This book opens by telling us that "Russian nobles were one of the first groups subjected to a brand of political violence that became a hallmark of tThis book opens by telling us that "Russian nobles were one of the first groups subjected to a brand of political violence that became a hallmark of the past century" and the author uses the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families to illustrate the wide variety of experiences of the former nobility, ranging from execution, to exile in the U.S. as a successful businessman, to moving in and out of the gulags multiple times during the decades between 1917 and 1945. The most striking thing was the way the persecution could drag on for decades with resolution. Being released from prison one year was no guarantee you wouldn't be picked up as a part of some other purge later, or exiled to the other side of the country with no way of contacting family left behind. I did not expect to necessarily sympathize a great deal with the nobles, but the arbitrariness of their experiences, coupled with the fact that there was seemingly no way to rehabilitate yourself in the government's eyes (the taint of noble birth was permanent, even on those born after 1918), turned this into a story about rather ordinary people trying to work, keep families together, and save their children from starving.
The weakest point of the book is Smith's attempt to use the two families as representatives. First, I found it nearly impossible to tell a lot of the figures apart--and I'm someone who's made it through Tolstoy's novels. Too many people share the same name and the generations overlap too much. Obviously this is not something Smith could control, but he could have done more to help us remember who's who, like he does with "the mayor." Or, he could have just written about anyone he wanted, without confining himself to the two families, since readers can't keep track of them anyway. Second, I wonder if the Sheremetevs and Golitsyns were truly representative. One Princess Zenaida Yusupov crops up a few times, whinging about the "Jew-Masons" and how much luggage she was able to bring on her escape from the country. I would bet that there were other unsympathetic figures like her, and the book would be more balanced if it shared more of them. In his acknowledgments, the author thanks Sheremetev and Golitsyn descendants in the U.S., France, England, and Morocco as well as in Russia, so it is obvious that he comes at the topic with a certain point of view.
Like Ian Kershaw's Hitler biography, this probably isn't the right book to read first about this period (and for similar reasons, e.g. Petrograd transforms into Leningrad with no explanation). I still found it a worthwhile read on a topic I hadn't previously considered, in part because the subject was taboo in Russia, and the primary materials inaccessible, until relatively recently....more
This mystery novel was an odd combination of the unreliable, sometimes unlikeable narrator of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects and the misguided charityThis mystery novel was an odd combination of the unreliable, sometimes unlikeable narrator of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects and the misguided charity of Richard Price's Samaritan, but somehow the mixture feels fresh, particularly when New Orleans in 2006 is the star of the story. (In some ways, this is a better book about Katrina than Five Days at Memorial, which is ultimately about medical ethics.) I liked Claire's prickliness and the fact that we get to know her from her method of thinking; the way her age and appearance are unremarkable and even malleable as she fits in with different groups of people. I liked the briskness of the book and some keen observations and twists of humor in the descriptions. The book frequently refers to a fictional detective's guide without succumbing to the temptation to insert pages of it at a time. I disliked the mystical elements and the drug use (which I find boring even in books I love).
This was an unusual read and definitely worth checking out if you like mysteries--or New Orleans....more
What is wrong with me that I keep reading these? The 60% of this that remained to be plowed through after I disembarked from the plane was a real chorWhat is wrong with me that I keep reading these? The 60% of this that remained to be plowed through after I disembarked from the plane was a real chore. There was a little tooth-rotting enjoyment to be had, mainly in the over-the-top descriptions of Rosewood.
Obviously some editor told the author to use more evocative descriptions, because there are a ton of sentences tossed in here that describe smells. I began to amuse myself by highlighting them. "The first floor smelled of fresh-brewed Nicaraguan Segovia coffee, Fresh Fields danishes, and the fresh-cut calla lilies their housekeeper, Candace, bought every morning. ... The air smelled like Clinique Happy perfume; hoppy, soapy beer; and dried grass. ... The Stone Harbor yacht club smelled a little like brine in a moldy basement. ... A breeze that smelled of surf wax and fish smacked Spencer in the face. ...The room smelled like hay and vodka. ... the air smelled like a mix between vanilla and fresh towels. ... The room smelled like cinnamon and new carpet [this is the same hotel as the vanilla and towels]. ... the smell of scrambled eggs and truffle oil wafting in from the dining room ... Spencer wished that just once, Ian would smell like rotting vegetables or dog breath--it would make it much easier to be near him." My ennui smelled like mint and a coffee table.
Partway through this installment, I had the unpleasantly late-arriving realization that part of the problem with this whole series is how unconcerned the characters are with figuring out who A is or doing anything about her stalking. Sure, they're disturbed by it and make passive attempts to figure it out, but there is never any forensic analysis, such as figuring out who could have known the things A knows or who could have been present to leave notes where. It's no wonder this was made into a TV show, because structurally it seems a bit like Gilligan's Island: on one hand, getting off the island is the ostensible desire of the characters, but on the other, they definitely cannot succeed because the series requires them to be there. I've been reading the books assuming they'll never find out who A is.
Imagine my shock when, at the end of Unbelievable, that mystery is fully solved. Although this doesn't address the question of who murdered (?) Ali, I think this makes a good stopping point given my relatively low level of interest in the story. I'm sure I can find another silly teen series, if needed....more
I followed up my very masculine-skewing airplane read with a very feminine-skewing one. What fun this was! I think I might have liked it best out of tI followed up my very masculine-skewing airplane read with a very feminine-skewing one. What fun this was! I think I might have liked it best out of the several Courtney Milan novels I've read so far. I agree with everything my friend Claire said, especially about the main character who describes herself as plump and thinks she talks too much, and finds true love while continuing to be plump and talk too much. Meanwhile, other women in the story, including two with illnesses, have great resolutions. There's something that could be pat about how everything comes together at the end of this book, but Milan does it gracefully enough that it feels natural and satisfying.
Also, let's not overlook her comic timing. There's a talent for writing arch conversations, and she has it, but there's also plenty of wit in the narration as well. If I had an objection to this book, it arrives in the first thirty pages: the artificiality of the circumstances that initially set Jane and Oliver against each other. I find it strange that, in the few romance novels I've dipped into, the characters can't merely dislike each other or come from different social circles at the start. There must be some more formal obstacle, no matter how tirée par les cheveux it may be. I think Milan is just hewing to expectations of a genre that I don't completely buy into.
If you are interested in the character of Bhattacharya, The Indian Clerk may be worth a read. It's a fictionalized story about a famous Indian mathematician at Cambridge that I didn't totally enjoy, but which included a number of similar tidbits, such as the tedium of trying to be a vegetarian in England. ...more
I didn't have strong feelings about the sixth book in this series, unlike the seventh one, which I accidentally read out of order. This made for someI didn't have strong feelings about the sixth book in this series, unlike the seventh one, which I accidentally read out of order. This made for some good travel reading.
"A poorly defined counterintelligence mission without official authority? Based on rumors from an anonymous Afghan farmer? Where do I sign?" John Wells sets off to discover whether there is really a conspiracy between members of the military and the CIA to smuggle heroin from Afghanistan to Europe. There are some good scenes and details, but there are also some bits of baling wire that stick out. For example, there are several conversations between Wells and Shafer, on the phone, where Berenson cuts away from the narration to say something like "Wells shared his plan" (but Berenson doesn't!) and then we see Shafer reply with something like "That might work." As plotting goes, I think this is an excessively transparent maneuver; if you're going to not-tell us something, let us figure that out on our own, or surprise us with it later.
If you are an established reader of books like this, I think this is a fine entry in the series. If you're not particularly into this genre, the only novel in this series I'd recommend is the first one, which includes some fresh details for this genre, even if the plot's over the top. ...more
I might have liked this book even more than the firsttwo in the series. I'm beginning to understand more clearly why the author has taken the fascinaI might have liked this book even more than the firsttwo in the series. I'm beginning to understand more clearly why the author has taken the fascinating tactic of making each novel about a secondary character from a previous one. Each is about a detective working on a mystery that they have a personal connection to, and if that happened more than once to a given detective, it would not be very plausible. Because of the cops' personal stakes in these particular cases, each book is about a life-changing moment of realization for them.
The book about Frank Mackey that we have here might actually be a good one to read first, because I think its mystery makes more sense as a murder than the previous ones. I liked Mackey's voice as a jaded divorced father, his relationship with his small daughter, and the class conflicts that are portrayed here. The book takes place as Ireland's economy stands on the brink: "This country's built on nothing but bullshit and good PR. One kick and it'll fall apart, and the kick's coming." The characters' class anxieties bubble out in their job choices, track suits, resentments of the neighbors, education, TVs, and every other aspect of their lives. There's something anthropological in this book that I enjoyed on top of the writing and plot.
By the way, speaking of Ireland, if all you know about these books is that they're mysteries and are set in Ireland, you might get the mistaken idea that they are cozy. They're not cozy at all, but they're not procedural either, as I said in my review of the second one--if anything, I'd say that they're quite good ordinary novels that each happen to contain a crime. Don't let yourself get fooled out of reading them if this isn't your usual genre....more
Overcome by morbid curiosity and armed with a fistful of Borders coupons, I bought Twilight for nearly nothing, which is anAbstinence for the undead.
Overcome by morbid curiosity and armed with a fistful of Borders coupons, I bought Twilight for nearly nothing, which is an upside, as is (I suppose) the fact that it came with a free, two-sided movie poster. My chief fear is that someone I know may have seen me reading this on the train.
It's a novel about a high school-age girl who moves to rainy Washington State to live with her dad. At school, Bella meets a family of impossibly handsome, standoffish strangers, one of whom she falls in love with. Edward turns out to be a vampire, but never fear--his whole ersatz family of the undead has given up biting people for philosophical reasons. Much of the book is devoted to scenes of them hanging out together at high school and various other mundane locales, with Edward generously offering to give up seeing her for her own safety, and Bella avowing that she cannot live without him. Just as this begins to get unbearably boring, another coven of bad guy vampires shows up, unleashing an extended chase scene.
Apparently the author was inspired to write the book through a dream, which appears in the finished novel in the form of an 85-page (or so it feels) scene during which the protagonists sit in a meadow and, in incomplete... sentences... , attempt to express their ineffable attraction to each other. The novel is narrated by Bella, so we hear a lot about how great Edward is: he looks like a model from a hair-gel commercial, his chest is "incandescent," his breath smells really, really good. Sure, he's kind of a jerk sometimes, but his musculature is superb. By contrast, it's somewhat difficult to tell why he's so into Bella, this particular lumpenschoolgirl. The compliments he pays her are surreal: when someone else tells her she's pretty, he gets angry because the word "pretty" doesn't do justice to her beauty. If any real man ever said anything of the sort, I'd eat my hat.
There is one good metaphor here, but it really doesn't pay off to think about it. You see, vampire bites are usually a metaphor for sex, but Edward cares too much for Bella to bite her and is willing to struggle in a very protracted and wordy way to master his desire. Yes, this book is about abstinence. Naturally, the girl suffers little temptation; it's all about fending off the guy. He spends a lot of time telling Bella that maybe she'd be better off without him because he's just so dangerous and out of control. Edward retreats into the forest and sucks the blood of various woodland creatures to slake his thirst before going out with her (I told you not to think about this too much). Later, some other vampire tries to bite Bella, and as she's lying beaten-up and bleeding on the ground, Edward arrives and is sorely tempted by the smell of her blood to bite her himself (another metaphor not to think through). My point is that while it's somewhat clever to come up with a book about abstinent teen vampires, the results are gross and sometimes reprehensible.
In the brain-dead reader's guide at the back of my copy, we learn that Meyer's favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. If we weren't specifically invited to compare Edward to Darcy, you might wonder if this was a mistake and they really meant Jane Eyre. If you're going to do this book the unwarranted honor of comparing it to a classic, at least pick the one with the right kind of creepy, unhealthy relationship in it.
The weird thing about this book was that even though it was gross and fairly dumb, it was also diverting and had an inventive milieu. I guess that's practically the definition of a trashy book, right?I can't say that it had no amusement value.
Twilight: Two smileys Recommended for: people who own quilted bookcovers, people under the age of 15, people with neck fetishes (Review very belatedly pasted over from my old blog.)...more
I read this book avidly, even though I detest some of the titles being offered as comparable, like The Last Werewolf and The Passage, and never made iI read this book avidly, even though I detest some of the titles being offered as comparable, like The Last Werewolf and The Passage, and never made it through Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write a vampire novel at this point, especially a literary one, and I was amused to think that, after we've all enjoyed vampire stories set in the Pacific Northwest, Eastern Europe, and Louisiana, setting your vampire adventure in Victorian London now seems fresh again.
There could easily be another paragraph or two here about comparisons and antecedents. The early scenes of the brother and sister in their eerie Northern home were very gothic-novel. The vampire-studying duo of Swift and Shadwell (who operate an occult bookstore on the side) reminded me alternately of Buffy and Giles and of Lovelace and Babbage. The circus folk are a persistent literary-fiction trope and the sexual tension early in the book could be out of any of your higher-concept fanfiction. Forget the anxiety of influence; only the quality of the writing here saves the reader and the author from the anxiety of keeping the details straight.
As I said, I did nevertheless find this quite readable, and I liked the writing, which is too animated to be called literary. Owen offers several different voices (Cockney, scientist, etc.) convincingly. However, when I got to about the three-quarters mark, I realized that we were in what felt like a climactic confrontation, and I did not understand why. In fact, the more I read of this book, the less I understood its structure and pacing. Long as it is, it does not have much of a middle; we meet quite a few characters, they are set up in their places on the London stage, and then the story begins to conclude. There's more backstory than story. Then, when I reached the end, (view spoiler)[I was even more confused by what the author was about, because she left what seems like a cliffhanger for a sequel... after killing off almost every character. Is there going to be a sequel in which a vampire is pursued by his seventy-something brother-in-law? That doesn't seem promising. Owen seems to kill off her characters in inverse order of their interestingness, and I would have liked to see more of some of them, especially Swift and Shadwell. (hide spoiler)]
Despite my reservations, most people I know like non-romance historical fiction, interesting adventures, and/or at least one other vampire book, so most of you would enjoy this on some level. I'll need to see more from this author before I can decide whether I'm a fan.
Eager as I am to find easier reads in Dutch, this one was simply too annoying to finish. I'm not into the pictures-in-reviews trend, but all I could tEager as I am to find easier reads in Dutch, this one was simply too annoying to finish. I'm not into the pictures-in-reviews trend, but all I could think of when reading this was that the protagonist is
Although this book was published in 1995 (!), it is jam-packed with the blatant, unfunny sexism of the 1960s. Imagine the kind of thing that goes on in Mad Men but without the dramatic irony that leads the viewer to naturally sympathize with the women. The main character, Van In, is an unattractive chain-smoker who went through an expensive divorce after having an affair with a 19-year old. The narration complains about how hard it is for him to keep up on the mortgage of the house he chose to keep after the split with his higher-earning wife, while treating the affair as something that happened in an agentless sense, like tripping over a curb. The female lead is the beautiful DA, Hannelore Martens, whose diligence and hard work are presented as an irritation. Van In occupies himself with looking down her top and wondering whether such a beautiful woman could really be a DA (answer: yes). For some reason, Martens is portrayed as a love interest for Van In, rather than, say, showing her avoiding him or having drinks with her girlfriends to discuss how to deal with the jerkwad who's making it so unpleasant to work on her big case. Later, Van In interviews a witness while the witness's wife parades around topless for some reason, and they're all drinking champagne at breakfast-time. After five glasses, top cop Van In drives himself back to town. Then we hear about how annoying he finds it that Americans talk too much at meals--but he doesn't care if his smoking at the table bothers others. There is a lot of banter with another police officer that I suspect is homophobic, but I don't have the vocabulary to tell, and I don't want to develop that vocabulary, either. This was all just in the first 30% of a relatively brief book, and there are 31 (?!) volumes that come after this one.
I'm surprised that there aren't many reviews of the recent translation that mention these aspects of the story. I wonder if the English-language publisher didn't take the opportunity to edit a bit for content while they were translating. I really want to read more in Dutch and found myself getting into the language more easily just over the chunk of this book that I read, but it was impossible to find this a rewarding read. ...more
This novel was pleasingly weird and maintained a high level of interest through almost the entire thing, despite an initial lack of clarity of how theThis novel was pleasingly weird and maintained a high level of interest through almost the entire thing, despite an initial lack of clarity of how the book would be shaped in terms of its narratives coming back together--which eventually happens geographically as well as chronologically. I agree with Joanna that the science isn't very believable, but I was able to look at the book as an allegory that protests too much rather than a fizzled attempt at science fiction.
I somewhat disliked the passages about Oryx's past and Jimmy's odd reaction to it; I liked Snowman's unease at being a leader of the Crakers, the absurd details of his daily existence as the last human, and his childhood relationship with his parents. The parents give us some of Atwood's sharpest writing. "[S]he'd snap out of her trance and buy him some mortifying [birthday] present...and tape it up in tissue paper and dump it on him at the dinner table, smiling her increasingly weird smile, as if someone had yelled Smile! and goosed her with a fork." Meanwhile,"this hearty way of talking was getting worse, as if his father were auditioning for the role of Dad, but without much hope."
The whole book is suffused with a bittersweet humor that sees all the foibles of humans both specifically and as a group, and yearns for connection anyway; it's a humanistic book about the end of humanity. I'm definitely looking forward to reading the sequels....more
It's amazing how interchangeable these are, and how well suited they are to being read while traveling due to their junk-food-like delivery of thrillsIt's amazing how interchangeable these are, and how well suited they are to being read while traveling due to their junk-food-like delivery of thrills, unmaskings, and fights. I consumed this volume in the space of two Bolt Bus rides and a few subway trips in between. Give the author credit: interchangeable is also consistent. It's easy to embark on a 6-hour trip with one of these, knowing you have the proper amount and type of entertainment. Nothing in this installment stood out to me, except that it has a crisp enunciation of the overall Reacher ethos: "I don't really care about the little guy. I just hate the big guy. I hate big smug people who think they can get away with things."...more
I found this book worth reading but I'm not confident it's more worth reading than the much shorter magazine article version. There are several ways oI found this book worth reading but I'm not confident it's more worth reading than the much shorter magazine article version. There are several ways of accounting for the patient deaths at Memorial during Katrina and it's not clear which is the established one and which is the upstart, so a big part of this book's contribution is trying to untangle the initial explanation from the politically motivated ones from the revisionist ones--from the facts. Overall, I think the moral of this story is that people generally do the right thing, given true information, and in this situation there was a lot of misinformation. Since I used to work in a medical library, even doing disaster preparedness work, I found that a motivating conclusion....more
This is a fun, quick read if you like cats, even though the author's tendency towards repeating his points eventually makes even his more novel insighThis is a fun, quick read if you like cats, even though the author's tendency towards repeating his points eventually makes even his more novel insights seem old-hat. He reviews the history of domesticated cats and what science currently understands about their behavior, then uses that to discuss cats' unnecessary hunting and antisocial behavior and how those traits are an impediment in today's human households. He asserts that our habit of neutering all our housecats at a young age means that we are always adopting new cats from an at least half-feral background and effectively selecting for the opposite of the human-friendly traits we want.
There are a few actionable tidbits in here, like a discussion of what makes a toy fun for a cat, but I also really enjoyed the more scientific material, at least in part because it was hilarious to picture scientists trying to get cats to cooperate with a behavioral experiment. The author is clearly in on the joke when he makes such statements as "Cat need to meow because we humans are generally so unobservant." ...more
Heaven is for Real tells the story of Colton Burpo, whose name sounds like something Charles Dickens would have invented, had he worked on Laguna BeacHeaven is for Real tells the story of Colton Burpo, whose name sounds like something Charles Dickens would have invented, had he worked on Laguna Beach. Four-year-old Colton has a near-death experience and comes back with surprisingly (?) detailed reports of what heaven was like, which are relayed here by his pastor father.
I hope it will be understood that I did not read this book seriously (it is just one of the most popular on Overdrive and I get curious) and that I would not say this to the author if I met him. However, he wrote this book and issued it to the public so I feel it is legitimate to criticize two major points.
First, Colton's nearly fatal illness is caused by what seems like the most preventable ruptured appendix in the history of appendices. He feels sick for days, vomits hourly for more than a day--and then his parents drive three hours farther away from the good hospital? Later they discharge him while he seems to be sinking into sepsis and drive themselves a significant distance to another hospital. Hey, we all make mistakes, but this really doesn't seem like one to brag about. The main reason I was able to plow through the beginning of this book was my sense of horrified disbelief at this unfolding scenario.
Secondly, the father keeps trying to suggest that he is meticulously, even quasi-scientifically, not asking leading questions to elicit Colton's story--except that Colton's entire life up to that point appears to have been a leading question. Also, it's not like Colton tells his Heaven story in one sit-down at age four. Bits of it dribble out over several years, during which he obviously would have talked to a number of people about how they imagine Heaven and would also have gotten a lot of positive attention due to his Heaven stories. The father's heaviest "evidence" is that Colton knew what his parents were doing elsewhere in the hospital. Let me save you hunting this tidbit down: The dad was praying, and the mom was praying and talking on the phone. Presumably, this is what they are doing a lot of the time, anywhere and under any circumstances, so it's not very telling after all. We learn that angels, according to Colton, have wings. There's a lot more along those lines which is too boring to recount. Four-year-olds are enthusiastic tellers of invented stories and most of them would be more creative than Colton's.
If you want to learn about confirmation bias, this is the book for you. While I count many religious folks among my friends and family, I think they'd all be too smart to be inspired by this story. Also, really do not take it as advice on how to handle a possible case of appendicitis. Really not....more
I read this in German because it was easy to obtain and I don't have any particular concern for Follett's prose stylings (I'm chiefly a fan of his ploI read this in German because it was easy to obtain and I don't have any particular concern for Follett's prose stylings (I'm chiefly a fan of his plots). It's over a thousand pages and reading in German probably took 25% longer; this is probably the least I've ever had to say proportionally to how long it took me to read something.
The sequel is mostly about the children of the characters in Fall of Giants, although the parents still figure in some of the action. Everything I said about the previous volume stands except that in this one it is, if anything, even easier to hear the groaning of the scenery shifting around backstage. Events occur--like a handicapped child being born in Germany, or a Navy seaman being posted to Hawaii--and it's beyond obvious that something bad, indeed something very specific that you can predict, is going to happen to that person in a few hundred pages. There is some stuff about spying in this installment which is better than the surrounding material, because Follett's written a lot about spies before. Actually, what this book does is create an uneasy blend of the two major strains of Follett's writing: WWII spy vignettes and hulking historical epics.
It's hard to say whether this book would be better read by someone who knows a lot about WWII or one who doesn't. This isn't a very serious way to learn about the period, but if you already know about it, parts do come off as almost dunderheaded. For me, the German practice made the book more worthwhile than it would have been otherwise, but I'd recommend petty much any other work by Follett over this series. ...more
I probably didn't do this book justice by reading it in snippets while traveling around the world and reading another book at the same time.
PhilbrickI probably didn't do this book justice by reading it in snippets while traveling around the world and reading another book at the same time.
Philbrick presents the the militia build-up around Lexington and Concord, the fight there, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the siege of Boston; in short, the events that turned a political and economic disagreement of ambiguous or disputed seriousness into a shooting war. He halfheartedly structures his narrative around Joseph Warren, a highly respected local doctor and young patriot leader who, had he lived, might have been a household name and even taken the place of George Washington as general. There is not nearly enough information about Warren to call this a biography, but there is too much time spent on forced speculations about him not to be a biography. It's hard to tell whether Philbrick is trying to persuade us of the importance of a forgotten figure (like in The Island at the Center of the World) or just use Warren to personalize the larger history a bit.
I liked Philbrick's read on the mood, motivation, and even lifestyle of the colonial militias. For example, they averaged two inches taller than their opponents in the English army, and their style of military organization was partly a relic of King Philip's War. There were interesting contrasts between different lifestyles in Boston itself and in the towns, and how that created intra-American conflict early on. Less appealingly, we learn about some of the more self-serving, know-nothing, or vigilante-type actions of the early patriots, which make them seem to have more in common with the current Tea Partiers than I'd like to admit.
Overall, I thought the topic was worthwhile but it didn't seem to gel as a book--an impression possibly created by how I went about reading it....more
Klay is well-educated (Dartmouth grad) but writes many of these returning-veteran stories in the voice of an unlettered grunt. He has his characters sKlay is well-educated (Dartmouth grad) but writes many of these returning-veteran stories in the voice of an unlettered grunt. He has his characters say things like "my legs and arms ... are as pale as pigeon shit" which is a manly, unsophisticated comparison to make, but doesn't really work as a visual since (sorry for the detail) pigeon shit is also dark and lumpy. Because these are short stories, we don't really get to know much about any particular protagonist--they're not all the same guy since they're in different locations and come and go between Iraq and the States in different scenes--with the result that there is something slightly blank or interchangeable about their sheer grunt-ness. The flip side of boyish sweetness that you see in Billy Lynn is missing here, just because we don't stay with any of them long enough to go that deep.
Several of the stories are about figures more like what Klay must be in real life, and these seemed more ambitious and genuine. In one story, a foreign service staffer is trying to do "provincial reconstruction" projects. A mattress magnate stateside sends a batch of baseball uniforms and equipment and the narrator is assigned the task of, if not getting Iraqi kids to actually play baseball, at least staging a plausible photo op of the kids enjoying the bounty of American generosity and the genius of American values. This is an obvious metaphor for the whole Iraqi adventure but the story clicked. Other stories center around a chaplain, and vets who find themselves at elite schools like Amherst and NYU Law, and these, too, felt more nuanced to me than ones about earthier Marines who frequent strip clubs or stick around the base.
Ultimately, I'm not sure I gained much insight from these stories. Some of them are quite good, others are too pat when the final twist is revealed; overall, you'd have to enjoy the short story, as it's currently conceived, to enjoy this. I wouldn't say that the author is "one of the most talented new voices of his generation," as the jacket asserts, and I wouldn't recommend this over Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (fiction) or The Forever War (nonfiction). Of course, I'm not sure Redeployment wants to be on the shelf next to those books, so it depends on what impulse is making you reach for a book on the Iraq war in the first place.
I'm hard pressed to think of another book that I nearly abandoned and then ended up liking as much as this one. In writing about Jane Franklin Mecom,I'm hard pressed to think of another book that I nearly abandoned and then ended up liking as much as this one. In writing about Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin's equally long-lived sister, Jill Lepore is up against a daunting dearth of documentation. The first thirty years of Jane's letters to Benjamin are lost. Lepore adopts several strategies to work around that, one of which is a style of writing that is rhapsodic--I daren't call it hysterical--or perhaps the Natalie Angier school of history writing? For example, we read early on, when Jane makes a hasty, imprudent, and underdocumented marriage, and gives birth to a son: "She named him after her father. She was seventeen. Her belly had swelled, and burst, and then there were two." I'm not sure any single quote can do justice to what I found an annoying series of semipoetic intrusions, but there it is.
My mother, being some hundred pages ahead of me, encouraged me to pick it up again, and I'm glad she did. Lepore doesn't get too far into the book before she adopts additional methods of filling in the gaps of Jane's story. One is to map the token remaining details of Jane's life onto Lepore's dizzyingly detailed knowledge of colonial history. She builds on Jane's letters at the start of the Revolutionary War with more details that bring alive the chaotic scene of the evacuation of Boston. To fill in what little we know of the poor health and mental illness of Jane's children, we read about how other patients in Boston at that time were treated, and for what.
Another strategy is to look at the letters as documents and discuss the process of drawing history out of them. Lepore explicitly says this is an experiment in the history of what is missing. She gives interesting details about the habits of correspondents in the 19th century that explain how letter-writing fit in daily life. I found the extracts of the letters completely charming--once someone else had puzzled out the handwriting for me. One fact that I was startled not to have known concretely is that while children of both sexes were taught to read in Colonial times, only boys were taught to write, resulting in a stark difference in spelling between brother and sister's letters. For all her inventive spelling, though, Jane's voice is strong and humorous, even though much of her life was difficult at best: she outlived many of her own grandchildren.
I also enjoyed this book's novel take on Benjamin Franklin, looking at him through the lens of his extended family life. Other books I've read about him only talk about his immediate family, which is not terribly flattering: absentee husband, disappointed father. I liked meeting Ben Franklin, devoted brother.
Recommended if you're interested in American history, women's history, or the process of writing history.
I loathed Egger's first, precocious book, but read this anyway because my father recommended it. I disliked Egger's writing style here, too, and thatI loathed Egger's first, precocious book, but read this anyway because my father recommended it. I disliked Egger's writing style here, too, and that rankled in an ongoing, low-grade way, even though the story was compelling. Reading this was a bit like doing a fun activity while wearing uncomfortable clothing.
Let me get the flaws off my chest: It's hard to decide who's more unlikeable, protagonist Mae or her friend Annie who gets her a job at the Circle. Mae doesn't cohere as a character for me and especially not as a woman (you could global-replace "Mae" with, say, "Justin" and no one would notice). The other Circle characters, like Francis and Kalden, are interchangeable in a Gap-ad kind of way, which I think is sort of intentional, but still boring. About halfway through, it occurred to me that this book should have been written by Douglas Coupland, who is much better at portraying the emotionally disconnected nerd. Some of the imagery in the novel would be complimented by calling it only heavy-handed: especially the contrast between Mae's artificial experience at and in the Circle and her authentic (if challenging) relationships back in Fresno and her love of kayaking alone.
Why so many stars, then? There is something in this novel that rattles you; it's a dystopia that is much nearer to hand than others I can recall reading. As you read, you may recognize pressures and impulses from your own life. There were two details of Mae's work that I found particularly resonant. First, in her job she solicits feedback from her customers and goes back repeatedly to follow up until she gets a 100% rating; not even 99% will do. The neediness to get a perfect score, separate, from any desire to actually do well, rings true to anyone who has bought from third-party sellers on Amazon. Second, there are several great scenes where she is called in for a talking-to at work related to her level of participation in the Circle. She is assured that her participation is optional but that she is expected to make herself completely available to the Circle. Mae ends up on an exhausting hamster wheel of zings, photos, smiles, frowns, and nods, where the more attention she gets, the more she craves.
The book is about as subtle as an anvil falling from the sky, but the pacing of the fall is nice; we start out with features and systems that feel familiar and it incrementally degenerates into something scary. Overall, I think this is worth reading and discussing, even if it is annoying. ...more
This book has a good amount of information for such a light read, but the problem is that no one who should read it is likely to pick it up. The sameThis book has a good amount of information for such a light read, but the problem is that no one who should read it is likely to pick it up. The same is probably true of the very long review I am tempted to write but won't--since I now live in a city that professes all the right things and then makes all the wrong decisions. If you want to make changes to your town, this book has guidelines, but Suburban Nation is a more piquant exploration of a broader range of issues that go into making a city a place you want to be....more
This book is too long, but I loved it anyway, because it felt Tartt had written something just for me--a novel with elements of Old Master paintings,This book is too long, but I loved it anyway, because it felt Tartt had written something just for me--a novel with elements of Old Master paintings, American antiques, art theft and fraud, and a New York kid traumatized by a terrorist attack. It's a relentlessly, sometimes cruelly, bittersweet story, which explicitly concludes, in a final chapter that's more like an essay than the closing of a novel, that sharing beauty and history is the only thing that makes the pain of existence worthwhile.
After Theo loses his mother in a bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there's no adult who can fill her shoes. He ricochets from one household to another, starting off with a friend's family on 5th Avenue, where Mrs. Barbour, despite her patrician stiffness, manages to make him feel a little safe and accepted among her family's bustle. Later he ends up in Las Vegas, which seems like exile to an alien planet, leaving him totally unmoored from his own past or any healthy human connection. In New York, Theo meets Hobie, a downtown furniture restorer, who not only cares about Theo but also understands him. Theo's feelings of relief at finding Hobie, at several points of the story, are transmitted so intensely that even the reader feels like she's come up for air when they meet. Eventually, Theo becomes Hobie's ward and starts to learn the antiques trade.
Theo's friend Boris seems to have wandered in from a Shteyngart novel (he's not an incarnation of the Shteyngart protagonist, understand, but instead one of those effortlessly confident types that are so befuddling and enviable to him). The Las Vegas section where we meet Boris is the most overtly drawn-out part of the novel, but its longueurs strongly evoke being a teenager with no responsibilities and no desire to do much of anything--the age at which the afternoon seems like the most endless part of the day. Boris is magnetic and infuriating. He turns out to be much more active at driving the story forward than is apparent at first.
Some things I loved in this book: Theo's ineffable, childlike desperation for his mother. The texture and energy of the uptown/downtown, New York City/Las Vegas scene changes. The fact that while Theo's childhood appears to take place in the near future, so do his mid-twenties; Tartt wastes zero time trying to make us believe that the opening sections take place in the '80s or that the later sections take place in a future where surely people would have better cellphones, but just situates the story in a easygoing timeframe where the characters and events take center stage rather than any affected setting. She expertly portrays the slice of New York City populated by those who are richer in culture than they are in money and captures the feeling of being a kid and not quite knowing how to advocate for yourself. Theo and Boris's affection for the little dog they rename Popchik is a reliable but not cheap-feeling tug on the heart. And there are lots of great descriptions: in the space of a few pages we have a man with a black topknot who looks like "one of the harpooners from Moby Dick, if one of the harpooners from Moby Dick had happened to be wearing velvet track pants and a peach satin baseball jacket" and a woman "fat and rosy in her pink shetlands and madras plaids like a Boucher nymph as dressed by J. Crew."
I liked less the fixation on Pippa (who seems like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a quirky spastic bundle of femininity sent by Providence to repair our tortured hero, even if she isn't very cheerful) and the endless drug use. I suppose Tartt is exploring the consolations of chemistry and those of art but the passages of being high, or wanting to be, or wanting to quit stand out as the most expendable parts of this book.
The novel also has some twists and turns that I'm trying not to betray here. They're effective, but this is still more a novel of mood than one of plot; like The Little Friend it feels more like a place than a story. Each time I've read one of Tartt's novels, I've come away thinking I'll want to reread it (I'm an inveterate rereader). For some reason, I've never done it. But maybe this one is the place I will want to come back to. ...more
Given my friends' negative reviews, I was unlikely to finish this, but I did skim the first quarter or so. Here's one thing I don't get about these dyGiven my friends' negative reviews, I was unlikely to finish this, but I did skim the first quarter or so. Here's one thing I don't get about these dystopias: They often seem to involve a rigid society where some remote authority figures, if not adults in general, are forcing our plucky teens into a predetermined lifestyle, career, family, or whatever. What part of actual American teen life does this resonate with? To the extent that American teens' lives involve a rigid social structure, it seems to be entirely enforced by their fellow teens and appreciated by ex-teens (a.k.a. adults) as foolish, embarrassing, best rejected as soon as possible etc. I like my fantasy to involve a kernel of reality and I don't see how these books have that. C.f. my comments on Matched....more
I liked the theme of this book and the author's writing style (on a micro level) but I didn't like his approach on a macro-level, which involves spiraI liked the theme of this book and the author's writing style (on a micro level) but I didn't like his approach on a macro-level, which involves spiraling around the topic, revisiting various topics like how light pollution prevents our appreciation of the heavens or how streetlighting changed cities, in a way that showcases his creative writing but is slow on delivering information....more
I enjoyed this book, but it's not as good as his first effort, The Expats. My favorite aspects of the first thriller were a nice European milieu and aI enjoyed this book, but it's not as good as his first effort, The Expats. My favorite aspects of the first thriller were a nice European milieu and a probing discussion of marriage and espionage, and this lacks both. I also found this female protagonist much less likeable and realistic than Kate: her only characteristics seem to be bitterness and increasing decrepitude, and you wonder if Pavone even likes her.
The novel concerns a book called "The Accident" which is submitted to literary agent Isabel Reed. She immediately sees the potential of this anonymous exposé of a conservative media mogul and shares it with her favorite editor. As people who have seen the manuscript begin to turn up dead, she has to decide whether it's worth trying to share the truth with the world. Other questions linger, like why was the manuscript submitted to her, and who has the resources and ruthlessness to try to contain it?
The most significant issue with the novel is that it asks us to believe that book publishing is an enterprise of life-and-death importance. As someone who has toiled in those same hallways, I have to say: nope. But Pavone and his characters believe it is, which imbues their entire story, for me, with a feeling of overwrought self-importance. It's never adequately explained why the characters don't just email the manuscript to "The Smoking Gun" or something. At the very end, there is a revelation that explains why the truth is so important to some of the characters, but it comes too late to engage the reader. The question we should be asking for most of the book's length is "Whodunnit?" or similar--not "Wait, why do they care?" This is a pity because some of the plotting is clever: imagine a complicated origami animal that, as it's unfolded, makes you realize that it had a different shape to begin with than you had thought.
By the way, Kate from The Expats does appear in this book, but only glancingly. If I had to make a bet, I'd bet that Pavone actually wrote or envisioned this as his first novel, which explains its home-turf setting, returned to it after The Expats, and inserted some Kate scenes to form a little connection between them.
This novel feels like it was written by a dystopian-YA-novel-writing-algorithm even more than Matched does, primarily because its entire world revolveThis novel feels like it was written by a dystopian-YA-novel-writing-algorithm even more than Matched does, primarily because its entire world revolves around such a strange understanding of human nature that you wonder if the author knows any humans.
In Tris's society, there are five factions: Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless. (That's three nouns and two adjectives there: fingernails on a chalkboard.) Each person grows up in one of the factions, which embodies one characteristic to the exclusion of any others and is responsible for some aspects of running the society. As teenagers, each person must choose a permanent faction based on the results of an aptitude test that they are free to ignore and apparently no other information about what the other factions are like. Each faction puts the teens through its own version of initiation, which ranges from a series of death-defying stunts to just being really nice to people for a month. The book never explains why humans only have one personality trait all of a sudden, or why anyone would join a faction that involves nothing but self-sacrifice in the absence of any religion, or why one faction entirely revolves around teenage daredevilry like jumping off of things and tattoos, yet you have to choose your faction for life.
A tiny minority of Very, Very Special People (bets on whether Tris is one of them?) are capable of embodying more than one personality trait at once. As it would otherwise be very dull, I suppose we should be grateful that the book is about these so-called "Divergent" (I do not think that word means what you think it means). We follow Tris as she leaves her original faction (Abnegation) and trains up as a Dauntless, while uncovering nefarious political machinations and trying to disguise her Divergent status. (view spoiler)[The book then segues from a training montage to the middle of an apparent civil war in the space of about fifteen pages. (hide spoiler)]
It's probably not worth wasting any more breath complaining about this book. It reminded me a little of Twilight in that it was engaging to read while not actually making sense. The characters were less forgettable than Matched's and it also deserves a few points for a nondisturbing romantic subplot. The author seems to have talent as a writer; I just wish someone had encouraged her to think the plot through before starting to type....more
While I'm not particularly familiar with either Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe, I was intrigued by this view into a lost New York and a period (moWhile I'm not particularly familiar with either Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe, I was intrigued by this view into a lost New York and a period (mostly early 1970s) that I don't often think about. Many people have told me to read this, and I held out because I dislike memoirs (the genre was hot during my publishing days and I read too many bad ones). Additionally, memoirs have an obvious tendency to be self-aggrandizing or self-indulgent. I didn't find this one to be so, because Smith approaches it as a tribute to her friend and as a reportage of a unique scene in which she was just one participant.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the look at the unusual lives of two people who are almost exactly my parents' age, and the view of New York City from long before I was there myself. Social progress was uneven. Smith and Mapplethorpe were highly nontraditional, but Smith willingly, almost automatically assumes the role of breadwinner and works several dull jobs in order to let Mapplethorpe pursue his art. It takes her until she is older to see her own work as something to be prioritized. The trajectory of their relationship--starting out as a couple, then remaining intimate as friends even as Mapplethorpe discovers his homosexuality--seems like it will be rarer every day. Meanwhile, the reader follows them through a variety of makeshift living situations with no heat or not enough food, and it's striking to consider how unlikely their scenario is in the glossier, expensive New York City of today.
There were two things I found very strange here, which are intertwined. First, Smith talks remarkably little, or maybe just ineffectively, about what their work was like. "He gave me a length of Indian linen, a notebook, and a papier-måché crow," she writes in a typical passage that implies artsiness without making sense to me. I can't picture or hear their art in my head much better than before I'd started, and Smith's inspiration to become a rock-and-roll musician seems to entirely skip the part about learning to sing or play, or practicing, or writing songs. I suspect this glossing-over is by design. The title--which is marvelous, by the way--stems from a scene where one passerby wonders if Smith and Mapplethorpe are artists, and her companion says, "Oh, go on, they're just kids." So I suspect that this book is intentionally about the duo as "kids" and about their friendship, rather than them as artists, but I still think the artwork could have been portrayed better. Second, I didn't get much sense in this book of why the two of them were successful. Surely there were other people bumming around Chelsea around the same time, sketching, jobbing here and there, and smoking pot, who are not household names. Smith talks about some turning points, where one of them caught the eye of someone important, and she talks quite a lot about their dedication, but I didn't develop of sense of what made their work click or stand out, which I think is related to the first issue, namely that what she writes about their work is rather vague to begin with. Since their distinction as artists is what makes this book worth reading, I was sniffing for clues all the way through but my curiosity was not satisfied.
About a month ago, I finally caved in and put this on hold after seeing someone else's post about it, but I don't see any friend's review on Goodreads from that timeframe. Someone remind me and take credit for my finally reading this!...more
I belonged to the college that the author was the dean of, and while I don't recall any particular dealings with her, I definitely had friends who felI belonged to the college that the author was the dean of, and while I don't recall any particular dealings with her, I definitely had friends who felt she treated them meanly. I came to this novel with a lingering sense of secondhand grudge, about (for example) a sailing competition my friend didn't get to attend in about 1997.
It makes me feel disloyal, but I must confess to having enjoyed this book. Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a spot-on comp title for both form and content, to the extent I wonder if this isn't an old writing project that got dusted off after Semple's book became a bestseller. While this one doesn't soar like Bernadette, I found its East-Coast version of a high-and-mighty milieu easier to settle into. Rieger sets her novel in the fictional state of Narragansett, which allows her to invent all sorts of case law on divorce and other matters, in addition to the city of New Salem, its dominating Mather University, its clubs and prominent families.
While the book is ostensibly about heiress Mia Meiklejohn's bitter divorce, it's really about her young lawyer Sophie: tensions at Sophie's law firm, Sophie's romantic mishaps, Sophie's feelings about her own troubled family. There's a nice contrast between Sophie (30-ish) and Mia (50-ish), who have similar personalities but different lives. Rieger tells the story entirely in documents (emails, legal briefs) which works, with a few hiccups. Sophie's friend Maggie doesn't really come alive because we only see her through correspondence with Sophie, which makes her seem one-dimensional. Also, there are a few documents that are simply too long and dry, but Rieger has to include them because she lacks any other way to deliver news to the reader. Then, near the end, she finds a way, having a psychologist deliver a report containing conversations parroted at a level of detail that isn't really plausible for such a document.
The novel sneaks up on you, appearing at first to be a workplace email comedy and a sort of angry farce about divorce. Mia and Sophie share a manic writing style that papers over their fear and sadness, and for a while the novel teeters between drama and comedy. (At no point did I think it was a "romantic comedy"; ignore the blurb.) Eventually, all the players realize it's really about Jane, the couple's daughter. Now the reader is drawing connections between Sophie and Jane, as well as between Sophie and Mia. This is less amusing, but cathartic for everyone, including the reader.
In the end, this book is deceptively light--a quick read, but worthwhile.
Review copy received from Edelweiss, and it must be said that the layout was pretty screwed up in the electronic galley, with a few passages actually unreadable, so I technically only read about 98.75% of it....more
I liked this book, but not as much as Unveiled. The writing style seemed more natural--less daydreaming and less-random sex scenes--but the plot swungI liked this book, but not as much as Unveiled. The writing style seemed more natural--less daydreaming and less-random sex scenes--but the plot swung in the other direction, striking me as considerably less well-constructed. The problem is that there are several key intrigues in the plot that are presented as "either X could happen, or Y, and no other outcome is possible!" when it's obvious to the reader that about a million other resolutions could be engineered by either the characters or the author. I can't describe it in detail, since it's spoiler-y, but there's a set-up like this at the end of the book that could easily be resolved by the characters in questions having a conversation, which seemed especially silly. Still, three stars because I was reading this in order to be silly--but the other one's better....more
Considering character names like Cormoran Strike and Lula Landry, why did anyone ever think this book was by someone other than J.K. Rowling? I'm kiddConsidering character names like Cormoran Strike and Lula Landry, why did anyone ever think this book was by someone other than J.K. Rowling? I'm kidding, of course, although the book's themes of celebrity, money, and single motherhood become a little sharper when you know who the true author is.
This novel displays Rowling's signature knack, which you wouldn't necessarily consider desirable, of creating scenes of someone doing something utterly banal like reorganizing office supplies, and making it not wildly entertaining, but companionable to read, while slowly, slowly nudging forward her plot. These kinds of scenes are all over the Harry Potter books, where the characters are usually doing homework, waiting for class to start, and so forth. I used to own all the Harry Potter books on tape (I worked for the publisher that had the audio rights), and I'd listen to them when NPR was airing a show I didn't like, because there was a measured steadiness to 90% of the bulk of those books that I found relaxing, even serene. In the Potter books, the other 10% is magical fireworks and dueling and in this one, it's obnoxious rich people flipping out. In both cases, there's a really masterful tension between a placid, tantalizingly extended series of set-up scenes and periodic explosions of information and violence.
I'm sure part of the point of writing this under a pseudonym was to avoid the kind of discussion I've just indulged in. So I'll also say that "Galbraith" writes good observations, for example, of a woman, having an uncomfortable drink in her raincoat in a pub, or an antagonistic conversation over fetid McDonald's food. She keenly documents people's anxieties and aspirations, as they play out in unconscious mannerisms or sudden ripostes. There is something about this style that some people think is old-fashioned; it probably is, and I like it a lot.
As a mystery, this book was skillfully assembled. There's a run of scenes in the middle third of the book where I found myself suspecting a different character ("aha!") after each interview Strike conducts. The actual solution has both a psychological aspect and a technical, convoluted aspect. On the other hand, I got the impression that there are meant to be two main characters here, Strike and Robin, and I found Robin significantly less fleshed out, even though she has potential.
This seems set up to be a series, and I'd read another one. ...more