is really the story of Willem and (especially) Jude. Willem is a sensitive young man from a broken home who wants to be an actor when we first meet him. Jude refuses to reveal his background to his friends, but they know whatever it was it was violent and dark. His legs are in splints that have been screwed into his bones as a result of a vague accident.
The book centers on Jude's story, particularly on (1) how he came to be so injured, and (2) how he deals with, or refuses to deal with, his past as he ages. He mostly refuses to deal with it. Since Willem is his best, most trusted friend, he gets a much larger percentage of time than any other character.
In the beginning the other friends, Malcolm and JB, have more of a part. In those early stretches I was enjoying A Little Life, even if I thought some of the characters--particularly JB--were a touch insufferable. But as the pages go on and JB and Malcolm fade into the background, the narrative becomes stultifying. It becomes apparent very quickly that although he will age, Jude will never want to deal with what happened to him. He will keep running and exhibiting shockingly self destructive behavior. Those around him will meekly tell him to get help, but they won't do anything to force him to get help. As someone who has dealt with abuse, depression, and helped others through tough spots in their own life, I found it infuriating. They'll get mad and make threats about how Jude needs to get help, but he knows very well they won't see the threats through. No one is really going to force him to do anything.
I really struggled with that. Because it's real: that does happen. But it was making me so frustrated. I had to keep reminding myself that I can't force my own experience or my own opinions on the book.
The bigger problem, more legitimate complaint I had with A Little Life is that it's far too long. Yanagihara doesn't get anywhere in a hurry. In many scenes it feels as though she's deliberately taking her time, drawing out the moment to make it last. Sometimes it feels as though she's taking her time to give you more, but to me the 'more' she was giving was never satisfying, never justified the extra pages. If you got into the character's heads a little more, or if something in the elaborate details she was giving revealed something you hadn't known or noticed before, I would love the sprawling, meandering form the narrative takes. Instead, nothing that is revealed is ever surprising--in fact, it tends to be Yanagihara stretching a point she's already made. The further you get into the book the more it feels like you've already ingested everything she has to say, and yet it's going to take so much more time to get to the conclusion. She's basically just poking a bruise.
The far more confounding issue I had with A Little Life is that for all this detail and poking, I never once felt close to any of the characters. Everyone other than Jude and Willem is a cypher anyway, but I always felt distant from Jude and Willem as well. My relationship with them was so dispassionate that I found I could put the book down for several days and not even miss them. After a month of reading this book, I found I still had more than 200 pages to go. That felt so disheartening--not because I was desperate to finish, but because it filled me with dread that this book was never going to end, and I didn't much care what happened anymore. I took it as a sign and put the book down. Out of curiosity, I did peek at the plot summary on Wikipedia, and it sounds as though the next 225 pages were just as insufferable about poking that bruise as the first 500. I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything by not continuing Jude's journey.
A Little Life is startlingly different from the experience I had reading her debut novel, The People in the Trees. The People in the Trees is a quarter as long as A Little Life, but I was compelled to keep reading it--savoring every page. It was also boundlessly creative and felt different. The characters in The People in the Trees were also difficult for me to relate to, but I was so invested in their story that I couldn't bear to put the book down until I was finished. It felt like I had discovered a thrilling new voice in Yanagihara. Now I'm not sure what to think. I will still be curious to follow Yanagihara's career, but not with the same impatience and sense of wonder I had before. It's disappointing.
“Nothing happens in my life. Nothing has to happen, she said, for it to be life.”
By all rights, All My Puny Sorrows should be a bleak, miserable read.“Nothing happens in my life. Nothing has to happen, she said, for it to be life.”
By all rights, All My Puny Sorrows should be a bleak, miserable read. Thanks to Toews, it isn't. This book made me laugh out loud many times. That hasn't happened in a great long while--I can't even remember the last book that made me literally laugh out loud. I guess you have to laugh through your tears sometimes.
"I too a sister had, an only Sister-- She lov'd me dearly, and I doted on her! To her I poured forth all my puny sorrows"
When she was a teenager, Yoli's older sister Elf took on 'All My Puny Sorrows' as her personal brand. Decades later, Yoli uncovers the source of the term in the passage above (within a poem by Coleridge). It's a passage that sums up the relationship between Yoli and Elf, as well as the difficult place Yoli has found herself.
Elf has always been a brilliant girl with an anarchic disregard for rules or structure. She has gained worldwide fame as a concert pianist but nothing has been able to cure the darkness she feels within herself. Following a suicide attempt, Elf finds herself in the psychiatric ward of a hospital under constant watch. But once Elf has made up her mind she will not change it, so she turns to her sister--who has always been there for her--for help. She wants Yoli to help her die. Obviously, Yoli balks at the very notion, but as her sister continues to not get better she must ask herself how you help a loved one who truly wants to die.
Such a bleak premise may understandably scare many readers away, but those who flee are missing out on one of the most darkly funny meditations on love, family, sisterhood, and the dual natures of life and death that has ever been put to the page. And Toews knows of what she writes: her own sister was a celebrated pianist who cut her life short.
There are far too many quotes I could list here to prove what an incredible work this book is. Suffice to say that if you pick it up, bring a pen with you to note them so you can savor them for years to come. And if you do venture into All My Puny Sorrows, odds are you'll be captivated from the very beginning. I find the first six pages in particular to be gorgeous. This book now stands with The Virgin Suicides among my favorite openings for a novel ever.
All My Puny Sorrows is a devastating work (not to mention devastatingly funny), and a beautiful ode to sisterhood. I don't think this book will be leaving me for a long time. It will haunt me for many years in the best possible way.
The Wednesday Wars was an unexpectedly moving delight when I read it. Part of the joy from reading it was that it wasn't like most other books out theThe Wednesday Wars was an unexpectedly moving delight when I read it. Part of the joy from reading it was that it wasn't like most other books out there. It felt new and exciting, and when it went for your tear ducts it really earned the tears.
Unfortunately, Orbiting Jupiter doesn't have any of the same novelty going for it. Schmidt, a two-time Newbery Honor winner (one of those for Wednesday Wars) is still a uniquely affecting writer, but even he can only do so much with a story you feel like you've read many, many times before. You know where things are headed from the moment you get the premise: Jack, an open-minded and good-hearted kid, gets a troubled foster brother named Joseph. Joseph almost killed a teacher, was held in a place called Stone Mountain, and has an infant daughter he has never met.
You pretty much know that Joseph is going to be a much better guy than the world is trying to make him out to be, and if it would only give him a chance he might be able to catch a break. Jack will learn to stand up for his foster brother and try to help him get that chance, but it will be hard because the world is going to continue to be cruel and uncaring. It will be heartwarming and heartbreaking... or it would if this story didn't feel so predictable and cliched. And if it wasn't so slender. At 183 pages, personal growth and tragedy has to happen at a rapid clip. Schmidt is a good enough writer to know not to rush things, and he earns the moments he does get, but nothing really lands quite as well or as hard as it should.
Given how much I adored The Wednesday Wars, this was a disappointment, but I'm not giving up. Wednesday was so bold and original that Schmidt can be forgiven for hewing to the tried-and-true here, but I think I like him best when he's daring to be different.
“All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company.”
Something funny occasionally happens when you finish a book and let some time pass befor“All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company.”
Something funny occasionally happens when you finish a book and let some time pass before you write a review of it. As I was reading Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family I loved it. The only thing that bothered me was the lack of a question mark in the title. Not to seem picky, but even the Alan Shapiro poem the title is derived from has a question mark. Its absence here makes my eyes twitch.
I finished this novel in late November, and we're now in mid-January. Reflecting on the book since I turned the last page, I began to realize that every character in the book spoke in the exact same voice--regardless of their age or background, and this book has many voices with varied ages and backgrounds. Every one of them ultimately sounds the same.
Which made me realize that none of the characters had really resonated with me. As time was passing, their stories were fading from my memory. Worse still, I didn't miss them. They didn't haunt me the way you might think they would considering the novel deals with the aftershocks of an explosion and fire that leaves a woman the sole survivor of her small family. The grief and reflection I had been mesmerized by when I was reading didn't stick around at all. When I think of this book now, it seems flavorless.
But that isn't at all what I thought when I read it. When I read it, I was quietly moved by the way Clegg captured the clumsy fumbling human beings go through in search of connection, and by the ultimate knowledge that all connections are temporary anyway. We can't hold on to them in the end. But it turns out Did You Ever Have a Family moved me not because of the book itself, but in ways it resonated with thoughts that had already haunted me, and which continue to haunt me.
Even as I read it, though, part of me was irritated by the way Clegg keeps teasing out details that you already predict. There aren't as many surprises in this narrative as he thinks there are.
Euphoria is an elegant, heartfelt exploration of love, jealousy, and pride in a wholly unique setting."... the story you know is never the real one."
Euphoria is an elegant, heartfelt exploration of love, jealousy, and pride in a wholly unique setting. Love triangles are nothing new in literature, so the fact that one figures so prominently in Lily King's story could have easily caused it to devolve into a fairly standard affair (no pun intended). King is too intelligent a writer for that, and Euphoria is too carefully crafted.
It takes its inspiration from anthropologist Margaret Mead, but spins her life into an original tale. Here, we meet Nell Stone and her bad boy anthropologist husband Fen after two failures trying to study native tribes in New Guinea. Prior to that, Nell earned great fame after publishing a book about the sexual norms of natives, which shocked the world and made her name (even as it caused more hardcore academics to question the way she opened up her writing to be accessible to a broader audience). Most would feel enormous pressure to follow up that success, but Nell is so in love with the work that she's eager to get back in the field and learn more (the title refers to the sensation she gets when she thinks she has made a connection with the tribe she is studying). Fen, on the other hand, is making that difficult. Already restless and cavalier by nature, he is having a hard time living in his wife's shadow. Nell is trying to find a balance between doing her work and letting Fen have his share of the spotlight, but after their first two ventures back in the field end in failure they both find themselves on the verge of desperation.
Enter Bankson, an anthropologist who has been in the region for two years to study the Kiona tribe. Lonely and desperate himself (he was saved from a suicide attempt by the natives he is studying, who thought he was foolishly swimming with his clothes on to collect stones from the river bottom), Bankson seizes the opportunity to have colleagues nearby and sets up Nell and Fen with a tribe down the river from him.
Inevitably, their lives become entwined and, perhaps even more inevitably, disaster looms over everything that follows. Along the way, King makes strikingly poignant observations about anthropology, language, culture, success, academia, mainstream entertainment, and sexuality. If her segments about love are a touch rote, then, it is imminently forgivable.
The one truly disappointing note, and this is a bit of a nit pick on my part, is that for all the remarkable development and depth King imbues Nell and Bankson with, Fen remains flat and impenetrable. A large part of this is due to the fact that the narrative itself alternates between perspectives that favor Bankson and Nell's points of view (Bankson in first person, Nell in scraps of letters and in third person chapters that emphasize her actions and thoughts). There's a conscious decision on King's part not to do the same for Fen, and it makes him inscrutable. If King's intention was to hinge the plot on his actions being a twist, that's a failure because you pretty much know exactly where the story is going--and that he will be the driving force in getting it there. It's just a shame; we know so much about Bankson and Nell. They have so much depth. Fen, in comparison, is like a cartoon character. The fact that so much of his storyline is left unresolved only deepens the disappointment.
Perhaps the lack of depth from Fen, a critical corner in King's triangle, contributes to the lack of, um euphoria the reader gets despite the striking observations. Still, Euphoria is a magnetic read with some sharp turns that is well worth your time.