I read this through the haze of sleep deprivation and baby blues that comes with the first two weeks of being a new mom. As such, I found the book bot...moreI read this through the haze of sleep deprivation and baby blues that comes with the first two weeks of being a new mom. As such, I found the book both profoundly moving, and palpably, viscerally almost unbearably sad. See is very evocative -- I usually do very poorly with historical fiction, especially set in an era about which I had little a priori knowledge, but I found myself very invested in the characters.(less)
To be fair to Bel Canto, it's probably a 4 star book; however, I came into it with 5-star expectations. Having read Truth and Beauty and seeing the co...moreTo be fair to Bel Canto, it's probably a 4 star book; however, I came into it with 5-star expectations. Having read Truth and Beauty and seeing the combination of grace and brutal honesty with which Patchett depicted herself and Lucy Grealy, I had the highest expectations for her treatment of fictional characters. And, in some cases, she lives up to expectations.
The highlight of the book is clearly Gen, the peon translator, turned by his captivity into essential personnel. The topic of language - who owns which language and what they can do with it - as the supreme power is fascinating and unique and the character is well suited by his theme. His foil, the slightly less multilingual Rubuen - Vice President turned into housekeeper by his captivity is nicely set up and the many conversations between the two really showcase the artificiality of status.
Hosokawa's story is also well done. The trope of important business-person stunned by once in a lifetime event into realizing that there's more to life than work and deciding to live like it counts once it may be too late is a little overdone, but that distracts little from how well Patchett does it.
The terrorists developing rapport with their hostages portion of the plot is by fair the most lauded and perhaps fell a little flat as a result of that. The developing of relationships didn't really feel organic and the terrorists were depicted as relatively sympathetic from the beginning.
However, where the books really falls flat is its female characters. The reader is constantly informed how both Carmen and Roxanne are the most beautiful, smartest, most talented women to ever exist. Every scene staring either of them is filled with male characters perseverating on their beauty. Neither of them have any flaws at all (except maybe an endearing stubbornness.) Roxanne is so beautiful as to sway terrorist organizations. Both of them feel extremely one-dimensional as a result. Music is treated the same way -- it's beautiful and uplifting and world changing. We're never really told why, but instead subjected to the same refrain in every musical scene. As someone who could take or leave music as a whole, and definitely opera in specific, it was teeth-gratingly annoying.(less)
I am NOT the sort of person who reads or watches Westerns. I vaguely knew Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, The OK Corral and "Get out of Dodge" as concepts,...moreI am NOT the sort of person who reads or watches Westerns. I vaguely knew Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, The OK Corral and "Get out of Dodge" as concepts, but I could probably only give you a 50-50 bet on whether they were fictional or not, and I certainly had no clue that they were connected. That the OK Corral was a shootout completely exhausts my a priori knowledge of all things Western.
But, Mary Doria Russell is one of those authors for me. If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, it would probably be The Sparrow, so I wasn't going to let something like a genre get in my way. That was a good move on my part. Doc is filled with rich, vivid characters. None of them are better than they ought to be, but none of them are caricatured lawless villains either. Doc is my favorite - quiet, quick to take insult, but quicker still to lend a helping hand, proud and frail, but simple, virtuous Wyatt and temperamental, brilliant, very rarely tender Kate are also beautifully depicted. To say nothing of a host of supporting characters.
I am, by nature, partial to cleft lip/palate stories, and Russell's description of Holliday's cleft repair and his diction difficulties following is precision embodied. It goes without saying, given that Russell taught anatomy at my own alma mater, that her treatment of historical dentistry leaves nothing to be desired. This is, after all, a Russell novel, so it is meticulous in detail, flawlessly researched, accurate to a T.
Of course, there are original characters, who, of course, include a Jesuit and multi-ethnic characters who challenge our understanding of race and racial relations. These characters flirt with being a little too perfect, especially in light of their historic setting, but overall add to the flavor (shockingly, there is no unlikely Jew of even more unlikely ethnic extraction. I kept waiting for it.)
My only criticism is that, for people like me who come naive to Westerns, the book almost completely omits the OK Corral and the events directly leading up to it. Since it represents everything I will ever know about the genre, probably for the rest of my life, I would have liked Russell's take on that central piece of the Doc Holliday mythos. Nonetheless, it is by far the best book I have read that heavily features Nevadan prostitutes this month (*cough* The Lonely Polygamist *cough*_(less)
I tend not to rest my estimation of the quality of a book on unsavory elements included, understanding that violence is sometimes necessary for realis...moreI tend not to rest my estimation of the quality of a book on unsavory elements included, understanding that violence is sometimes necessary for realism, plot, theme or character development. However, in this case, Fergus abandoned realism and character integrity early on, stretching his historic setting with unrealistic and misplaced values (which I hesitate to call feminism, for reasons that I'll get to.) Therefore, there is little excuse for the repeated sexual assault scenes, especially given that Fergus seemed to expect the reader to casually forgive the assailants as easily as his protagonists did. (So easily that the narrator, who was expected to be a reliable, sympathetic narrator, refers to the rape of another character as "nonconsensual" in scare quotes.)
Similarly, there is little excuse for Fergus' rampant use of the N-word. It's supposed to be a historic piece? Thanks, I got that without the casual slurs. I don't agree with censoring (or self-censoring) literature, but if you're going to be throwing around loaded words/scenarios, do it for a reason.
I'm having trouble coming to terms with this book. Add it on the pile of my ambivalence about Michael Chabon. I think the thing that bugs me the most...moreI'm having trouble coming to terms with this book. Add it on the pile of my ambivalence about Michael Chabon. I think the thing that bugs me the most is the potential for greatness here.
An aging Sherlock Holmes is coming to terms with the fact that he is no longer in his prime and preparing himself for death and battling senility? Awesome, awesome premise. As a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, I usually refuse to touch modern interpretations, because I don't trust authors to give me what Conan Doyle did to make Holmes so compelling. On this aspect, Chabon mostly delivers: he captures Holmes' greatness in his dedication and flashes of brillance and tempers it with his moodiness and self-destructiveness. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Holmes mystery, though, failing in the complete lack of explanation of how Holmes deduces anything (and really, failing as a compelling mystery all over.) Holmes is aging, his brain isn't what it used to be, don't tell us that, show us by having Holmes try his famous Holmes deduction. Show us him missing clues, or thinking slowly, or coming to the wrong conclusions. It's an insanely original, compelling idea, that mostly only reaches it's full potential when Holmes reflects on a post-Blitz London with anger that London still exists in the post-Holmes area and that the Blitz and WWI have allowed it to change and grow into something else. I love the idea of what happens to the characters we love when they move past what they once were.
I think the big reason that this book fails is that while Chabon is good at many things, the novella is not an ideal format. His books become compelling over time, as you become more enmeshed with the characters. Pages give his language room to proliferate and his sprawling sentences feel less suffocating in longer books. There are so many ideas here, ripe for the picking. I can't possible imaging saying to myself "I have an idea for a book that's about an aging Holmes, in WWII, meeting a mute orphan, who will act as his foil, who has a parrot, who knows secret numbers, which may be the key to German codes, prompting discussion of the lengths one will go for national loyalty and exploring the tension between commitment to country and commitment to Jewish orphaned refuges in the middle of the holocaust, while also discussing the morally grey characters who form this boy's foster family and I want this story to be an exemplar of the modern mystery novel. That sounds like it can be done in 170 pages!" Everything loses in the brevity.
What really bothers me is that in the author's note, Chabon writes about the respect he has for "genre novels" and that he wants people who normally don't read genre to pick up this book and it to make them want to go back and read more mysteries. It's insulting to authors who frequently write genre. I agree that genre can be the most compelling form of fiction; it's freed from constraints; it can explore the worlds of possibilities and use that to reflect on the way our world is. This is not a great genre novel, and although Chabon has been a great friend to the melding of genre and literature in Kavalier and Clay (superhero/comic book) and Yiddish Policeman's Union (a much better version of mystery/noir), he should have left this one to the mystery writers.(less)
This book creeped up on me. It started slow and I kept dropping it to read something else. Then it gradually became mind-blowingly terrific. Chabon us...moreThis book creeped up on me. It started slow and I kept dropping it to read something else. Then it gradually became mind-blowingly terrific. Chabon uses language in a way that is approachable, witty and literate. It's rare to find a book that is both fun and as full of imagery and symbolism as Kavalier and Clay. The 630 pages are filled with Chabon's unique voice on reality, escapism, narrative, imagination and family.
Of course, my typical Chabon comments still stand -- after reading a Chabon novel, I always feel as if it was written just for me to address things uniquely about my life. And I feel like Chabon is one of my closest friends, whom I know better than anyone else in the world. The universal popularity of Kavalier and Clay should disabuse me of these notions, but this is truly Chabon's unique gift.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an unparalleled work.(less)
I was really excited about Blackout: a new Connie Willis novel set in the Doomsday Book/To Say Nothing of the Dog world, focused on Willis' favorite p...moreI was really excited about Blackout: a new Connie Willis novel set in the Doomsday Book/To Say Nothing of the Dog world, focused on Willis' favorite period in history: the Blitz.
And Blackout is good. It focuses on the stories of three main historians as they travel to different parts of England during 1940 and encounter time travel hitches. Along the way, there are typical Willis flares -- cute, yet annoying children; lovable & brave young women with lots of pluck; comedies of errors and confused details; despair redeemed only by having friends to cling to. Her characters are lovable, her comedy is gold, her prose is affecting. It is pure Willis.
And yet. It feels sacrilegious, and maybe I'll go back and revise the three stars once All Clear comes out, but I just didn't love Blackout. The pacing felt a little slow, like I was reading the same day in the life over and over. I resent having to buy two books to get one story and Blackout ended just as it was getting to the point in the plot that I wanted to read. The whole thing feels like a historical set up for a great scifi story, rather than the story itself. (less)
This was one of those books that I wanted to love. It was a book about how narrative shapes one's identity and the identities that are forced upon us...moreThis was one of those books that I wanted to love. It was a book about how narrative shapes one's identity and the identities that are forced upon us to perform, the identities we envision for ourselves and the distance between these idealized selves and the way in which we're perceived. Or, at least that was the book I wanted it to be.
In reality, this book was more like an Austen novel: focused on British women and their prospects. Which, I mean, is fine, if you like that sort of thing.
I guess I'm also not enough of a historical fiction lover. The creepiness with which Charles Dodgson was portrayed made my skin crawl. I half wanted to shake the book and say: "You know he was a real person, right? You can't just make up whatever you want about him." I think the way that Dodgson (and JM Barie) tend to be portrayed in retrospective fictional pieces as sketchy pedophiles says a lot of really negative things about our society and without getting into a feminist rant, it was hard to read this book without internally getting into a snit over it.(less)
I was kind of torn by this book. I had low expectations from the beginning -- I was discomfited by the dialect, my northern-identity politicking-liber...moreI was kind of torn by this book. I had low expectations from the beginning -- I was discomfited by the dialect, my northern-identity politicking-liberal arts sensitivities were a little appalled at a white woman writing this book and Skeeter read like an obvious self-insertion character.
That being said, I warmed up quickly. Stockett has clearly done a lot of research, in addition to having grown up in Mississippi with a maid. She is honest, at time brutally so, without taking a clear side. She depicts white people who do terrible things while being well-meaning, white people who have a lot of ingrained racism and are striving to be better and those who aren't. She has white characters who have grown up in poorer circumstances and are trying to fit in. She has African-American characters who pander to their white employers and those who hold their ground and those who have their own ingrained notions. My only complaint from a character development stand point is the completely villainous portrayal of Hilly -- she's easy to hate in a novel that's supposed to be about realistic people in a toxic setting.
Oh dear. I have casually enjoyed Dan Brown's other tomes; however, The Lost Symbol didn't even have that brain candy charm. Tense scenes were frequent...moreOh dear. I have casually enjoyed Dan Brown's other tomes; however, The Lost Symbol didn't even have that brain candy charm. Tense scenes were frequently interrupted by several page long asides of dubious relevance. The so-called science was hilariously awful and the end of the book suspense revolved in part around the fear that someone would exsanguinate through a "medical needle" placed in a vein in the antecubital fossa (i.e. venipuncture.) Luckily, that part was so ill-paced that the character was saved before I had to waste too much time screaming about how infeasible it was to be killed by an IV.
The core plot -- many important men in Washington are Free Masons, a group that has left hidden symbols all over Washington DC and celebrates human life -- was far less intriguing than Brown's other books.
Overall -- this was in SORE need of an editor and a fact checker.(less)
The problem sometimes is that I fall so in love with a title, that the book cannot possibly compare. This is one of those books. It was good - a cute...moreThe problem sometimes is that I fall so in love with a title, that the book cannot possibly compare. This is one of those books. It was good - a cute YA book about dealing with a sibling with severe autism. Alcatraz loosely features as a supporting character, mostly in cameo.(less)
I expected the book to come as billed: "An intricately intertwined set of narratives hiding a shocking family mystery." Instead it was 1. Snippets of...moreI expected the book to come as billed: "An intricately intertwined set of narratives hiding a shocking family mystery." Instead it was 1. Snippets of an interesting science fiction story, told by unknown lovers, padded with 2. An excruciating story of two young, insipid, girls and their coming of age. The beginning of the lives of the girls was interesting to develop setting and character, and their adulthood (the end of the time described in this part) was predictable, but at least relevant. However, for the middle 300 pages, this becomes an interminably long day-by-day description of everything that they ate and wore. In addition, because these girls are so completely insipid we are treated to the details of how they hate absolutely everything and aspire to nothing, which is a little less than endearing. However, this is still not the most insufferable of the three parts, because the remainder of the book is 3. The nominal framing device. Less a story on its own and more to remind us how "clever" Atwood is in her prose style, this framing device seems to consist of determining how many ways the narrator can find to remind us that she's old and her heart bothers her. She goes to eat donuts. She reads the graffiti on bathroom stalls. She has chest pain, a lot. She tries to do her laundry. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Even without much in the way of plot (that which there is having been telegraphed 300 pages in advance), this book could have had literary merit if the characters had been at all interesting. But instead Laura and Iris are the most frustrating characters known to my literary world. For example, Iris complains bitterly about getting married away to a rich man, for which one may have sympathy, had she not spent the proceeding 100 pages explaining how she wanted to be rich and she expected to marry money to get there. Laura is flighty and "spiritual," and disobedient, in such ways as to be maximally irritating but accomplish nothing. However, if Laura ever directly told anyone anything there wouldn't really be a book, so there is that.
The other most frustrating part of this book is the "unknown lovers" framing device for the Blind Assassin story. It is obvious to the reader who the unknown lovers are; however the characterization in this segment is so drastically different from that of the others (in that the female protagonist of this section, unlike every other female character in this book, has opinions, expresses them and acts on her will.) It is unclear whether this is done in a futile attempt to obscure the identity of the unknown lovers, or because the story is being told by an unreliable narrator (which makes little sense, given the final identity.)
Addendum, 12/11 - having finished Oryx & Crake it feels nothing short of criminal that Margaret Atwood spent time writing this book when she is clearly capable of so much more. (less)
A fascinating book. More rich and memorable than a lifetime of history textbooks. Exquisitely researched down to the last details.
Two things keep Drea...moreA fascinating book. More rich and memorable than a lifetime of history textbooks. Exquisitely researched down to the last details.
Two things keep Dreamers of the Day from joining Russell's other books among my absolute favorites -- 1) Agnes Shanklin often seems a mere vessel to convey historical facts and opinions on colonization decisions. The main character is more properly T.E. Lawrence. By necessity, historical fiction contains true historical figures, and Russell has clearly done her homework, never misattributing opinions. Nevertheless, Lawrence and other historical figures (Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill and others) in starring roles makes the book feel less like a novel and more like a fictionalized historical text.
2) The ending was superfluous, silly and totally detracted from the tone of the book.(less)
Although at times the narrative ran dry (and certainly much longer than necessary). The characters were slightly flat and the most compelling (and piv...moreAlthough at times the narrative ran dry (and certainly much longer than necessary). The characters were slightly flat and the most compelling (and pivotal) characters were left out except for brief cameos (Dilys Kite and Will Burroughs). However, Ghostwatch was redeemed by its excellent, well-researched historical asides. Without question, the several pages devoted to the history of European glassmaking and the techniques necessary for glassware were the strongest and most interesting in the book. The appendices containing Newton's notes on how to do everything from mix a dye appropriate for painting dead bodies to how to catch fish should not be missed.
Perhaps the books would have been better served if the speculation plot and last-minute conspiracy were removed and we were left with a solid historical exploration of Newton and his contemporary Cambridge. Nevertheless, Ghostwatch was entertaining and certainly piqued my interest. (less)