So, let's start off by being fair: 1) I would never had even looked twice at this book had it not been by Michael Chabon. 2) I had idly wondered, in m...moreSo, let's start off by being fair: 1) I would never had even looked twice at this book had it not been by Michael Chabon. 2) I had idly wondered, in my revery at The Yiddish Policemen's Union how people who weren't me and didn't share my passions reacted to the book. And now I have an answer. This book is ostensibly about lay midwives, jazz music and blaxploitation films. I can't quite figure out how to put how I feel about lay midwives into a sentence that is polite enough for social media and does not horribly side track this review, so let's let that suffice. I certainly don't hate music, but I'm just not one of those people who *gets* music, you know? Like, I wish I did and I respect people who are into music, but Chabon goes on and on about a piece, or whatever, and my eyes glaze and I skip several paragraphs and he's still going on and I have no idea what he's talking about, and if we're truly being honest here (because hey, why not?) I really don't know why anyone would buy a record in 2014 anyway so the fact that there are COMPETING record stores seems ridiculously anachronistic, but again, I don't *get* music, so what do I know? And finally, I've never had an opinion on blaxploitation films (although I strongly recommend going down the rabbit hole and wikipedia-ing blaxploitation, and that finding the legions of other subgenres ending in -ploitation.) So the idea that I would read and enjoy a book about lay midwives, jazz and blaxploitation was already on flimsy ground. And let me also say, that I certainly don't believe that there are certain topics that are verboten based on race or sex or religion. But then, let's pretend to ourselves for a second that we're Michael Chabon, and we're famous for writing books about bi-curious geeky Jewish boys and we start a book about a bi-curious geeky Jewish boy, who happens to be into Jazz and then we end up also writing about blaxploitation and then before you know it, there are a couple of Black characters and then all of a sudden you're knee-deep in racial tension. So there's a few of things you can do: you could back out until you're back on safe territory; you can do a lot of researching or you can decide to forge ahead, gunsblazing, and write about racial relations. Chabon clearly decided to do that latter, and while I will continue to sing his praises for writing uncomfortable truths and borderline offensively accurate portrayals of the Jewish community, as a Jewish woman reading a book by a Jewish author, I was pretty unsettled by him (attempting to) do the same with the African American community. And intersectionality was definitely problematic: in an entire book on Jewish-Back relations there were two female Black characters: An afro-touting, impossibly skinny, impossibly sexy, aged sex symbol/film star and a perpetually hungry, perpetually angry, perpetually pregnant woman. Not that the Black men were portrayed that much better: they inevitably abandoned their children and were to a one portrayed as violent, cheating and irresponsible. Also, his conclusion seemed to be that White people (of whom there are no non-Jews in the book) and Black people are too different and want things that are too different and any partnership, or indeed real friendship is doomed to fail.
In conclusion, if this had just been a book about privileged, Jewish, Julius Jaffe, who writes Lovecraftian poetry, and his questionably unrequited love for Titus Joyner, obsessed with Blaxploitation and trying to come in to his own after a troubled childhood, and it was done respectfully, without stereotypes and the other 95% were jettisoned, I would have read the heck out of it. As was, an extremely poor showing by one of my favorite authors.(less)
This was an unexpected delight. The love story of a man, Maxon, who uses pseudocode to define his verbal and emotional responses to the world and his...moreThis was an unexpected delight. The love story of a man, Maxon, who uses pseudocode to define his verbal and emotional responses to the world and his wife, Sunny, born with complete alopecia in Burma. The real heart of the novel is the tension between Sunny's desire to fit in with the world as it is, and hide her baldness, as a metaphor for the things that make us different from others, coming to terms with wanting to be the hero of a world of one's own making, with those who are different from us being the outsiders.
The writing is gorgeous. The story beneath the story, of Maxon going to help colonize the moon is interesting and numerous backstories flesh out both characters as full, flawed people, not just subject to the plot. (less)
I had trouble getting into this book - I picked it up and read a page or two and then abandoned it more times than I can count. But, all of a sudden,...moreI had trouble getting into this book - I picked it up and read a page or two and then abandoned it more times than I can count. But, all of a sudden, by about page 20 it was compulsive reading.
Each of the three main characters, Tony, Roz and Charis teeters on the edge of being a cliche, and the contrast between the three of them pushes them further into familiar territory; however, each of them is written so realistically that I forgave the slightly worn feeling of the tropes.
Each character gets a story in three parts - childhood, emerging adulthood and maturity with Zenia a constant, toxic presence; a measuring stick, by which growth is charted. (less)
The almost melodious writing style of Ann Patchett is, of course, this book's best feature. And, as I am coming to understand is typical Patchett, the...moreThe almost melodious writing style of Ann Patchett is, of course, this book's best feature. And, as I am coming to understand is typical Patchett, the story before the story truly brought me in: a stolen Virgin Mary statue, a question of what it means to be family, rife with sibling rivalry, single parenting and trans-racial adoption. That was a story that was full of potential.
And I really liked huge chunks of Run, but most of it felt just like that -- palpable potential resting underneath: the woman who claimed to be the birth mother, and was she or was she just a groupie and the creepy, loving way she stalked her biologic sons. The saintly, dying Catholic priest uncle, and the did he or didn't he actually have the power to heal the sick. The forgotten mayor of Boston, fading into obscurity, trying to live by proxy through his sons. The prodigal son, returned home, a murderer and a thief, but possibly a modern Robin Hood, with a heart of gold and a knack for saving children. The problem is that by shifting around between all of these stories, none of them were really ever given an opportunity to come into their own.
The ending came too quickly and, as I'm also beginning to realize is typical Patchett, with a completely unnecessary time jump that left way too much unexplored. I would read the heck out of a story about an ichthyologist turned doctor turned ichthyologist (goodness knows I'm one quarter-life crisis away from writing an autobiography about the topic) and Patchett played with a lot of interesting concepts about why people go into medicine in specific, and careers as a chance of penance in general, but it A) had nothing to do with the first 300 pages and B) she didn't exactly do the topic justice in the 10 pages she had to deal with it. It added little to the book.
I'm giving Ann Patchett's fiction one more chance before I resign myself to the idea that it was truly Lucy Grealy who made Truth & Beauty come alive. (less)
This is a book that I would have absolutely loved as a high school student. I wished I were a high school student while I was reading it. Digesting it...moreThis is a book that I would have absolutely loved as a high school student. I wished I were a high school student while I was reading it. Digesting it in huge chunks at a time. Hanging out in the study hall area before school, debating and quoting and dissecting with four or five other nerds who were reading it simultaneously. (That's how I've read most of the science fiction that I've really loved in my life. It's the best way to do it.)
The problem with classic science fiction is that science fiction is a genre that eats it own and constantly regenerates ideas. So was Neal Stephenson's Anathem a complete homage? Yes, in many important ways. And certainly, it was influenced by Canticle, which proceeded it by 30+ years. But I read Anathem first, so Canticle comes off looking the derivative one. I feel bad, because I know it's historically inaccurate, but I'm just kind of over post-apocalyptic-humanity-is-doomed-to-repeat-its-own-mistakes-and-perpetually-destroy-itself.
There were a few tropes I loved - most notably the dilemma of is a species technologically generated by humans to replicate humans less than human? However, that was really only considered for a sentence or two. (less)
I'm still mulling over exactly how I feel about this book. It's very, very rare for a book to ever make progress from my "partially read" shelf to my...moreI'm still mulling over exactly how I feel about this book. It's very, very rare for a book to ever make progress from my "partially read" shelf to my "read" shelf. I'm still a little shocked that I actually read this book. I meant to just make another college try at reading it, so that I could reshelve it without guilt. Instead, I found myself 50 pages in, than 100, than 300.
I think part of the reason that I hadn't gotten very far in this book before is that I picked it up knowing nearly nothing about it. Being a big fan of How to Buy a Love of Reading and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I anticipated it to be another meta-book. I was extremely disappointed to open it and realize that it was a holocaust book.
You see, I spent much of my childhood haunted by the specter of the holocaust. My maternal grandparents are concentration camp survivors, and it felt like it was the only thing that my grandparents ever talked about. Every day in Hebrew school and day camp and overnight camp seemed to be Holocaust day. I think every fiction book my mother has ever read, and certainly every book she has sent to me unsolicited has been about the Holocaust. I think I've read nearly every Holocaust book every written, and the only one to date that I've liked has been A Thread of Grace To say I am burned out on the Holocaust is a major understatement. And, more importantly, I was extremely skeptical that there is anything new to say about the Holocaust that hasn't been said already.
But once I actually got into The Book Thief, it was gripping. Liesel was so vulnerable in the beginning, Hans was so warm and, I figured, at least it's about communists, not Jews. And then I got into Hans teaching Liesel to read and the beauty of those stark, midnight scenes, illuminated only by paternal love and the desire to read was so beautiful written, and the choice of the Gravedigger's Handbook both poignant and hilarious.
Ultimately, what kept me reading was the characters. There's not a single character in the book who is forgetful. And far from being caricatures, all of the characters are well-rounding, with flaws and virtues and react appropriately to situations and change. Perhaps my favorites are the damaged, uncertain mayor's wife and the coarse, prickly, but loving Rosa.
The imagery of words is heavy-handed, and often it feels like Zusak is screaming "I'm using imagery here! Look at me!" That being said, the animation of words as a concept is fascinating, and a powerful thread linking the book together. Words fly out of people's mouths, fall heavily and a thousand other movements.
Much has been written about death as a narrator, but to me, it felt like a minor part of the novel. It certainly was not overdone: death barely made an appearance in the first 300 pages. By the time he did, it added a nice foreshadowing and helped contextualize the activity within a very small community within the broader setting of world war II. (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'm a Michael Cunningham fan girl. It's impossible for me to be unbiased about anything Michael Cunningham writes. I have a sneaking suspicion that I...moreI'm a Michael Cunningham fan girl. It's impossible for me to be unbiased about anything Michael Cunningham writes. I have a sneaking suspicion that I have some amount of cognitive dissonance about By Nightfall - a book that I've wanted for over a year; that I picked up and lingered over every time I was in a bookstore; that I scoured every used bookstore for; that I finally paid full price in a physical bookstore for a new copy because I wanted it that badly (paperback; I haven't lost my mind); that I derailed a vacation for in order to see Cunningham speak about at the national book fair. So, I'm a little obsessed. And I have a suspicion that I read the book that I wanted to read, rather than the book Cunningham wrote.
I loved the introspective pieces of this book. The interstitial portions where characters ordered coffee and went on train rides were Cunningham at his best - he describes the mundanity of the human condition in a way that is both honest and profound and is completely unparalleled.
I loved the concepts in this book - that we, as humans, are in love with beauty, in love with art, in love with the profound and constantly disappointed in the inability of reality to produce concrete things that live up to the expectations in our imaginations. That we cultivate the relationships that exist in our life for their symbolism, and for their reflection on ourselves and for the concepts that they engender moreso than for the actually people in them. That the people we are when we are honestly alone -- mentally, physically alone -- is not ever the person that we can be to others.
I did not love the actual plot of this book. I was bored, rather than enthralled by Mizzy. I felt that at times, the symbolism was too on the nose (seriously, a character named "The Mistake") and other times the mundanity was, well, mundane. Perhaps those feelings are apropos, given the context -- Cunningham is one of the artists he describes, striving to find beauty, to unsettle, to provoke and coming up just a little short.(less)
I was totally and completely spoiled about this book (stupid movie previews), but that didn't prevent it from being one of the best books I've ever re...moreI was totally and completely spoiled about this book (stupid movie previews), but that didn't prevent it from being one of the best books I've ever read.
At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about the narrative voice. Kath, the narrator, relays her story in a roughly chronological order, with many tangents and anecdotes. But over time, it builds on itself and becomes the poignant reflections of someone who is facing her own mortality and has also lost everyone and every place that meant anything to her living through her memories. There are several times that Kath reflects on situations that, despite the sadness or finality, took on a closeness and levity that is only possible in the types of friendships where you can simply have wandering conversations about anything. It is clear that Kath is speaking to a reader who is that kind of friend.
The larger plot is fascinating -- Ishiguro has several things to say about mortality, what we are willing to compromise (ethically) to further ourselves, the difference between faith and curiousity, and what it means to be a person and to be a part of the human condition. That, in and of itself was worth reading, but the book truly shines by being about a sincere depiction of one woman's life and personality within this larger world. You end up caring at least as much about Kath, Ruth and Tommy and their arguments, cassette tapes and classes as the big picture.
It is on the relationship level that Ishiguro shines. The friendships are intricate, completely necessary for the characters and extremely complex. Each character has their own flaws and deals (and doesn't deal) with them in various ways as they come of age. (less)
Every other Michael Chabon novel that I have read has started out so slow that I've abandoned it for months at a time, but ultimately has been profoun...moreEvery other Michael Chabon novel that I have read has started out so slow that I've abandoned it for months at a time, but ultimately has been profound and moving and made me feel like I have a place in the universe. Wonder Boys did the opposite. Despite it's easy readability, Wonder Boys made me feel hated, like the world for which it's written or is found funny is a world that is antithetical to people like me.
About a quarter of the way through, I realized that I'd seen and hated the movie. That added to the feel of the novel, to be honest -- this is a novel about people using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate the sort of depression that comes not from any sort of psychopathology, but rather the reasonable self-loathing if you're the sort of dick to do idiotic things while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Not surprisingly, this becomes a downward spiral of totally unsympathetic assholes continuing to do idiotic things then self-medicate further, then become more of a self-absorbed asshole who does even more idiotic things. I read the book with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach, anticipating how things could possibly get even worse. Knowing the specific form the devolution takes from watching the movie added to the ambiance, so to speak.
So why two stars? The second star comes entirely from a Passover seder scene that is laugh-out-loud funny. Fights over what to put in the second seder plate space for bitter herbs (or even how to pronounce "Chazeret") are reminiscent to every Jewish home and also to what I love about most Chabon novels. It was like a breath of fresh air (before that, too, became another drug-using, drunk-driving, pet-killing rampage)(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)
Reading The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, my overwhelming feeling was how very Holmesian the book felt. Each chapter dealt with a different mystery (...moreReading The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, my overwhelming feeling was how very Holmesian the book felt. Each chapter dealt with a different mystery (excepting the earliest chapters, which instead were Precious' back story.) However, the whole book was in chronological order and themes and techniques that occurred earlier would recur in later stories -- very evocative of Doyle's classic mystery works.
So the layout, was an initial draw for me. What kept me reading was the theme; most of the mysteries in this installation revolve around the relationships between women and men -- dating, affairs, familial relationships, etc. McCall Smith paints Precious as somewhat of a feminist (a "modern woman"), while contrasting her with the mores of the more traditional people in her town. At times, I felt that the narrative swung the other way -- depicting men as scoundrels and cheaters, which I felt was unnecessary.
Much has been made of McCall Smith's portrayal of Botswana, and this is where the book truly shines. I had no small amount of trepidation about reading a book with an African female protaganist written by a white man, but it turned out to be unfounded. McCall Smith depicts Botswana aptly, with no hint of Orientalism. It is clear from the outset that McCall Smith loves Subsaharan Africa, and his portrayal of such is fair, not veering into noble savages on one extreme, or war-torn, abject poverty on the other. In addition, McCall Smith takes care to show the reader Botswana itself, with the politics and history, rather than a generic "Africa" setting. This delicacy and honesty is what truly promotes the book from a three star rating to a four.(less)
The first thing I noticed about this book was how beautiful it was. But it is a truly gorgeous book -- matte spring green cover, a women in mosiacs, a...moreThe first thing I noticed about this book was how beautiful it was. But it is a truly gorgeous book -- matte spring green cover, a women in mosiacs, and it smelled exactly like a treasured, well-made & well-loved book does. The matte cover is a pleasure to hold and touch.
Yes, it's amazingly petty, but the multisensory experience was apropos for a book that is so immersive. Watrous' detailed characters, evocative prose & well-researched setting left the mark of a truly good book -- when my reading was interrupted, I would look up stunned to find myself not in Japan. Characters are certainly a highlight of the book -- memorable, but not caricatures.
Watrous denies that it is a memoir, but it clearly draws from autobiographical influences, from the physical description of Marina to her name (Marina v. Malena) and the location & occupation in Japan. In the P.S. interviews included in this copy, Watrous states that this If You Follow Me is not the story of her life, because lives do not have plots. Honestly, that's not much of an argument; If You Follow Me has little in the way of traditional plot, although it does have narrative arcs. Instead, the novel is comprised predominately of linked incidents. This adds to the charm & uniqueness of the novel. The lack of cookie cutter rising action, climax, falling action, or even central plot is what helps If You Follow Me be so atmospheric. Marina's embarrassment is palpable because the reader knows what it's like to be so acutely embarrassed and unable to get over it, despite knowing that it will pass. The narrative arcs keep it from feeling like just a "day in the life," and add a sense of completion at the end of the novel. The combination of the two techniques is a terrific blend.
Language is clearly another strength of Watrous -- the English, both broken and fluent, is clever. Watrous uses her characters who do not speak English fluently as an excuse to invite phrases and use words in novel ways. She uses Japanese to express constructs not possible in English. (less)
An extremely engaging read about the defenses that we have to protect us when dealing with others. It is ultimately about each person's condition -- t...moreAn extremely engaging read about the defenses that we have to protect us when dealing with others. It is ultimately about each person's condition -- the bits of them that keep them from being completely fulfilled and the fundamental weaknesses that define personalities.
Simultaneous to the extremely moving emotional story is an extremely well-researched scientific one. In my career I have met several girls & women with Turner's syndrome & every bit of Gwen's story rang true. Similarly, I have met several scientists and doctors & the personalities of Billy and Frank and the details of their professional lives down to the minutia was done sincerely. Each character is well-rounded, likeable, flawed and ultimately believable, which is the true strength of the novel.(less)
I will try to find the words to fully capture the love that I have for "Cutting for Stone." I have kept Verghese on my list of clinical superheroes ev...moreI will try to find the words to fully capture the love that I have for "Cutting for Stone." I have kept Verghese on my list of clinical superheroes ever since I read his memoir, "In My Own Country;" however, I had been hesitant to read "Cutting for Stone" because, in my experience, physician penned memoirs lead only to disappointment. Verghese; however, is as much a master writer as he is a master clinician. Although "Cutting for Stone" is a medical story (highlights include attribution to his characters the first living donor liver transplant, the discovery of caffeine for apnea of prematurity and others), it is not foremost a story about medicine. Instead it is an semi-coming of age epic about how people form connections to each other, push others away in the pursuit of perfection and ultimately about self-actualization through realization of human bond.
Despite such lofty ambitions, Verghese never lets idealism or heavy-handedness overpower the fact that "Cutting for Stone" is indeed a novel. His characters shine - each individuals, each with amazing strengths - the cunning Ghosh, the brilliant, fierce Hema, the sharp, quick-witted Genet and the genius but alien Shiva and the loyal, logical Marion - his language is evocative and beautiful and his settings are picture-perfectly described.
A review of "Cutting for Stone" would be incomplete without at least a glancing mention of it's treatment of medical education. What struck me the most was Verghese's characterization of the martyrdom that residency entails as being a defense mechanism. His depiction of the selflessness with which residents treat patients as being a form of indulgence was a little uncomfortably honest. That being said, what "Cutting for Stone" will be exalted for in years to come is the decency with which it treats international medicine graduates. The treatment of such graduates by American medical students is borderline racist, with training programs being judged harshly on the number of such trainees enrolled. It is common for IMGs to be treated with disdain, and Verghese's candor in describing the differences that they experience when they train compared to the training environment faced by American graduates will not soon be forgotten.(less)
Richard Powers' writing prowess is a delight. So while I have complaints that strike to the heart of the novel, they seemed trivial in the face of the...moreRichard Powers' writing prowess is a delight. So while I have complaints that strike to the heart of the novel, they seemed trivial in the face of the most powerful prose I've read in a long time. Generosity is one of the tightest novels I've ever read. Every sentence is honed to perfection - imagery, flow, scanning, and purpose in the overall story. His commentary is both timely on the matters of genetic engineering, the growing expanse of the internet and culture globalization and timeless on the matters of what it truly means to be happy and what we should be searching for in life, any way. The research is also impeccable, down to the percentage of the human genome that is patented as of his writing.
The flaws? The first is the title, and overall the theme of "generosity" - I know that Powers is using it for the wordplay potential, in that Genetics and Generosity share a Latin root; however, Congeniality might be a better bang for the same pun-based buck. Nowhere does he show that Thassa is generous, despite her label of "Miss Generosity." In fact, the primary flaw is that he does not really show Thassa, the congenitally happy woman, to be much of anything at all. So while other characters run about fawning over her, the reader is still struggling to "get it."
In a lesser writers hands, these flaws would be fatal. In Powers' case it's merely an annoyance, in an otherwise superb novel.(less)
Huh. I think I may have read this too close to The Robber Bride to properly appreciate it. Both books have women carefully selected to contrast each o...moreHuh. I think I may have read this too close to The Robber Bride to properly appreciate it. Both books have women carefully selected to contrast each other. Both focus on their childhood, their adolescence and then their adulthood, starting with adulthood then going back to childhood and working their way forward. Both grapple with dark themes and child abuse. In contrast, Two Girls, Fat and Thin has beautifully vivid writing, particularly in the chapters narrated by Dorothy where her imagination roams free, but less substantial characterization. (less)