BE AWARE: The next to last paragraph of this review may constitute a spoiler.
I was prepared to give this book four stars out of five right up until I...moreBE AWARE: The next to last paragraph of this review may constitute a spoiler.
I was prepared to give this book four stars out of five right up until I read the last entry--the one for the letter Z. I had not expected to like this book, but I did. I did not expect to be hooked by this book, but I was. I suppose if I had not liked nor been hooked by this book, I would have cared much less about the betrayal of the reader that is the final chapter.
Still, let's grant what works, which is most everything in the entries for the first 25 letters of the alphabet. First off there is wit and there is humor. The prose is lively, accessible, and thought-provoking. It greets the reader like a great first date. Though the format is devoutly episodic, a well-constructed character arc sustains the suspense over the book's full length. There is the deepening sense of a fling turned into a longer fling turned into a genuine relationship.
There is celebration. There is mourning. There are idiosyncracies. This book masterfully plays out the savory messiness of coupling. There are chocolates and flowers in the form of brilliant notions well worth espousing. There are chapters where I found myself arguing with the book and then realizing arguing is okay. It happens. You can learn from it. You can come out of it stronger and closer.
Then I arrived at the letter Z. The letter Z provides no closure. On purpose. The letter Z tries to make an orgasm out of uncertainity. It tries to enshrine the tension of wondering what will happen after your companion says, "There's something we need to talk about." For a book that spends so much of itself achieving marvelous realizations, the choice to end on a question mark feels like a cop-out.
To be clear, I think this is a four star book. But right now I need to punish it for betraying me. So, The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan, I am only giving you three stars. I am also saying we are done. I slam the door in your face. I say that you failed me when I needed you most. When I needed a romantic novel with the courage to say that all relationships end either in breakup or death, you chickened out. You dashed my hope and I do not think I can forgive you. All that great writing just so I can find out right at the end you are a tease?(less)
The lighthouse, so far as I can tell, might as well be the convenience store or carwash, or any number of mundane places that somehow become what any...moreThe lighthouse, so far as I can tell, might as well be the convenience store or carwash, or any number of mundane places that somehow become what any given day is all about for a family. Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is at least as concerned with time, or timing rather, as it is with place. But if you put a lighthouse out there in the distance, you can have chronically stationary characters say things like, Why don't we go there instead of sitting here? Then you have conflict. Then you have a moving plot, even as the characters remain stationary.
For much of this book, the main character seems to be the sociable Mrs. Ramsay. She embodies mother and wife as the hub of a family's identity and purpose. I've seen this in real life, at family reunions especially--groups of adults and children gathered together, relating and interacting with zeal. Yet if anyone is honest, they confide that the only reason the reunion is even happening is because the matriarch wanted and pressed for it. That's not quite what To the Lighthouse is about, but Mrs. Ramsay is that type of matriarch. She exhibits that type of hold on her friends and relatives. Her conflict becomes everyone's conflict. And in the book's first half that means debating the merit of a family outing to the lighthouse.
How does Virginia Woolf turn this mundane scenario into a full-length novel worth reading? To use a popular intellectual phrase, she unpacks it. With remarkable levels of detail, all which feel relevant and significant, she lays bare the myriad anxieties and distractions that live in an instant of time. Family get-togethers are laden with subtext (read baggage). Time can stall as you contemplate it. Suspense comes in the waiting for someone to speak, especially the man of the house--whom everyone mistakenly credits with being responsible for and in charge of the gathering.
To the Lighthouse was not a tremendously enjoyable read for me. Still, I found myself in awe of Ms. Woolf's sensitivity and insight. She fully explores the depth and significance of each moment. In so doing she justifies the plodding pace and the long sentences that I often had to read twice to grasp. This is not a convenient novel to read. It is not prose candy. Still, as one who has often lived life in the excruciatingly pensive way Woolf's characters do, I felt enriched by the prose.
There are some knee-slapping couplets in Ian Doescher's Shakespearean adaptation of Star Wars: Episode Four. I want so much to quote a few here, but q...moreThere are some knee-slapping couplets in Ian Doescher's Shakespearean adaptation of Star Wars: Episode Four. I want so much to quote a few here, but quoting the best of them feels like a literary spoiler. This is no mere parody. Doescher turns A New Hope into a stageable play of the Elizabethan kind. I read it to myself, but this book cries out to be done as a table reading among friends.
It should come as no surprise that the melodramatic robot C-3PO translates easily and colorfully into the world of the Bard. More amusing is how well Han Solo's brusque dialogue adapts to the same poetic tone. But then, duh! Han is quite like Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing. Luke and Leia remain obnoxious and precocious. R2-D2 becomes a wonderful Shakespearean clown.
My chief gripe would be Doescher's indulgent use of asides. Perhaps it's my already knowing the subtext of Star Wars that makes this frequent actor-to-audience exposition seem unnecessary. Still I feel it is fair to say the author overuses this device. On the flip side, the author gives livelier voice to working class Storm Troopers. He also provides the principle characters with thoughtful, and original, soliloquies. Not all of it is brilliant, but it's certainly richer than the fanatically lean dialogue of cinema.
This fun adaptation is truly designed, and likely most enjoyable, for people who are equally fans of both Star Wars and Shakespeare. That may seem obvious, but a person who is only well-versed in Star Wars will miss any number of references to multiple Bard plays. Sure, there are obvious references to Hamlet, but many more exist. I'm sure I missed my share.
Without slowing up the plot, this play offers its share of commentary on the merits and weaknesses of Lucas's space opera. This includes obligatory foreshadowing of Luke and Leia's siblinghood and a nod to the Greedo-Han shooting controversy. Like the conspiring senators in Julius Caesar, the characters in this adaptation are fully aware they are playing out a classic tale.
... Oh yeah, and I totally noticed how the author shortened the serial number of the trash compactor by one digit to fit the iambic pentameter. *pats his nerdy self on the back*
Suffice it to say this book is no slapdash work of fan fiction. My hardcover edition came as a Christmas gift. Yet, had I bought it myself at list price, I would not have felt ripped off. Furthermore, if Doescher tries his hand at another episode, I'll buy a copy. This is the most satisfied I have been with a bookish Star Wars offering since Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy.(less)
I read a second Neil Gaiman novel because I want to improve my prose writing. He executes prose so well. Word choice, phrasing, mood, and pacing to na...moreI read a second Neil Gaiman novel because I want to improve my prose writing. He executes prose so well. Word choice, phrasing, mood, and pacing to name specifics. Paragraph for paragraph, American Gods is a fantastic novel. On a larger scale, taken by chapters and parts, I find myself less a fan of this story. It plods along. The protagonist is excruciatingly difficult to read, even one of the other principle characters points this out. Also, the book's climax stumbles and relies too much on speechifyng.
Please disagree with me. Please tell me why I am missing the greatness of this work. I choose to believe that the Neil Gaiman novel I will love and devour is still out there...or being written at this moment. Alas, for the above cited reasons, American Gods is not that novel for me.
It is baffling. A novel teaming with quirky and colorful pagan gods, gods who are not stiff and omnipotent, should be what I relish. A protagonist tormented by a future that is dangled like a carrot in front of him, then hidden up just as he learns a bit more... I should go crazy for that. A looming war between ancient foes? Bring it on. Yet I kept struggling to connect with American Gods. Perhaps I don't love coin tricks. This novel is full of them. Coin tricks are how Gaiman and his protagonist vamp. Lots and lots of vamping.
No worries. In addition to a masterclass in prose styling, this novel reminded me how good authors only seem to be wandering in the first half of the novel. Elements come back late in the novel that prove relevant, deeper, or not what I first supposed. Characters make unexpected choices. I enjoyed the surprises and twists. I also loved the moments when the ex-con main character would give away a little emotion.
There are some treasures in American Gods. They are interludes, short stories really, that give the reader a break from the plodding present. In these passages, laden as they are with historical detail, we witness gods arriving in America long ago. Spooky, richly detailed, haunting stuff. American Gods becomes a critique of the United States of America. It becomes a cautionary tale about how we tend to replace dangerous old gods with dangerous new ones, mistaking our shifting interests for progress. In reality, we may be playing out the same old superstitions, albeit in Wi-Fi and HD.(less)
When author Jeff Chu finished speaking about his new book, I raised my hand and made the following request: "I'm curious to hear you describe your rel...moreWhen author Jeff Chu finished speaking about his new book, I raised my hand and made the following request: "I'm curious to hear you describe your relationship with the Bible." This tends to be the first question I want to ask anyone who identifies as both homosexual and Christian. Perhaps, in terms of a person's walk with God, it is not the most important issue. Still, as a former Mormon Christian and a devout agnostic, it's the most pressing question in my mind. My decision to commit to an agnostic lifestyle was directly precipitated a few years ago when I sought to re-read the Bible.
Mr. Chu responded to my request with a wonderfully thoughtful answer, reflecting the keen observations and nuanced analysis readers will find in his book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? Jeff said he has a great respect for the Bible. (So do I.) He said he loved the poetry of the King James Version. (Preach it!) Then he spoke of the difficulties of conveying meaning, especially filtered through translation. (Hallelujah, Brother!) He astutely described how even with contemporary writing people often miss the point, sometimes willfully misreading text. (Amen!)
However, as Jeff wrapped up his response to me, I gathered that he is less willing than I am to take a clear stand on the Bible's various injunctions regarding sexual morality. (For the record, I am wholeheartedly in favor of legalizing gay marriage.) Yet, Jeff never came around to saying what I believe--that whole sections of the Bible are horrifically archaic by any reasonable interpretation, and in consequence it is irresponsible to patronize politically active organizations that persist in marketing the anthology as inerrant. Shucks! I was hoping he had the same opinion I do. Nevertheless, I bought Jeff's book and had him sign it.
"Dear Jake, God Bless You!" reads his personalized autograph on the title page. Thank you, Jeff.
Does Jesus Really Love Me has a great deal of depth with regard to unpacking the larger issues and comparing the various factions Jeff encountered on his "pilgrimage". This is a work of non-fiction, but there is a story arc built in around two people: 1) the author; and 2) a closeted homosexual in Nevada called Gideon. Over the course of the book, I came to see organized Christianity as the well-intentioned antagonist. The tension plays out between individuals and the collective. Most of the time the focus is on relationships, not theology.
The longer I live as an agnostic, the harder time I have sympathizing with people of faith, especially people who persist in practicing religions that oppose their lifestyle. I sometimes forget that many homosexuals are motivated by a genuine Christian spirituality. They have felt the burning in the bosom; they have heard the “still small voice” after praying about Jesus. This book gives them a greater voice.
Yet, Does Jesus Really Love Me is not a one-sided analysis. The stories and heartfelt perspectives of fundamentalist Christians are also examined. There are several fascinating passages rendered as oral histories, where the interviewee speaks at length and uninterrupted. These include a passage of reflection by disgraced pastor Ted Haggard. This diversity of perspectives should ensure that any reader, me a prime example, will find himself alternately validated and challenged in his current opinions.
Jeff's book does have one key limitation--a point on which it opts for exclusivity instead of inclusiveness. He limits his pilgrimage to Protestantism. The question of if Protestantism is the sole synonym for authentic Christianity is one I won't debate here. Through personal study and frequent debates during my Mormon mission, I came to appreciate the theological distinctions whereby Protestants often claim they alone are authentic Christians. However, this denominational focus does mean that people coming from other versions of Christianity will find their traditions neglected by Jeff's tome.
That is arguably a minor criticism though. There are so many gems of humanity in Does Jesus Really Love Me? The insights are keen and affecting. Take this one from Episcopal bishop Mary Glasspool, after realizing her sexual status had become a newspaper headline:
"I feel like only one aspect of the complexity of the person I am is being singled out."
In a world with an Internet, where we repeatedly post our beliefs in an attempt to drown out dissent, Jeff's book has the potential to be an antidote. You cannot read it fairly without setting aside your assumptions and giving your full attention to people with different perspectives. For that reason in particular, I highly recommend reading Does Jesus Really Love Me?(less)
Reading this book has been an act of repentance. It is one of the novels I slacked off on when a high school English teacher assigned it. When it came...moreReading this book has been an act of repentance. It is one of the novels I slacked off on when a high school English teacher assigned it. When it came to assigned reading I was a brat in high school, alternately loving and resenting the books assigned to me. A classic gesture of hypocrisy, I did to J.D. Salinger’s novel what the main character Holden Caulfield did to his school. I blew it off.
I resented my teacher’s focus on identifying and interpreting symbols in the text. That approach felt forced and distracting to me at the time. Moreover, in high school I was a rather privileged/ungrateful mamma’s boy, and hardly a rebel. To me The Catcher in the Rye was an uncouth story about a foul-mouthed cynic who runs away for the mere sake of rebelling. I simply did not identify with the protagonist. I read a few chapters and then I quit ‘and all’, to borrow Holden’s signature two-word tag.
I came back to this book in my late 30s to celebrate Banned Books Week. Having done a great deal of rebelling since high school, I was surprised to find I still don’t strongly identify with Holden. But now I kind of wish I did. Holden is remarkably take-charge about his rebellion. That was generally not me. However, with a college English degree and a great deal of life experience at my disposal, the book still hit home.
The Catcher in the Rye is a triumph of narrative voice. Holden’s slang, his phrasing, the way he improvises assertions and then walks them back, betray a painful self-awareness. There were a few moments, and a whole chapter or two, where I identified completely.
Holden is intelligent and thoughtful, even as his speech is roughshod and rambling. As a portrait of discontent, he is marvelous and richly drawn. I’ll leave the social implications and the stigma of obsessive fans for other critics to mull over. Instead, I’ll say this is a masterful first-person novel and rightly a must-read. I’m sorry I waited so long to give the book, and Holden, my full attention.(less)
When I was a kid, I accompanied my parents to a big cookout with a bunch of their motorcycle friends. The event took place in some nondescript park so...moreWhen I was a kid, I accompanied my parents to a big cookout with a bunch of their motorcycle friends. The event took place in some nondescript park somewhere. Next to the park was a nondescript trail. At least, it all seemed nondescript to me at the time. At some point that day a hiker with a lot of gear emerged from the nearby trail. He asked me if he could purchase a meal from our gathering. Turns out he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. To this day I wonder if he made it.
Last month I grabbed a free copy of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods off a table of periodicals at my local coffee shop. The book had been chosen by a local wellness and library contingent for an event called 5H Community Read. (The H is for health and the 5 is for the number of local towns participating.) Lots of folks like me are reading and sharing copies of the book. Various activities are being held. Good times and a very good book!
Bryson's travelogue centers on his tackling of the famed Appalachian Trail. The trail ends up tackling him. While the book lacks supporting pictures, it does not lack for vivid imagery and a large supply of anecdotes calculated to leave readers laughing or groaning with empathy. In a handful of cases, it also left me thoroughly spooked. This is highly accessible and engaging storytelling. I binge-read the last half as if I was at a campfire and did not want to go to sleep. Just stay on the trail a bit longer and tell me more about being there, I wanted to say to Bryson.
I highly recommend this book as a piece of Americana first and hiking second. This is a character-based narrative with universal appeal, not a technical primer for hikers. I found it as riveting as the many Everest books I have read. Best of all, it is the kind of book that sparks conversation. Read it, share it, and then reflect with other readers. (less)
"It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win." --Chapter 8
The above gem of reflection by the protagonist in Neil Gaiman's new novel gets to the core of what I find most fascinating about The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Here is a novel about a child, told from a childlike viewpoint, but written for adults. As a former child and a current uncle, I take the above quote as something of an indictment. Though, I suspect it's not that adults always win, so much as children, lacking means to survive on their own, wisely relent. In any case, I thoroughly appreciated the engrossing depiction of child-adult tension explored over the course of the story.
This is my first reading of a Gaiman novel. I paid almost $60 to sit in the next to last row of orchestra seating in the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor (that price included a hardcover copy of the book). For that price I got to hear Neil read two good-sized portions of his writing and answer several cherry picked questions from the audience. He did so with a perplexing mix of gratitude and pomposity. In still portraits he looks like a proverbial geek. In person, he exudes confidence, poise, and coolness. He's celebrity and he knows it.
Yet, Gaiman is also the real deal when it comes to talent and craft. Fueled by a deep and genuine love of storytelling, Gaiman delivers highly readable prose and a well-constructed plot. Suspense builds steadily. The story unfolds via mystery and revelation that begs new questions. The prose is elegant, poetic at times, with a keen sense of pacing. Each clause within each sentence, variable in length, feels like the next uncertain step of a child going deeper into the woods. I read some of the chapters aloud for the pure enjoyment of it.
I wasn't completely taken in by The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in part because of its fantasy elements. Many twists and turns in the plot are utterly convenient, like so much made-up technology in sci-fi or newly-discovered ability/weakness in superhero tales. The novel also vacillates between profound passages of reflection and action sequences that sometimes felt matter-of-fact and rather procedural. The sublime confidence exhibited by a few good-guy characters has a charm, but also saps the narrative of some of its excitement.
Nevertheless, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a wonderful tale. It engaged me at the outset and kept me involved throughout. It had a bedtime story quality, but with the intellectual depth I expect from adult fiction. I especially enjoyed how things tied together at the end, combining the best fantasy elements with the bittersweet quality of real world outcomes. Also worthy of praise in the hardcover edition is Adam Johnson's jacket design, a hypnotic mix of tranquil color and foreboding images. Gaiman's latest is a very good read. (less)
Sometimes I finish a book or movie and I am confident in my assessment of its being either good or bad. The perplexing situation is when I come to a n...moreSometimes I finish a book or movie and I am confident in my assessment of its being either good or bad. The perplexing situation is when I come to a novel prepped by other people's opinions and walk away feeling differently. Such was the case with Stephen King's apocalyptic The Stand. The sum total of recommendations and reflections I've received from other King readers over the years led me to believe The Stand is rightly one of his most highly regarded novels. Yet, this story never came close to gripping me the way my favorite, It, did. Why didn't I go for this one?
The easy explanation would be the novel's length. But I like a good epic. The Stand cries out to be a long novel, though perhaps not as long as this uncut version is. Certainly the story's crisis, the near extinction of humankind, merits expansive prose. I suspect part of the novel's popularity comes from its explicit Judeo-Christian motifs. There are other examples of this. Think of the most popular Indiana Jones films. Think of the Dan Brown novel that made the biggest splash. Biblical fare. The Stand also has a nationalistic tone that many would find enticing. But I'm disenchanted with both the Bible and nationalism. So King didn't rope me in with either selling point.
The Stand isn't a bad novel. King plays masterfully with the duality of the plot. He mines Biblical notions of good versus evil, light versus dark, Heaven versus Hell. And over the course of the story he achieves a richness of characterization as various members of the ensemble cross from one side to the other. Some flirt with changing but then hunker down in their rut. Quite like life seen and lived under the influence of Sunday School mythos.
King explores a doctrine of two ways for all its worth. My favorite examples are the worldly Larry Underwood and the troubled orphan Harold Lauder. Both take winding routes up onto literal and figurative ridges between good and evil. Sometimes they climb with passion. Sometimes they tiptoe. Sometimes they backslide (and not just toward evil). It's a rich and plausible depiction of humans struggling to adapt, to connect, to be fulfilled. Internal and external forces push or tug (just like the various forces that decide if you end up enjoying a book).
At its best I found The Stand haunting in thoughtful ways. This was especially the case with a trio of characters who are chosen to travel through the Rocky Mountains and spy on behalf of the community we assume is the good side--put another way, the side worth saving. Their story evokes the poignancy that the best of other King works attain. King also proves crafty with his tried and true narrative devices, including the intentional spoiler. Just try and look away, he dares us.
I didn't worry too much for the first half of The Stand. Slow boil I thought. King will hook me any page now. 300 pages from the end I still wasn't gripped. 200 pages out, 100 pages, and I still lacked a special connection. I plowed through, appreciating tidbits, enjoying any given chapter but never feeling immersed.
I can respect those for whom The Stand is their favorite King novel. But like a certain contingent of the gathered protagonists, as the final pages arrived I found myself ready to leave. If a book is a town, this one just ain't mine. Oh it was good to visit--necessary even--but my heart is calling me somewhere else.(less)
There is something perfunctory about Joyland. Even the Author's Note feels perfunctory, with Stephen King's preemptive rebuttal of carnival know-it-al...moreThere is something perfunctory about Joyland. Even the Author's Note feels perfunctory, with Stephen King's preemptive rebuttal of carnival know-it-alls and his hasty show of gratitude for the editor, "Thanks, man." The tropical storm that whips up on the story's climactic evening feels perfunctory. None of this is crappy. I enjoyed Joyland at least as much as my annual, which is to say perfunctory, visits to the county fair.
King takes pleasure in exploring the lingo of carnival employees. Yet the cotton candy quality of the dialect is diluted by the need to provide on the spot translations. Perhaps less translation might have left me disoriented in just the right suspense-inducing way. Instead, like so many other elements of Joyland, I felt myself stuck at arm's length from a landscape that I wished would immerse me.
I enjoyed the layout, which bypassed a conventional chapter setup. Instead, Joyland is divided into discreet sections of narrative with a couple of line breaks and a thematically resonant heart icon. In the age of eBooks, presentation feels increasingly important to me when considering the purchase of hard copies. Glen Orbik's painting on the cover sets a wonderfully pulpy tone--a tone that King's story sometimes falls short of achieving.
I can't put it all on King. Certainly my reading was a bit perfunctory at times. Let's be honest, I suspect a lot of us King fans are just passing time until his sequel to The Shining is released this fall. What is more, I genuinely connected with the 21-year-old protagonist's pining. Oh did I pine over girls back then. And I know what it's like to hang up a phone and realize the gal on the other end has lost any special feelings she ever had for me. What a guy wouldn't give for a good murder mystery to divert him away from that heartache. King absolutely nails this aspect of the plot.
So I took a weekend trip to a little carnival Stephen King threw together. Not the funnest weekend I've had with him. Not by a long shot. Heck, I figured out the killer a good 30 to 50 pages before the reveal. I don't generally accomplish that. Still, King got me to try out an offering from Titan Books' Hard Case Crimes. I probably wouldn't have checked them out otherwise. And now I'd be willing to try them again.
Truth be told, when I pick up a straight-to-paperback yarn like this one, all I am really looking for is a nostalgia fix. I'm hunting for an excuse to revisit that young love and virginal heartache--the kind I felt during a fleeting time of life when a creaky old carnival could mesmerize me. Thanks for a ride on the Ferris wheel, King.(less)