Don't get me wrong. This was very amusing fluff, skillfully executed. Frayn is, after all, the author of "Noises Off", so his chops for farce are indi...moreDon't get me wrong. This was very amusing fluff, skillfully executed. Frayn is, after all, the author of "Noises Off", so his chops for farce are indisputable. But farce is like souffle - it's fun at the time, but you'll have forgotten it by the next day. Other than the deus ex machina at the end, the story in "Skios" unfolded along completely predictable lines. Nothing wrong with that -- I think part of the pleasure in reading this kind of story is seeing how well the author acquits himself within the relatively rigid conventions of the genre and Frayn does an admirable job.
So this would be an excellent book for the beach, or for the plane. If you are new to Frayn, however, I would suggest starting with "Headlong", a much funnier and more disturbing book.(less)
I can't quite justify a fifth star, because there is something about Grossman's writing that is a little too arch for my liking, and the pacing was a...moreI can't quite justify a fifth star, because there is something about Grossman's writing that is a little too arch for my liking, and the pacing was a little off, but this was a terrifically strong followup to "The Magicians". It had the same grab-you-and-keep-you-reading-half-the-night power, and a much better story, one that raised the stakes and actually made you care about what happened to the characters. This one is an unabashed quest story, and though Fillory (Grossman's version of Narnia) is still a bit too thinly drawn to be particularly interesting, the parallel accounts of Quentin's ultimate maturing and loss, and of Julia's backstory, were gripping and satisfyingly worked out. I disagree with the reviews that found this less satisfying than its predecessor - I thought it was a much better story. In the "The Magicians", sometimes it seemed as if Grossman was just interested in satirizing the tropes of the Hogwarts/Narnia genre; "The Magician King" is a more sure-footed work, more original and ultimately more satisfying.
Sometimes one's experience of reading a book can be marred by excessive hype, and I worried that this might not live up to the expectations created by...moreSometimes one's experience of reading a book can be marred by excessive hype, and I worried that this might not live up to the expectations created by Jonathan Franzen's idolatrous introduction. Though the book's portrait of the cracks in a foundering marriage between two Brooklyn hipsters (well, late 1960s hipsters) didn't resonate with me nearly quite as deeply as it obviously did with Franzen, it was pretty impressive. As the story opens, the privileged contentment of Otto and Sophie is broken when she is badly bitten while feeding a stray cat. This seemingly trivial incident triggers a series of events that shatters the couple's complacency and leaves the stability of their marriage in question.
Fox tells this story in a way that really gets under your skin, presenting her characters with a kind of merciless acuity. The writing is economical (the book is under 200 pages) and brilliant - the rising sense of tension as we watch Fox's "desperate characters" unravel is extraordinary. Franzen is right - this book is well worth your attention. (less)
This was an odd book. The reasons for me to dislike it were numerous -- its enormous literary debt to the Harry Potter and Narnia books, (neither a se...moreThis was an odd book. The reasons for me to dislike it were numerous -- its enormous literary debt to the Harry Potter and Narnia books, (neither a series that I have ever been able to finish), third person narration from the point of view of the main protagonist, Quentin, who remains a total git from start to finish, and whose companions share the sense of jaded superiority of the charmed inner circle of "The Secret History" and the kind of annoying nihilism of the characters in "Less Than Zero".
But the fact is, once I started it, I couldn't stop. I read the thing in just two sittings. So I have to give points for that.
The writing is adequate, with occasional set pieces that soar (sometimes literally -- my favorite part was when the students are transformed into Canada geese for their migration to Brakebills South). The pacing could have been tighter. Characterization was often perfunctory (Quentin's parents, in particular). The "hero" is pretty much a jerk throughout, exhibiting precious little in the way of emotional growth for a Bildungsroman.
But, for some reason, "The Magicians" still worked for me. Despite its obvious flaws, I really enjoyed it.
Other reviews make the criticism that the book is nothing more than a "ripoff" of the Harry Potter and Narnia books. This seems to me to miss the mark. Grossman has indeed borrowed many elements from the worlds of Hogwarts and Narnia. But he has used them to fashion a story that is indisputably original. One that may not be completely to the liking of Potter or Narnia fans, however.
Your mileage may vary, but it would be wrong to dismiss "The Magicians" out of hand.(less)
These essays are a pleasant, undemanding read. Lebovitz's observations about Parisians ring true and his style is engaging. As the title suggests, the...moreThese essays are a pleasant, undemanding read. Lebovitz's observations about Parisians ring true and his style is engaging. As the title suggests, the emphasis throughout (and in his blog) is on food -- each chapter includes at least one or two recipes. Depending on your point of view, these can be considered lagniappe or a waste of space.(less)
Despite some painful infelicities of style, this book is compelling and generally well-argued. Two aspects irritated me -- I thought several of the au...more
Despite some painful infelicities of style, this book is compelling and generally well-argued. Two aspects irritated me -- I thought several of the author's chosen analogies were dreadful -- clunky and not particularly apt. The silliness of the metaphor that humans are Homo Duplex -- "90% chimp, 10% bee" -- is just so jarring that it distracts the reader from the argument. Similarly, I found his other recurrent metaphor, that for our rational and intuitive mental processes -- "The mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant" -- to be severely deficient. And the less said about the unfortunate phrase "taste buds of the righteous mind" the better. Not to mention crimes against the language like "groupishness", "Durkheimogens", or the "hive switch".
However, though I did find these stylistic tics annoying, in the end they are minor flaws in a book which was fascinating, highly readable, and thought-provoking. I found it considerably more interesting than I did "The Happiness Hypothesis". The first third of the book, about the origins and dimensions of moral intuition, is very much the author's home turf, and he writes about it lucidly and authoritatively. The second section, which attempts to explain the development of human moral sense in evolutionary terms, was not fully convincing (to me). But it was thought-provoking and well-written -- the arguments are laid out clearly, so the reader can judge them on their merits. On the topic of religion, Haidt's arguments are considerably more interesting, and expressed with far greater civility, than the shrill invective doled out by the anti-God group of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris.
The last couple of chapters in the book, in which the author examines the polarization and loss of civility that has crept in to American political life in the last decades, are fascinating. In particular, his explanation for the difference in moral priorities between liberals and conservatives rings true. Both sides battle it out, on a variety of social and political issues, each convinced they occupy the moral high ground, increasingly dismissive of their opponents. Whether or not you believe Haidt's claim that this very human trait of moral superiority is a logical result of evolutionary pressure, its potential to be destructive in the political sphere is obvious.
The author (wisely) offers no magic solution to the ever-more bitter polarization of the American electorate, concluding instead with what is essentially a call to the better angels of our nature. The question posed by Rodney King, back in 1992, has never been more relevant - "Can we all get along?"
The normally flinty James Wood recently wrote what can only be characterized as an extended mash note to Hilary Mantel in the New Yorker, based on thi...moreThe normally flinty James Wood recently wrote what can only be characterized as an extended mash note to Hilary Mantel in the New Yorker, based on this book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall. I can only concur, and add a few observations of my own.
How good is this book? It's so good that (i) I am trying to ration myself to only 50 pages a day, to spin out the experience of reading it just that little bit longer (ii) I am failing miserably in objective (i) above, because I am an undisciplined wretch, completely lacking in self-control, and I just can't help myself (iii) I call people up on the other side of the Atlantic, just to read them choice sentences (iv) I feel impelled to share a few of those sentences with you
Thomas Cromwell is attempting to sway the deposed queen Katherine of Aragon and says something to incite her displeasure:
"There is a pause, while she turns the great pages of her volume of rage, and puts her finger on just the right word"
of one of Anne Boleyn's ladies-in-waiting:
"If someone said to Lady Rochford, 'It's raining,' she would turn it into a conspiracy; as she passed the news on, she would make it sound somehow indecent, unlikely, but sadly true."
I'm not sure if James Wood actually went as far as to say that he would be happy to read Hilary Mantel's grocery list. But, based on the quality of the writing in the "Wolf Hall" books, I would. You wouldn't think it possible to tell the story of the Tudors and make it fresh. But Mantel succeeds once again, brilliantly.
Added on edit after finishing:
The last 50 pages of this are frightening, and frighteningly good. James Wood offers far more insight into what he calls Mantel's "novelistic intelligence", also on the topic of "authenticity" (where he makes a compelling case that fiction can offer a kind of authenticity that actually surpasses historical accuracy) than I ever could (though I found myself agreeing with everything he wrote, and the examples he cites are the same ones I would cite), so here is a link to his review -- I think it is accessible even in you don't have a New Yorker subscription.
And finally, a note from Hilary Mantel, promising future delights.
".... Thomas Cromwell, who is still in need of attention from biographers. Meanwhile, Mr Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out".
I read this set of five stories in under an hour. The collection is available as a Kindle e-book for $2.99. The stories are very reminiscent of Roald...moreI read this set of five stories in under an hour. The collection is available as a Kindle e-book for $2.99. The stories are very reminiscent of Roald Dahl's "Tales of the Unexpected", both in terms of the slightly arch, tongue-in-cheek, style, and in sharing a number of plot elements. Andrew Biss doesn't quite match the sustained brilliance that Dahl was capable of, but he does bring these tales off with a certain panache. Three of the stories, unfortunately, were so entirely predictable that all the stylistic flair in the world couldn't lift them out of the ordinary. The two remaining stories, in which Biss took things in unexpected directions, were really great. Enough to make me want to read more of this author's work.(less)
I think very highly of William Gibson. I've been vastly entertained by three of his novels and can't wait to get my hands on more of his fiction. But...moreI think very highly of William Gibson. I've been vastly entertained by three of his novels and can't wait to get my hands on more of his fiction. But this collection of non-fiction pieces, written over a span of several decades, is a disappointment, likely to be of interest only to diehard Gibson fans.
Don't get me wrong. There's nothing here to change my impression that Gibson is smart, and a fundamentally nice guy. But pieces like the 1993 essay about his impressions of Singapore for "Wired", or two essentially similar 2001 pieces about the futuristic appeal of Tokyo as a setting for his fiction were probably only modestly interesting when first published and have not improved with age. As coiner of the term "cyberspace", Gibson is probably doomed to suffer a lifetime of being asked to write pieces that try to predict the future. Does reprinting such efforts really address some deep-seated need among the reading public? I doubt it.
To his credit, Gibson adds a little coda to each such dated piece, in which he signals his own embarrassment at serving it up again. One senses this book was the brainchild of some enthusiastic soul working for his publisher. It is a fundamentally misbegotten effort.
If you have yet to discover the fun to be had in reading Gibson, try "Neuromancer". Or "Pattern Recognition". Or "Spook Country". Or any of his fiction. But give this collection a miss.(less)
I love books about language (check out my bookshelves). Imaginary languages? Weirdly specific glossaries? Talking bonobos? Delightful foreign idioms?...moreI love books about language (check out my bookshelves). Imaginary languages? Weirdly specific glossaries? Talking bonobos? Delightful foreign idioms? The latest neurolinguistic breakthrough? Dubious folk etymologies? Yet another book about controversies in English usage? Add it to the bedside pile.
So you'd think I would have enjoyed this perfectly decent book by Henry Hitchings, who appears to be a perfectly decent fellow. He has already written two perfectly decent books about the English language - "Defining the World" and "The Secret Life of Words". The first was about the OED; I haven't read the second. He is obviously interested in English, given that he keeps coming back to it. He is thorough and methodical, meticulous in acknowledging the work of others. His sentences are grammatical.
Unfortunately, they are also, for the most part, exceedingly dull. Some authors write about language with a passion that is infectious. This is not Hitchings's way. His preferred style is a kind of restrained reasonableness that would be laudable if only it weren't so terribly dull.
The final six chapters, in which he focuses on the state of modern English, were more lively than the historical material that forms the core of the book. Unfortunately, given the total of 28 chapters, these represented only about 20% of the book. Earlier chapters had titles that titillated ("Bishop Lowth Was a Fool!", "Of Fish-knives and Fist-fucks"), but did not live up to their promise.
I want to give it a third star, but I can't. It's a perfectly decent book, though. The word "plodding" is surely undeserved. (less)
This big fat collection clocks in at over 1100 pages and comprises the seven books of Didion's nonfiction that appeared between 1968 and 2003. These a...moreThis big fat collection clocks in at over 1100 pages and comprises the seven books of Didion's nonfiction that appeared between 1968 and 2003. These are
Slouching Towards Bethlehem The White Album Salvador Miami After Henry Political Fictions Where I Was From
What can I add to what's already been said about Joan Didion's writing? The standard review cliches come to mind - spare, taut, elegant, polished, not a word out of place.
All true. And yet, I admire these pieces, but I don't love them. There's a coldness at the core of Didion's writing that terrifies me. She regards everything within her line of vision (herself included) with unflinching, unforgiving clarity and delivers her verdict. Nothing ever really measures up. Reading these pieces exhausts me.
I recommend this collection, but only in small doses.(less)