On the dust jacket, Janet Maslin of The New York Times rightly compares The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to Ragtime. While I have not read...moreOn the dust jacket, Janet Maslin of The New York Times rightly compares The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to Ragtime. While I have not read that novel, I have seen the major film adaptation and twice seen the wonderful musical adaptation. With regard to the latter, I appreciate a story that captures the nostalgia for a bygone era without white washing the history. (To my knowledge, there have not been any utopian decades…ever.) Michael Chabon’s tale of two immigrant cousins who break into the nascent comic book industry of the 1930s achieves this balance between remembering the best of times and acknowledging the coexistent worst of times.
In some chapters, this novel adopts the spirit and pacing of a comic book. The narrative intentionally disorients readers so that one can experience the melding of comic book fantasy with stark reality in the mind of young men. My favorite chapter depicts the origin of a female superhero dreamed up by the protagonists. Here the prose is laden with sexual tension of the pubescent variety. Yet Chabon retains the artful flourish that accompanies so many tales of buxom feminine warriors. As I told members of the book club I attend, the chapter was undignified in all the right ways. It made me remember why I enjoyed comic books in my teens.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a Pulitzer Prize winner. That says something about its literary credibility. I highly recommend this novel for its colorful mix of history, fantasy, and humanity. (less)
A moment of real-life horror occurred during my reading of Cujo by Stephen King. I was lying on my stomach, focused on the developing story of a rabid...moreA moment of real-life horror occurred during my reading of Cujo by Stephen King. I was lying on my stomach, focused on the developing story of a rabid Saint Bernard terrorizing several inhabitants of Castle Rock, Maine. Suddenly, an actual dog in the room charged me, bit down on my hand, then darted away in a frenzy. The next morning my mouth began filling with foam.
Okay, here are the less sensational truths: the dog that merely nipped my hand was an adorable cocker spaniel. She was chasing down her favorite purple ball and it rolled too close to my hand. And the next morning? The foam in my mouth was from a latte. Yummy! Still, am I not brave for reading Cujo while dogsitting for a coworker who lives out away from the city lights?
As with Doctor Sleep, I over-braced for this King novel. I worried it would overwhelm and sicken me in the way Pet Sematary did. Adding to my pre-read fretting was an interview King gave to The Paris Review in which mention is made that he lost fans over this book--not because it's a lousy read but because it proves too horrible for recreational reading ("Stephen King, The Art of Fiction No. 189", The Paris Review Fall 2006, No. 178). Great interview, King fans. Google it.
Cujo did not overwhelm me. It succeeded with me. I rode the waves of suspense. I cared about what happened to major characters. I found myself engrossed by the dog's thought process as it grows sicker. I also found the final showdown between dog and human to be downright awesome. Vintage King! We'll see what kind of residual scare I get in future late nights.
On a structural level, King provides effective parallels between two families, between two classes of people, and between rabies psychosis and human anger. The result, as I've come to expect from King, is highly entertaining fiction--not incredibly deep, but far more compelling than the forgettable junk audiences routinely settle for in contemporary horror cinema.
Cujo is often a brutal and relentless read. Still, if you are in the mood for a thrill, I do recommend it. Now pardon me while I go snuggle with the cocker spaniel I mentioned earlier. Dogs are awesome!(less)
Reading True Grit led me to an unexpected comparison: namely westerns and sci-fi novels. There is the obvious similarity of westerns and sci-fi novels...moreReading True Grit led me to an unexpected comparison: namely westerns and sci-fi novels. There is the obvious similarity of westerns and sci-fi novels both exploring frontiers. Other similarities can be found though, all related to craft. Both genres are often more focused on surface features than character development. This does not automatically mean they are thin or superficial. Both sci-fi and westerns tend to be rich by virtue of their sense of place, their specialized vernacular, and their use of archetypes to dramatize society-wide trends. Lastly, they are often both action oriented with an emphasis on the meaningful application of available technology.
All of these observations apply to my highly enjoyable reading of True Grit. Author Charles Portis crafted a colorful, scrappy (trying not not to say gritty) yarn about frontier justice. And while this may be a tale about a teenage girl proving her grit, the novel is a story told in retrospect by an elderly woman who still has plenty of scrap in her. The dialogue is lively and unapologetic, the action is steady and engrossing. It is easy to see how this novel has spawned not one but two masterful film adaptations--both of which take remarkably few liberties with the plot.
I highly recommend True Grit. It is a fast read and it is also a good read.(less)
The Description calls Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test an "exploration" of the "madness industry". At times it felt more like a sampling. I am not sur...moreThe Description calls Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test an "exploration" of the "madness industry". At times it felt more like a sampling. I am not sure why I was expecting something more academic and objective. Ronson's journey reads more casual and conversational, even zealously subjective. However, the book is quite effective, thought-provoking, and at times emotional (in a way meant to reassure me the reader I am not a psychopath).
This is not a book that will ground you firmly in a clinical understanding of psychopathy. This is a driving tour through the suspicion, fear, horror, and outright paranoia we may experience when contemplating psychopathy from a non-expert standpoint. At its best, Ronson's work shows just how fanatically anyone and everyone clings to beliefs they have a vested interest in, especially a professional interest. Though the book was not what I expected, I found it effective and worthwhile. Highly recommended. Lastly, kudos to the fearless leader of the book club I attend for throwing some non-fiction into the mix. (less)
I would like to write about how Where'd You Go, Bernadette skewers a society obsessed with winning approval and having one's taste praised. But you se...moreI would like to write about how Where'd You Go, Bernadette skewers a society obsessed with winning approval and having one's taste praised. But you see I read this book so I could fit in with a club. Instead, I'll simply say I am glad our fearless book club leader selected Maria Semple's book for our May selection.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is to contemporary fiction what Arrested Development is to contemporary television. Semple wrote for that show. Her novel is a lively mix of outright farce, cutting dry comedy, and sudden moments of profound humanity. Complete with several jaw-dropping incidents where the reader will likely say, I can't believe the protagonist just did that.
Is the book a masterwork? I dunno. It sure is readable. The material achieves some depth without feeling heavy. The ending manages to be incredibly tidy without seeming glossy in an impossible happily ever after way. I'd say this is a great choice for summer reading. (less)
Around the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-cen...moreAround the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-centered (Copernican). In The Science of Shakespeare, Dan Falk provides a wonderfully accessible history lesson explaining these two astronomical systems--how the Ptolemaic view dominated for so long and then was overtaken by the Copernican theory (roughly around the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet). If Mr. Falk’s book had been solely, or even mostly, about this crucial history lesson, I would probably be writing a four-star review. I am not.
At the heart of Falk’s book is a vein of wishful-thinking that borders on conspiracy theory. What begins as an informative interdisciplinary discussion--examining the intersection of Elizabethan drama and modern science—by Chapter 7 diverts in to a scholastic pipedream with Shakespeare being a closeted devotee of Copernican astronomy. Perhaps, the author and his chief source suggest, Hamlet is more than just a great play. Perhaps it is also a clever and elaborate allegory exploring the revolutionary discoveries of Galileo et al. What if the characters in Hamlet are actually symbolic stand-ins for the leading thinkers of Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomies?
As Falk grants by way of academic integrity, prevailing literary theory finds this hypothesis flimsy. Shakespeare’s plays have clear, unmistakable, and fully-developed themes. Science-flattering allegory is not one of them. It smacks of the same contrived, cherry-picking investigation that lies at the core of conspiracy theories--like the one about Shakespeare not being the author of any or all of those plays. This does not stop Falk from devoting a lot of ink and credulity to the idea. It is as if Falk wants to be the Copernicus of Shakespearean scholarship--establishing a new unifying truth of what the Bard's plays really mean, a revelation that has eluded centuries of previous thinkers.
To his credit, Falk makes clear the highly speculative nature of suggesting Shakespeare had his finger on the pulse of the Scientific Revolution. Furthermore, I am not offended that Falk addressed the notion of Hamlet as science allegory. I am annoyed at how hard he worked to make it look compelling. I come at this as a Shakespeare fan with a humanities degree. I feel like Falk might feel if he had to read multiple chapters of me saying, “The Academy may have dismissed Velikovsky’s ideas about the solar system, but clearly he was on to something. Scholars should revisit him.”
The truth is Hamlet does not want for a science tie-in to be one of the greatest achievements of human expression.
Late in The Science of Shakespeare, Falk makes a compelling exploration of King Lear. The author hits his stride juxtaposing the Bard with the fledgling modern science of his day. He also does justice to what makes King Lear great--its humanity. For this chapter above all others, I am glad I stuck this book out to the end. Falk even got me in the mood to reread King Lear. And that is great, because Shakespeare’s plays deserve to be read. They do for English literature what Copernicus and Galileo did for science--they give us a lasting foundation for worthy exploration.(less)
A standard question asked each month by the leader of the book club I attend is, "Would you recommend this book to other people?" An equivocator at he...moreA standard question asked each month by the leader of the book club I attend is, "Would you recommend this book to other people?" An equivocator at heart, I am inclined to recommend most books--albeit with disclaimers. So it goes with Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River.
In general, I recommend this rugged river story about the struggles of a teenage girl who sets out on her own, enduring hardship on the Stark and Kalamazoo Rivers of Michigan. For lovers of rich scenic description, who relish sense of place, I strongly recommend this book. For fans of Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, I encourage you to explore a different branch of natural Michigan through a woman's eyes and mind.
For people willing to read a story with violence and often disturbing sexual activity, I recommend this book. As a man, I was somewhat put off by the mostly negative depictions of men in Once Upon a River. However, these depictions are realistic. This book does not render sexuality as two-dimensional. Easy answers will not be found, just like in real life.
For people who want only inspirational stories and happy endings, I would say this book may not be to your liking, even though it is worthy of your consideration. I will stop short of saying Once Upon a River is a must read. There is a relentlessness in the book's preoccupation with tribulation that tired me at times. Yet its robust narrative, its potent sensory descriptions, and its gritty characters add up to a worthwhile and satisfying river tale. Yes, I certainly recommend this novel.(less)
We discussed Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated. At one point I asserted the following: "Part...moreBook club became downright wild this week.
We discussed Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated. At one point I asserted the following: "Part of my difficulty getting into this book was the author's excessive use of devices--the constant switching of narrative voices, chapters where punctuation is done away with, the page and a half where he repeats the phrase "We are writing..." over and over. His indulgent use of stylized proze distracted from my ability to connect with the characters."
My two cents flung onto the reading club's table, several people nodded. Then, from directly across the table, a lady looked me in the eyes and in a reserved yet non-apologetic tone said, "Actually, I did not find the characters at all compelling. So the author's use of narrative devices was what interested me the most." As her two cents came to rest upon--no, to smother--my two cents, I nodded politely.
Like I said, book club became downright wild as we discussed Everything is Illuminated.
This novel is a perfect selection for a book club, inciting a wide range of reactions. Our club's discussion resulted in delicious disagreements, but also some vindication all around. Our reactions were various, but none of us reacted alone. For me, and I suspect for others, the realization that I was not the only one who found the book frustrating and inaccessible provided relief.
Everything is Illuminated is a novel about searching out one's roots, about uncovering family secrets, and about realizing one's destiny. This is also a novel about shedding light on horrific periods of history. At its most personable, the book depicts two similar minds nitpicking over details and perspective. These themes are tried and true, yet none of them are guaranteed to move and inspire.
Perhaps this is a masterful novel that I was not in mood for. Perhaps, as I asserted at book club, this is a so-so novel gilded with excessively stylized prose. Either way, the chance to mull over my reaction in person with other thoughtful readers made the whole experience worth it. As a matter of fact, that is one of the main ideas depicted in Everything is Illuminated.(less)
Just now, I listened to the morning news while wolfing down breakfast at a local cafe. 100 percent of the covera...moreUnderstatement: It is a violent world.
Just now, I listened to the morning news while wolfing down breakfast at a local cafe. 100 percent of the coverage I heard was about recent violence, violence in progress, and the prospect of violence in the future. To say the least, we are a violent species.
Yet, as Walter Kirn points out in his new non-fiction work, Blood Will Out, we humans are also capable of great tolerance and cooperation. That is not a wonderful thing. Kirn explores how these traits--in concert with our desire for acceptance--make us easy pickins for psycopaths.
In Blood Will Out, Kirn casts himself as the thoughtful dupe of a murdering con man. The premise is so oddly touching it borders on hard to believe. Kirn agrees to drive an ailing dog across country and deliver it to a member of the Rockefeller family. Sounds like a great start to a novel. However this is a true story. Or at least it is the recounting of a great deal of lying.
The book flips back and forth between a murder trial in the present and a rocky friendship in the past. This dual plotline allows the author to draw parallels between con artist and mark. In every chapter, the implicit question being begged is "Kirn, how did you fall for this guy's claims?" Therefore, the book's greatest accomplishment is its candid rendering of how Kirn, or any of us, can be grandly duped.
Blood Will Out is a fairly quick read. This is not an in-depth exploration of forensics and crime investigation. It is a memoir about the bond between two men: the deceiver and the deceived. Doubtless, some will be cynical of Kirn's choice to convert his unflattering experience into a moneymaking bestseller. Still, he seems candid about his personal shortcomings and offers up a tale with plenty of healthy caution for the reader. I highly recommend Blood Will Out.(less)
At a panel discussion in Salt Lake City, I once heard a BYU Philosophy professor suggest that the Adam-God Doctrine may have been something Brigham Yo...moreAt a panel discussion in Salt Lake City, I once heard a BYU Philosophy professor suggest that the Adam-God Doctrine may have been something Brigham Young used for the purpose of trying to drive Orson Pratt out of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. My brow furrowed. I had never before heard that notion, nor for that matter was I aware that a serious conflict had occurred between the two men. I left the matter unexplored until I found Gary James Bergera's book Conflict in the Quorum.
Orson Pratt, one of the great theological voices of early Mormonism, had run-ins with both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. His rift with Joseph occurred over the practice of polygamy and claims that Joseph attempted to take Pratt's wife in plural marriage. His conflicts with Brigham Young covered a great deal of ground, including questions of authority--should Church rulings be made by a First Presidency or a majority of the Twelve--and issues of theology, such as the nature of the Godhead.
This work is a magnifying glass held up to two men who were fiercely devoted to Mormonism in excruciatingly different ways. Young was a manager. Pratt was a theologian. Bergera's book is not for the beginner. This book is not a primer. It is a close examination of original records. It moves fast and is laden with footnotes.
One of the great values of Conflict in the Quorum is in providing the reader extended excerpts taken from meeting transcripts. At times, the reader has the chance to picture being in a closed-door meeting of the Twelve. Bergera provides enough depth and breadth of material so that, whether one is partial to Young or Pratt, it is possible to appreciate the perspective each man had.
For me personally, I strongly valued the candid discussion of Brigham Young's Adam-God Doctrine--in which Young taught that Adam was a resurrected polygamist when he entered the Garden of Eden, and also the Father of our spirits. Pratt became an outspoken critic of this odd doctrine that did not stand the test of time. Pratt and Young also repeatedly butted heads over the question of how God's omniscience omnipresence should be understood in light of Mormon belief that God has a physical body. In these matters, Bergera lets Pratt and Young speak for themselves.
As Young and Pratt grapple with each other and deep doctrines, the reader has a chance to learn a lot about human nature and also 19th Century Mormonism. The goal of this book is not to disprove Mormonism, nor does it come down unequivocally in favor of Young or Pratt. I recommend it for people engaged in a serious study of Mormon history, and who are interested in examining source material not as often examined.(less)
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.